Advocacy – what is it, why, and why not?
What’s the difference between an advocacy group and being an advocate? By definition they are essentially the same thing, but I can think of a few subtle differences that may conjure up different responses from people. An advocacy (noun) is commonly thought of as an organization that advocates (verb) for something; doing advocacy might be a solitary person supporting a cause, while an advocate relates more to the person doing advocacy. One could be an advocate while having nothing to do with an advocacy.
An advocacy is a pretty specific thing, while being an advocate, or advocating for something or someone could be almost anything.
While this isn’t particularly helpful, another question is whether to identify and present yourself as an advocacy, an advocate, or something else entirely? And why? Does it matter? Does it change how your message is received?
I think about this now and again as it applies to me personally, but I’m also going to look at this in light of a particular pro-cycling organization. And, I’m also going to simply ask a bunch of questions and throw around a few different perspectives…
So? What is it, and am I a cycling advocate?
I mean, I feel fairly strongly about riding a bike. I think it would be beneficial if more people rode them. I think that, more specifically, everyone would benefit if more people rode them as a mode of transportation. And, perhaps of most relevance, I discuss it in a public forum with the aim of convincing others to take up and/or support cycling.
I also think that people in positions of power and influence need to be engaged and, sadly, sometimes convinced to do the right thing for the communities they represent. I think that too many people can’t look beyond their own noses in terms of what matters for the communities that thy live in, let alone themselves, or simply can’t be bothered. So, if we just leave it for votes to decide (ie, the masses, or the powers that be), then we’ll never see any change happen, because change is work, and the majority of people generally tend towards what is easiest. Given that our modern world has largely been designed to accommodate cars rather than people and promotes cars as living the dream or even just normal, it is easiest on a number of levels in our society to just drive everywhere. I don’t think that should be the case.
So I’m an advocate. But do I, and others, really want to be considered an advocate? Is there a down side?
I think that people don’t like to be told what to do, and I think that advocacy can sometimes appear to be doing that. So, I think stepping away from the appearance and style of an advocacy and towards, let’s say, the appearance of a media outlet, or, in my case, something else, it can be (I hope) an effective means of making people think about things a little more deeply before they brush them aside. Perhaps even inspire someone to make a positive change.
Which then leads me to wonder about the stereotype of advocacy and advocates. Rather than someone who simply discusses something with passion, an unfortunate take on an “advocate” lies somewhere between a political lobbyist, a person shouting through a megaphone, and a door-to-door evangelist. Your agenda in this stereotype is to convince someone by any means of a position with the intention of bringing about a specific change. Often one that is a bit radical. Often, a specific outcome that most people aren’t in support of, otherwise (one would assume) the thing that needs changing wouldn’t need advocating for. Right?
Ok, so, even though I can still easily conceive of myself as an advocate (technically), and even an activist (technically…), I also still hesitate to identify as either, probably because of the reasons above. If I was describing myself to someone I wouldn’t say that I was a “cycling advocate”, yet in every sense of the definition, that’s exactly what I’m doing.
Does it make a difference where you are on the advocacy spectrum?
One element may be where you lie in the spectrum between passive and active. Maybe that’s a key difference. Direct action rather than passive discussion. Formal advocacy vs informal, perhaps.
Are you in dialogue with the court of public opinion, or with the actual court? Are you actively engaging ministers, councilors, and other key people and challenging them to make decisions that benefit a specific cause? I suppose one could start from both ends and have the same effect, so perhaps opinions turn into advocacy somewhere along the line when passion and determination are supported by a particular strategy and purpose?
I don’t know. I still think it’s a giant grey area. I don’t think I can say where someone enters and leaves “advocacy” territory, but the thing that keeps nudging at me is the conception of advocacy that has it sitting closer to the fringe of society, and by that very fact, something that people don’t want to deal with, or think about if they can help it.
If your audience is the general public, perhaps it is wise to consider the generic stereotype of advocates, the broad range of interests and opinions that the public has on a given topic, and the sheer number of topics that must be considered within a given subject matter.
If you are dealing with politicians, perhaps you may be more focused on single-issue matters with specific outcomes in order to try to be effective within that complicated and fickle environment.
(I also find extremely interesting this tendency to think of advocacy as doing something of social benefit, while lobbying as having selfish, often negative motivations, while at the same time, that lobbyists have this image of coming from a place of power – industry, money, influence – while advocates come from a place of weakness. Does anyone else feel that way?)
Now I think we are getting somewhere. So lets take a look at an organization that’s doing a pretty poor job of not doing any advocacy…
Cycle is a growing organization based out of Melbourne whose aim is “to promote a safe and inclusive riding environment for anyone that can throw their leg over a bike and pedal.” They take a very active role in this by “activating advocacy”, using “direct action”, and “working to ensure we represent ‘you’ the cyclist, family member and community person.”
They’re all about cycling. Passionate about advancing the mode-share of cycling. Making our communities safer and more encouraging for cycling. Involving themselves in politics in regards to cycling (they presented a petition to parliament regarding the somewhat recent mandate to make cyclists carry ID, and have organized a few pollie rides, for example). Trying to keep the big media outlets accountable in regards to how they present and discuss cycling. Basically, in every conceivable way, they are advocating for cycling.
They’re not an advocacy. And they want to be very clear about that. But why?
Advocating for advocacy
Cycle’s stated mission is to “assist advocacy and provide cycling resources” to facilitate the uptake of cycling. They are the guy behind the guy. The party planner. A facilitator of cycling advocacy. You might be tempted to call them a meta-advocacy.
One of their reasons for not wanting to be classified as an advocacy is the potential lack of freedom, and there is some sense in this. They don’t want to be pigeon-holed into having to stick to a certain script. To tow a narrow line. Some advocacy groups have such a narrow, focused direction or goal that there really isn’t any room to maneuver.
Single-issue advocacy groups could also have the unfortunate effect of winning their battle at the expense of the war (sorry for the awful analogy). There is room to criticize. For example, some criticize the focus on safe-passing laws (aside from being ineffective as a deterrent and in its enforcement) as allowing people to think that as long as cyclists get a bit of space between them and passing vehicles, then proper infrastructure won’t be seen as necessary. This could shift the focus from physical safety measures to theoretical, less practical ones.
Cycle wants the freedom to say what they want to say. To suddenly take up a new position if a new perspective or argument presents itself as valid. The freedom to engage with the media on a more direct level than if they were an official advocacy.
They aren’t interested in making motorists pass cyclists by a minimum distance, or having the MHL repealed, or lowering speed limits – they are interested in getting more people on bicycles, which is to say, they are interested in all of this, insofar as it helps achieve their overarching goal. Whatever does the job, but does it for the greater good of the community rather than for their own organization.
What’s in a name?
A rose is still a rose by any other name, right? Can simply calling yourself something else change the way people listen to you? Is hearing “news” less preachy than hearing a sermon?
I suppose this question is about how best to engage people about cycling? This is another issue for Cycle. Will an advocacy have as much of an effect on the general public as something that isn’t seen to be an advocacy? Say, a media group? The “news”?
It might just be a question of who your audience is. Maybe it’s advocacy for politicians, and a media/news group for the public.
In broad terms, we take the news as matter-of-fact and a sermon as something that we might think about but are free to dismiss. And, we generally do this even though a sermon can be very factual and the news can be structured in a way to take a very subjective position on something. We’ve probably been conditioned to think this way.
In any case, for dealing with society at large, presenting yourself as a media group rather than an advocacy could seem to be the smarter choice for achieving a wider audience.
Either/Or, or a bit of both?
I’ve created a bit of a false dichotomy. One doesn’t have to choose between advocacy or being a media group – but in this case it’s simply where Cycle chooses to place themselves for reasons of their own.
What matters is the end result. Their methods may differ from an those of an advocacy (sometimes, and slightly), but if Cycle is successful in getting more people on bikes more often and in better conditions, whether you want to call them an advocacy or a media group hardly matters.
In actual fact, now and then they do some straight-up, undisguised advocacy (eg. taking a petition to Parliament), but let’s not get too hung-up on that.
As a media group, or curator of cycling information, or whatever you want to call them, Cycle advocates for cycling with the utmost enthusiasm. That they have chosen to segregate themselves from other advocacy groups is a strategic move that likely serves them and their cause well.
Able to cop a bit of heat, a bit of criticism, to take controversial positions and challenge certain notions, Cycle, the media group (with a large side of advocacy), is probably better positioned to assist the cause of cycling in the changing environments of politics, the media, and society at large.
So all the benefits of advocacy, then, with none of the drawbacks?
Perhaps, as I alluded to earlier in the article, advocacy can benefit from first taking on a more generic form at the social level in order to generate interest in a topic and create a groundswell of support for it. Then, with enough momentum behind it, it can transform itself into something with a specific and strategic form in order to be effective at the level of policy change in a political environment.
Sounds a bit like something that a media group that takes a formal petition to Parliament might do. Maybe Cycle is on to something here…
Header image: source