Strategies for Effective Advocacy

How can one person’s voice make a difference? That question is often posed, or at least thought about by most people. You read something in the paper and know for a fact it is misinformation; you hear about an incident that reeks of injustice; you are personally impacted by thoughtless and unsupportive acts: all of these, and other things too can inspire fury—but do they inspire you to take action? In many instances, the answer is no. We cool down a bit. We weigh the pros and cons of making a fuss, of speaking out, and maybe we discuss the inequity with friends and family and get over it. BUT, there are times when this will just not suffice, which then begs the question—how can one person’s voice make a difference? Asking this question is the beginning of advocacy.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with a group of parents of adult children on the spectrum about advocacy. Most of the attendees, when asked whether they had ever acted as an advocate for themselves or anyone else, said, “no, not really.” When asked to think about this a little more and write some potential “advocacy moments” on paper, many surprised themselves and were able to identify and recount for the others a particular instance when they advocated on behalf of something or someone. Several of these “advocacy moments” had nothing whatsoever to do with autism. I suggested to the group that the method or “tools” they used to advocate in that instance could be applied to advocating on other issues too, including autism related issues.

What were some of the “tools” we discovered? First, it must be an issue that sticks with you, not for hours alone, but for days on end. When you are preparing dinner, folding laundry or taking a walk, the topic is on your mind. Continuous engagement in the issue is often fueled by passion which is just the energy source needed for advocacy. Second, do your research on the topic. There is little worse or more ineffective than an advocate who is ill prepared. One man in the group told about a Letter to the Editor he had written regarding unequal access to housing for adults in his community where he had spent many hours researching the facts surrounding the particular incident, laws relating to it and he even sought out his local councilman to get his perspective. The letter was a highly effective piece of advocacy that brought about a town hall meeting and opened up conversation in the community. Good research that yields a fact-based argument more times than not results in successful advocacy. Nothing beats it.

Along with engagement, passion and research, constructing a plan of action is a key component of any effective advocacy effort. In developing a plan of action or “advocacy strategy” there are several basic questions to ask. Who is my audience? What is the most efficient and impactful way to reach my audience? What result(s) do I wish to achieve through my advocacy or put another way, what do I want my audience to do about it? There are other questions too, but these three are what I would call threshold questions in developing an effective advocacy strategy.

The answers to these threshold questions will be important on many levels. They will help you determine whether you are going to spearhead a letter writing campaign, testify before a legislative committee or organize a protest rally on the steps of city hall. If this sounds too lofty, time consuming and labor intensive, then this is not a strategy you would choose. How about starting more simply, like joining an on-line petition, writing a letter to a local official or newspaper, attending a meeting on the topic to share ideas with others? All of these are effective ways to advocate.

The point is to develop a strategy that is comfortable for you. Realize too, that no effort is too small or insignificant to matter. Attendance at a meeting, even if you say nothing when there, shows your recognition that the topic is of value by virtue of the fact that you took the time out of your busy schedule to show up. There may be only one person expressing the collective voice of the group at the meeting but never underestimate the power of the numbers behind that proponent, applauding their support or booing their disapproval.

What comes next after the “advocacy moment?” You’ve made the speech, written the letter, made a few key phone calls—now what? The next step is as important to effective advocacy as any other and that is what I call, “the follow-up.” Now that you made some noise, presented your plan, how will you follow-up to get the sought after result? This may be the most challenging aspect of any advocacy effort, or at least the part that requires the most persistence. It is what I often call, “persistence against resistance.” There is no easy answer or way around it. Here is again where the fuel of passion can continue to nurture the flame you ignited, or not.

I have seen many effective advocates and advocacy organizations raise important questions on the issues, creating excellent awareness, only to drop the ball before the desired result is achieved. On the other hand, I have seen exactly the opposite happen. Sometimes effective advocacy requires a “chain reaction effect” whereby one person or group begins the work, say by creating awareness about an issue, and then another person or group takes on the issue and continues the fight. And yes, advocacy is a sort of fight—at its core; it is a fight for what you believe in.

In speeches we have all heard from politicians to pundits, we have been counseled that one voice can make a difference. Although it sounds good and even inspires us, is this really the case? I believe, from my experience that it is true. Some advocates get more exposure than others because of their celebrity or connections but all advocates make a difference if they affect one person’s life. In the end, effective advocacy, driven by passion, fostered by knowledge and perpetuated by persistence begins one person at a time.

Linda Walder Fiddle, Esq. is the founder and executive director of The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation, a national autism organization with the mission to develop and support through grant-giving, residential, vocational, recreational, educational and family programs that honor the individuality and enhance the lives of adolescents and adults with ASD. Ms. Walder Fiddle is an advocate on the state and national levels for issues relating to adults on the spectrum and works closely with legislators in developing public policy initiatives aimed at improving the lives of those affected by ASD,

 For more information visit: www.djfiddlefoundation.org.

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