We are a government of the people, by the people, for the people. You have a right, and a democratic duty, not to just vote, but to help push and guide your elected officials in-between elections. That's what political advocacy is.
People in power do not read your personal Facebook rants, and definitely cannot read your mind. Never forget that the government works for you. Politicians’ biggest fear is that if they do not listen to you, they will be unemployed come the next election.
With so much urgent work to be done, it’s tempting to dive head first into advocacy. However, no one is born an effective advocate. Keep in mind advocacy is like any skill—starting out with good habits and techniques is critical to success.
1. Believe in your power. Believe in change.
The world will not get better on its own. The world changes when people like you show up and advocate for what is right. One of the biggest barriers to effective advocacy is the idea that you can’t make a difference. But people just like you have changed the world time and time again. From the abolitionist movement to the labor movement to the civil rights movement the major changes in our history have succeeded because of the efforts of everyday people. These people believed in their power to make change, and this is a core belief that all advocates must hold to be effective.
2. Ground your advocacy in values and stories.
Know what you value. Tell stories based on your values. It may feel superfluous, but take the time to reflect and write down your values and core beliefs. Perhaps you have a strong belief in quality and fairness that leads you towards caring about social justice issues, or a deep connection to a piece of land that inspires you to fight for conservation. Knowing what you value will help you persuasively talk about what you care about. Your stories, rooted in your beliefs, are the building blocks of success in creating a compelling vision of a better future.
3. Make a plan.
Adopt a theory of change and place yourself in it. Every movement and non-profit worth its salt should have a “theory of change” both for the movement as a whole and for each campaign or project. The most simplistic theory of change is a one directional chain of “so that” phrases. For instance, I work at Seattle Greenways and one of our neighborhoods groups, University Greenways, had a campaign with a theory of change for improving a local street: Organize neighbors, businesses, and community groups to identify problems with Roosevelt Way NE so that we can communicate what safety upgrades are needed so that SDOT incorporates walking and biking improvements into the Roosevelt Way NE project instead of just repaving the street.
As a volunteer with University Greenways, you can see how joining a walking audit to identify dangerous places to cross the street would lead to real improvements for your community. If you understand the theory of change, standing in the cold taking photos of dangerous crosswalks becomes fulfilling. I’m happy to report University Greenways celebrated the opening of a much safer Roosevelt Way NE this past fall thanks to these volunteers.
4. Find your niche.
Figure out where you thrive and can make the biggest impact.
Signing a petition is rarely sufficient to win change - petitions are almost always a way for advocacy organizations to help build a list of supporters who can be asked to help in other ways. You can skip signing petitions and let advocacy groups know directly what skills you are willing to volunteer and what skills/activities interest you. As in life, you may find something you love doing if you are willing to step outside your comfort zone as well. There is always a first time for calling your political representatives or attending a protest. Explore and find ways your contributions can have the biggest impact.
5. Be in community.
Connect with people who support your advocacy journey. One of the most rewarding things about advocacy is finding a community of people who care about the same issues you do. Whether you connect with your issue community digitally or in-person, connecting with other people will not only make your experience more fulfilling, it will help build the strength of your movement. Being in a thriving, friendly community will also make it easier to reach out and bring in new people, which is critical for movement building.
6. Self Care.
Take time to recharge. Advocacy, by definition, is working to change the world for the better. It can be exhausting to be steeped in the problems of the world. While hopefully your advocacy volunteering will enrich your life, it’s very likely you’ll need to step back and unplug from time to time. Respect your limits, and recognize recharging time as a healthy habitat that will set you up for long term success. When you’re back with a clear head and renewed resolve from that camping trip or digital detox, you’ll be more of a force to reckon with than ever.
7. Prepare for the long haul.
Change will come if we fight for it, it but it may take awhile. Don’t be discouraged by short term setbacks. It’s important to add kindling to your passion (and perhaps righteous anger) over time by celebrating small victories along the way.
Adopting these seven habits will make your experience with social and political advocacy a more enjoyable and fulfilling part of your life. I hope these habits of highly effective advocates will help you build a practice of democracy that is more than signing petitions, debating in social media, or even voting regularly (but don’t forget to vote!). Our democracy depends on you becoming regularly engaged in robust advocacy.
Gordon Padelford is the Policy Director at Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and Vice Chair of the Seattle Pedestrian Advisory Board.