When we’re the ones putting up the biggest hurdles

I have been trading emails this week with a former student who has been doing some wonderful work organizing a group of clients to do legislative advocacy on their own behalf. I don’t have her permission to share the details, so this will be somewhat intentionally vague, but some of our back and forth, related to the challenges she is confronting within her own agency, may have relevance for others’ work. To give you enough context to have a sense of what I’m talking about but not enough to betray her confidence: she has found that an umbrella organization for individuals experiencing the same social problem is very resistant to the involvement of clients in this work, even going as far as calling it counterproductive and trying to get her superiors within the organization (which is a member of this larger group) to supress the clients’ advocacy. This is obviously not only demoralizing but also somewhat frightening, because she has the experience of being perceived as a real threat by those with greater power than she does, which can often lead to retaliation, with its attendant consequences. Unfortunately, as I told her, this is not uncommon, and so it’s essential that we prepare to meet resistance within our own organizations and networks, and also that we understand how to make this work for us within our advocacy.

Here are some of my (edited) comments to her in the most recent exchange. First, I address her concern that, since they’re encountering resistance not only from the suspected opponents (those hostile to their cause) but also from their supposed friends, she’s setting her clients up to fail by championing a ‘lost’ cause. Then I try to help her strategize about ways around those internal obstacles.

I have thought about this quite a bit over the years, but I really don’t think that there are any ethical problems in pushing for bills that are unlikely to pass. Really, I think that’s one of our core roles as social work advocates–championing ‘unlikely’ causes–and I think that, for us to take any other position, would just encourage our opponents to present things as unlikely to pass, in order to scare us away. The real issue is informed consent–not overselling the legislative process to our clients, but instead helping them to own not only the process but also a realistic understanding of the barriers to success, and also helping them to define success in ways other than just legislative victory.

The challenges of working within bureaucracies are many and, often, ugly. Do you have any allies at other agencies, also members of the umbrella group, with whom you could work so that it isn’t just one social worker at one agency pressing for an expanded and more meaningful role for consumers? I wonder if that might help. How much support do you have at your organization for you and your client continuing your advocacy, even with the reluctance from the umbrella group (which is territorial and dumb, but not at all uncommon–many social work-types who lobby are uncomfortable with others moving in on their ‘turf’, a problem i have never understood–it’s like they claim some exclusive knowledge or insider connections, or fear that their legitimacy will erode if others see that there’s no real secret to this work–kind of Wizard of Oz-ish, you know?)? Does your employing agency get any money from that group, or what’s the mutual relationship? You’ll have to understand what’s at stake if you continue, and it continues to antagonize these other folks, so that you can anticipate the level of push-back that you’ll get from your superiors. The work that you’ve done to create authentic leadership roles for clients will help to inoculate you against some of the harshest backlash, I believe; even the most skittish agency doesn’t like to be seen cracking down on grassroots leadership among those they serve. You’ll have to have an honest conversation with your client leaders, though, about what you’re experiencing and what the consequences could be, and you’ll have to figure out how to do that ethically, given your simultaneous obligation to employer and client. That’s where this agency advocacy stuff gets really tricky. Hang in there, and let me know how I can help. If you want to sit down and talk through a strategy that is more likely to lead to legislative victory, without this umbrella group in the calculus as supporters, let me know.

To anyone else–what barriers have you encountered within your own organization, or affiliated partners, to your advocacy work, particularly where client leadership is involved? What can you share about those experiences and how you overcame/worked around/resisted them? What consequences have you paid for your advocacy? How have you prepared those with whom you work for that price? If you want to talk through something but don’t want it to be public for any reason, email me. I wish that the challenges were only outside our doors, but that’s not the case. Advocacy begins at home, so to speak, and I want to help you there too.

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