Guest post: A Case for Advocating from Within

**Note from Melinda: This guest post is from a blog reader who has generously agreed to share her story of advocating from within her employing organization. For obvious reasons, she remains anonymous in this forum, but she is willing to engage in conversation if other readers have questions or comments about her work.

Working within a movement to create social change is something I have wanted to be a part of since childhood. Always rooting for the underdog, cheering for the kid in fourth place or sitting at the table with the classmate by themselves seem to have been a theme in my life. I also love to challenge authority. It has left me with multiple time-outs, probably a good year lost to groundings and supervisors waiting in their office with a stack of write-ups titled “Insubordination’.

It was not a huge surprise when I wound up working for a women’s organization straight out of college. It felt comforting to look around and see other people dedicated to improving the lives of women and children. The realization came that the violence women are enduring are not random or isolated acts, but rather sustained by a framework developed by systems that maintain power and control over her life. It is easy to see the abuse women survive from their partner, sometimes, but not so easy to see the abuse they endure due to sexism, racism and classism. Diagnoses such as PTSD, depression and anxiety are commonly used in my world. The effect of these seems to remove “providers” further from the “consumers”. Diagnostics don’t seem to accurately reflect the experience of millions of women nor prevent the larger issues of violence against women. In my line of work we talk about how it is our responsibility to help her craft, draft and tell her story for her healing. Why not help her craft her story to connect and correct the larger injustices?

Working for a self-touted client-centered organization it seemed natural for this type of a program to be created, shaped and implemented. My organization is part of a state-wide coalition that claims to be part of a social change movement. Implementing a survivor-designed and led advocacy group seemed like an easy fit, right? That’s what I thought. What I have found are the people, organizations or systems that are “supposed” to be on our side can actually provide more challenges than who we think our natural opponents to be.

Internally, administrators balked at legislative advocacy because they believe that it’s our coalition’s responsibility (not our organization’s), they’re misinformed about the parameters of how nonprofits can lobby, and they’re concerned about the time/energy for adding another project to the organization. The project was not allowed to be added into my new job description as my supervisor did not feel “the project was developed enough.” Concern for burnout and shifting priorities from my primary responsibilities are other stated reasons from my supervisor to pull me off the project. The current barrier is her concern that the grants that pay my salary all specifically state ‘no lobbying’. Contacting the grantors is in the plans; however I have been barred from participating in the conversations.

Participating in our Coalition’s Legislative Advocacy Day has been an activity that our organization traditionally does. Bringing survivors to this day is something that I thought seemed logical. The welcome was lukewarm and ill-prepared, as they had never invited survivors to this event. After women told their stories to State Legislators and a representative responded empathetically, the Coalition reacted and I was told they strategically build relationships and plan out legislation. They were alarmed at the survivor’s “uncontrolled message” and told me that they never want a “story like that ever getting back to the capital”. The effect of this statement is unfortunate in several dimensions. Violence against women can involve substance abuse, mental health, poverty and sometimes suicide and homicide. Instead of seizing the opportunity to educate people in power about the complexities of the lives of their constituents, the Coalition sent a message to my organization and the survivor that shamed her (what had happened was her fault) and attempted to take her power away by controlling her story.

Why do I keep pushing for a survivor-led advocacy group? Because what I hear time and time again is that system action or inaction has a direct impact on people’s lives. Survivors look to systems for basic needs, protection and justice. When systems fail, women feel violated, and sometimes the “beat down from the system is worse than a man’s.” Women have been affected by the problem of violence and have a stake in the issue. They are the experts in how systems fail and re-victimize. They have a strong desire to end the re-victimization by changing the way people think about violence against women, responses to survivors and holding these systems accountable for their actions. They want a social change group that is a combination of education, policy change and legislation. If we want true change, then the people who are most affected by the problem must be at the center of righting the wrongs.

76 responses to “Guest post: A Case for Advocating from Within

  1. It’s ridiculous that the coaltion was taken aback by the survior’s story. Unfortunately, survivor stories are rarely nice little stories. The legislators sometimes need to hear the true emotions behind all the stories so they become real. Guest Post: Great work and your clients are lucky to have such a strong advocate.

    And I agree that survivor-led advocacy group would be valuable and effective. But changing the status quo is never painless so hang in there and good luck.

    • Lesa, that’s SUCH an important insight: “survivor stories are rarely nice little stories.” And part of our advocacy has to be creating the space where they can tell the truth. I passed your comment on to the author, too, so that she could see your affirmation. And I completely agree!

  2. I don’t think I will ever understand why agencies sometimes fight so hard against people who want to see the agency grow in a positive way. From the lecture, Melinda, I know you talked about how it creates more work. I understand this can cause administration to not want to implement change, but to consequence someone for their ideas is still mid boggling to me. I think in some cases people who work “in the trenches” have the best ideas, and when you take disciplinary action against them for those ideas, you are possibly stopping that person from ever trying to voice their opinion again. This hits very close to home with me and a former agency that worked for, and now work with. I too tried to implement change, and was forced to quit due to hostile conditions. It took a lot of processing with peers, professors, and supervisors to overcome my anxiety over the situation, and to feel comfortable sharing my differing views.

    • I’m sorry, but not all that surprised, Molly, to hear about your struggles. I think it’s not just more work that pushes organizations towards the status quo sometimes–really, we’re all pretty afraid of change, and, unfortunately, social work administrators aren’t immune to that. But understanding all of the barriers to change is, as in any arena, an important part of the strategy development. But, on another level, I think there’s a very real sense in which those who are most allied with clients can never really “get” the resistance to change, and we wouldn’t want to, you know?

  3. Having been a survivor of domestic violence, I am quite opposed to the way the agency tried to silence the victim to protect itself from “embarrassment”–it is like a hand is being held over her–and our–mouths all over again. One of our assignments this week was to look at some agencies out there and their legislative agendas. Many of these agendas are markedly absent from their websites. I believe this will only get worse as social agencies become privatized. And to be sure, that is the goal. Current trends toward further federal devolution to the states and the failure of the states to fund programs, will lead to funding sources being tapped among the business sector even more often than they are now. I saw this trend years ago in the sponsoring of school activities by large (and small) business enterprises, and the scary messages that were put out there by said sponsors to parents and children (Scholastic magazine’s sponsors sure have changed). These businesses, religious coalitions and foundations tie our hands and tell us what our messages MUST be to satisfy them–whether it is the truth or not. This is censorship. Lending our expertise to legislators about the perils faced by our clients is an acceptable advocacy technique. Further, one of our readings (a study) recently discussed how legislators want to hear the stories of their constituents vs receiving a form letter. Best of luck to you friend in the future.

  4. In this Advanced Policy and the foundation level advocacy class I took, it has been emphasized that “survivor stories” and real-life examples of constituents is the most powerful way to advocate. In this experience it seems that these stories were not welcome. The fact that, “they were alarmed at the survivor’s “uncontrolled message” and told me that they never want a “story like that ever getting back to the capital” makes it clear that the coalition members and state legislators are not working for the constituents they claim to. The coalition is supposed to support these constituents and advocate for them when no one else will. The fact that the organization was not willing to allow this working to add the project to her job description shows that the organization was not making advocacy a priority. If the coalition and the organization chose to just turn their heads when the state legislators made the comment they made, then they are not working in the “best interest of the clients”. It’s almost like they are contradicting themselves. The organization is saying through their programs that they support women and want to help them overcome their past, but on the other hand they are saying, “but please don’t talk about this to the government because your story doesn’t look good.” What message is that sending to these women? I agreed with the point that women can feel more violated by the system than by the men the abused them. Unfortunately, I think this is true in other social problems as well.

    • I think, really, that this story is another example of the power of these testimonials–the organization was threatened by them precisely because they recognized the resonance they would have (and, so, feared that they were ‘losing control’, when, of course, they never had any such thing). In their defense, of sorts, though, how many organizations send similarly contradictory messages–saying that they’re committed to being ‘client-centered’, for example, when they don’t even have a box for clients to leave feedback, or talking about empowerment, when no clients or even former clients have any say on the Board? We absolutely must model the type of transparent and democratic decision making we want to see in the policy structures, but that doesn’t mean that we really do, at least not all the time.

  5. It’s unfortunate that the agency in this post is unwilling to try a new, innovative idea. I think implementing a survivor-designed and led advocacy group is a fantastic idea and the type of progressive thinking that I would want in my agency. It’s sad that there are so many restrictions placed on staff, although I have a feeling that this is common in numerous nonprofits. Helping clients without a voice becomes even more difficult when the workers don’t have a voice within the agency. I wish I could tell you that I’m completely shocked by the reaction you received from legislators, but I’m not. It seems that some legislators live in their own world and want to ignore real issues that their constituents are dealing with. I completely agree that it seemed completely logical to bring victims to tell their story. Who best to tell their story than the victims themselves? I’m glad to hear that you are continuing to push for a survivor-led advocacy group. I hope that you reach your goal.

  6. I could not agree with the last sentence more! Currently I work with girls ages 12-18, many of whom have experienced sexual and physical violence which has lead to unhealthy coping behaviors. Just last Friday I was told by one of the girl’s teachers (I volunteer in group home) that they work on keeping the girls in the “present” and therefor do not discuss the past or the future. The program that these girl’s are participating in seeks to strengthen them as individuals, yet has a distorted vision of making them “pure.” It is a Christian based organizations, but still the mussel inflicted on these girls right to free expression of their feelings about the past and how it is affecting them now is astonishing to me. Being a survivor of many of the same situations that these young girls have survived, I know personally that being able to honestly express my fears and concerns and relate them to my experiences is an important part of healing. Not to mention that their stories are much like the ones of domestic violence victims, in that they are ashamed of what has happened to them and are told that they should be ashamed. It is of vital importance that these young girls are educated on their rights to advocate and empowered to do so. Keeping a story silent does not close the chapter, yet it invites more to be written. Client centered advocacy should involve the individuals whose rights are being advocated for and not doing so is to layer another system of oppression upon individuals. Kuddos to the writer of this blog for pursuing such a needed change!

    • Wow, Leah. What a story. I wonder how the girls feel about this approach? Would there be any opportunities to help them voice their need to process their past, as part of moving towards their future? I think it might be better received from them directly…I wonder how to facilitate that? I’d love to talk with you about this…and I love your statement that keeping a story silent doesn’t close the chapter. There’s actually a Catholic Charities billboard about DV with much the same sentiment up around town right now…maybe that would be a helpful entry point for this organization’s leadership?

  7. I haven’t seen the billboard, but I will look for it! Since I just started earning the girls and their mentors trust I would like to observe the interactions between the two a bit more before I start to stir the pot. I know that the director of the home is close to retirement and I have a good connection with one of the board members, so I am hoping to encourage change soon! You are right that such a message would be of more value if it comes from the girls directly. Facilitating, and empowering the girls to speak up, will be difficult. I think it is easier for me to see the harm that is being caused because I have been through the process and am now able to reflect on it. However, helping the girls to voice this need, when they may not even realize it as a need is going to be the tricky part. As I start to form this process I would appreciate your feedback and help!

    • Having been a practitioner for 15 years, I learned the hard way this year during an assess of an elderly hospice patient to proceed with a healthy dose of caution when it comes to hearing the telling of past raumatic events. I listened thoughtfully, asked thoughtful questions, purposely treaded on eggshells, bent over backwards to not ask leading questions, was extremely kind, calm, soothing and supportive. Truly, the only thing that wasn’t beneficial was that despite the patient freely disclosing this to me was that she was then left hanging with few ways to process her feelings after I left the nursing home where I visited her. I later learned she had a habit of turning on others, and having been victimized, in turn victimized others trying to help her (nursing home staff and myself). I learned this is not completely uncommon among those who have lived through trauma. My hurt feelings aside (and later our chaplain’s whom she’d warmed up to), I then referred her to involve the visiting psychologist, better trained than I to work on her trauma with her. Interestingly, the facility had her stuffing envelopes (involves switching items between hands)–unbeknownst to them, this is a form of EMDR, similar too to the walking meditations Buddhists engage in. The U.S. military is using EMDR to treat soldiers returning from combat and many believe it to be a non-invasive technique to trat trauma. My advice is to develop a careful collaborative plan with someone well qualified to treat their trauma so they aren’t left hanging at times you aren’t there and who can work with you and them. I absolutely agree that silence benefits no one and is a continuation of oppression.

      • That is so informative, Gayle! Thank you for sharing that story, and for being willing to guide Leah towards an approach that might be helpful. It’s great to hear from you!

      • Miss your mentally stimulating classes–boy we had to be on our toes and awake! I am interning at an agency who assisted with filing a federal lawsuit, I believe it is Jimmo vs Sebelius which will be a landmark settlement that will bring changes to people on rehab under Medicare. Glad our agency has a lobbyist and DC office–very interesting work to hear about.

  8. Although the current end result (as I know it) of this individual’s initiatives for client advocacy was less than ideal, it still paints a realistic and important picture of obstacles faced in this profession. Often times the battles we fight can be within our own agency, but even larger are the battles we MUST fight to enlighten and educate others (particularly those who have the power to make positive changes) about the harsh realities our clients face daily. If these messages are not first communicated, we cannot hope to even begin a discussion surrounding progressive change(s).

    What is even more powerful and emotion provoking, is the powerful story regarding the Coalition’s response to the survivor’s story. However, it is also a great reminder about what we are up against, something I tell myself daily; that most people do not have a similar mindset as myself. On every level, it can be extremely difficult for people outside of other’s situation(s) to be fully understanding. For example, something I might claim as socially unjust, another might disregard as a “normal” occurrence outside of his/her scope of daily reality. Until something is made applicable and/or important to another individual, it is difficult to communicate the reality of another’s situation.

    The power in this story is the applicability to so many situations. Relating this to my own personal experience has been one of recent irony. I have spent my current work in a field practicum placement of which I am less familiar with. This came about via my request for a varied and well-rounded learning experience. With the national hype regarding the Affordable Health Care Act and my new working environment, centered around providing services for ill Children’s families, I quickly began researching and applying classroom work to these types of topics/initiatives. After writing multiple papers, doing countless hours of research, having a variety of discussions with other professionals, & even working to create program solutions, I felt more versed in the inter-workings and weaknesses of our current health care system; along with the obstacles faced by affected clients. The ironic part of this story begins with my fairly recent admittance to a hospital for my own health care. Through my “patient” status, I was able to see first hand many of the flaws in our current operating system. Research is a great tool and has helped me gain copious amounts of knowledge throughout my educational/professional career. However, it is certainly true that you one cannot fully understand the struggles and hurdles in our system(s), until one has personally dealt with them.

    Through this experience, I able to see and understand current issues, such as: billing and insurance logistical hurdles, the seemingly excessive “mandated” and often overly-expensive, yet required medical equipment all billed to insurance companies and/or the patient, and the inconsistency with billing from a wide-variety of departments within the hospital. Stretching beyond hospital care, there were also a great lack of services available during recovery. Keep in mind, these are issues I noted as a health insurance carrier. One can infer how much more difficult it would be to navigate our health care system without such coverage.

    Although this is not necessarily helpful for the forward progression of this advocacy example, it is certainly food for thought. Important lessons I gained from this example are centered around one’s own understanding of other’s situations and viewpoints. It is necessary to use a client-centered approach along with a forward thinking and realistic approach. Here it is not just important to cater to your client, it is equally important to cater to your audience. My thoughts for all future advocacy work would include that adjustment in a collective understanding of all the components of the systems we operate in. In the provided example, perhaps instead of finding frustration with the Coalition, the opposition can be viewed as an opportunity to re-group, dig a little deeper and and find an alternative way to communicate the true needs of the clients served.

    I am reminded of the days of learning how to ride my bike, sure my legs got a little scrapped up, but you better believe I was back on that bike until I could ride it down the street alone. An early estimate of the human will and desire to accomplish something difficult and often times slightly scary.

  9. Is it weird that this didn’t surprise me that the legislature didn’t want to hear about this story. It seems to me unless it’s something they can fix in one foul swoop they don’t want anything to do with it. It’s embarrassing that our society today is still told to sit down when we should be standing up. I often feel that because of my status as an intern my opinion rarely matters. I sometimes feel that this agency graciously gave me the opportunity to do my field practicum at their agency, and people are taking the time out to show me the ropes. That’s why it is sometimes hard not only to advocate, but advocate against your agency. My practicum last year at a nursing home had a resident who the staff would consider her a “burden”. One day they used me as a scape goat to try to illegally “dump” her off at a psychiatric hospital. I didn’t really know what was happening until we got to the hospital and I realized all of her items were with her. I didn’t feel right about this, so I took her back to the nursing home going against my field instructors wishes. You can imagine her surprise and anger. Adovocating can sometimes be difficult, especially if you are going against the norm.

    • Wow, Morgan–that’s an incredible story about your practicum last year! Did you get support from the School in navigating the agency’s reaction? I appreciate you sharing how you often feel that you have less room to maneuver as a student than you might as a staff member. I tend to think that’s not the case–that your student status gives you less to lose, in some ways, and sets up the expectation that you will ask questions and create some waves–but I can appreciate the factors that might prevent that. What could the School do differently that might facilitate your internal advocacy?

      On Mon, Nov 10, 2014 at 2:58 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


    • Completely agree that more persons should “stand up” and be heard. Good for you for advocating for this client. Doing the right thing is certainly not always easy.

  10. It is amazing how social workers in social service agencies say they want to help people, but then they fail to stop, listen, and truly hear a person’s story. As social workers, we are to help vulnerable persons. Often these persons are recovering from all sorts of trauma. These stories of trauma will include messages that are sometimes difficult to hear, but they are important. The only way for a society to progress it to learn from its past. There have been some gross injustices and atrocities of our past, and the only we have remedied this is by learning from these stories. A great woman and social work lecturer gave me a bumper sticker that reads “Just…Listen”; I took this laminated it and hung it on my fridge for a daily reminder. Just…Listen sounds so simple, but how many time do we “Just listen”?

    This story reminds me of something that happened in my undergraduate practicum. A teenage girl was brought into state custody, and she was deemed a ‘problem child’. Despite others’ views of the girls, I sat and listened to her story. This was a child that had been through some horrible, unimaginable things in her life. I just sat and listened to her, and very quickly gained her trust. The major ‘problem’ was that she did not want to participate in family therapy. Once I talked with her and really listened to her story, I was able to see that she could benefit from family therapy, but absolutely needed individual therapy. Although this was blatantly clear after having a conversation with her for all of five minutes, individual therapy was never presented to her as an option. Long story short…I advocated for her to have individual therapy. This became her case plan, but only happened because I was willing to stop, listen, and advocate for this girl!

    • I love that. Just…listen. To my kids, to the staff of the organizations I’m working with, to my students, to the pain our policies cause.

      And cool example from your practicum! Another example of how pushing for changes within our organizations can result in significant improvements for the people we serve!

  11. For an empathetic person, it can be truly painful to listen, really listen, to someone’s story, but it is even more painful to not listen to what they have to say. Not listening continues the injustice.
    Through my work at the Family Self-Sufficiency program, I have noticed a lack of listening. The whole program is based on client goal-setting abilities and then helping the client accomplish their set goals. Time and time again I have seen case workers steer the direction of the conversation to help the client come up with ‘realistic’ goals, without really listening to the client. The conversations tend to steer the client towards goals the case manager finds attractive, which can take away part of the ownership from the client. It’s a thin line we tread as we want to help the client do their best, but ‘their best’ is seen through the eyes of the case manager. If a client is to start working toward a goal in which they take no ownership in, or don’t necessarily want to do, it can put them on a path toward failure.
    It can be very difficult to ask for help, but it is even more difficult to ask for help and then get rejected. It becomes a true sense of helplessness. Having a client take back control of their lives, to gain self-sufficiency, is the ultimate goal of the program but it doesn’t work if they don’t have that power to start with, or if we take that power away. Their voice needs to be part of the equation.
    As I have been focusing on grant writing and catering toward my audience, I know I also need to cater to my client’s needs, to make sure their voices are heard and incorporated into programming. If I were to cater to a politician I might incorporate stories in another way. The famous quote ‘One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic’ comes to mind here as you can see the aggregate behaviors and stories without being personally affected. It takes the humanity out of the equation. It becomes less relatable this way. The anecdotes or personal stories need to be shared in order to understand the direct impact on a client. The empathy that results will help actually get stuff done. The stories are the reasons behind any action we do. If we aren’t here to help our clients, why are we even here? What’s the point? We have to learn from the stories if we are ever going to make it any better.

    • Thank you for this reflection, Kendra. When you think about administration of social work agencies, are there systems/processes that you think can reduce the tendency to push past clients’ stories, so that we really place their experiences at the center of our work? Are there practices that you think can be a ‘check’ on our temptation to steer clients? How would you approach this as a social work administrator, since you’ve seen what can happen, otherwise, in organizations?

  12. I have run into similar circumstances where the advocacy wants absolutely nothing to do with the client, and certainly do not want the client heard or seen.
    The recent experience came with our local Sheriff’s town hall on plans for crisis care, mental health training and reentry at his jail. The Sheriff and the invited speakers talked about the research, and peer reviewed literature. Not a single word was mentioned about what the prisoner/mental patient opinion on what their own needs are. I could not sit still any longer and in an unprepared speech I told the panel that they were asking the wrong people the wrong questions and that the ones with the answers to their questions were behind the jail walls and under the bridge at camp. They were the ones who know what their needs are and not a bunch of over opinionated self-promoting academics.

    • What was the response to your call to include those most affected, Jon? I knew that that meeting was coming up and (this is my fault, obviously), I completely assumed that the research/deliberation process, to prepare, had included talking with those who have experienced the law enforcement system while dealing with a mental illness. I’m glad that you were there to voice that imperative.

  13. I am not surprised, but frustrated by another experience of the silencing of victims and/or the oppressed. I understand the agency weighing the overall good of many individuals against the empowerment of one. However, it would seem to strengthen the agencies stance by demonstrating the need in support and understanding of this survivor and others. Domestic violence is not as simple as some would want you to believe. It is critical to get this message out, along with the message to victims that they are not alone while trying to cope with their daily circumstances. Often times, victims cannot just get up and walk out. If it were that easy, there would not be such a need for domestic violence shelters. Victims would not be severely injured or even murdered. They are bound by ties that frequently are not seen with the naked eye. Each case is complicated and quite often messy. There are methods of control by the perpetrater, and methods of coping by the victim. Who better to explain this and what is needed, than those who have been in the situation? If she and others could and would speak, maybe some of the stories would be different. Maybe systems would change, and there would be less substance abuse, poverty, suicide, and homicide in these circumstances. Those who perpetrate the violence, control and dominate every move of the victim. Isn’t it time to give the victim some control and empower them to make a change for individuals currently living in these situations and those generations to come?
    I commend this author for standing up for what is right, and advocating for change. This is not easy either. I was put in the position of advocating within the agency for a client in my practicum last year. It was a harder decision than it should have been for me. I’m embarrassed to say, fear of not passing the practicum and hence not graduating weighed in on my decision. However, after gathering research to back my position, I did stand up for my client. I pushed for what was right for him and others, according to their input and the evidence-based research. Although the change I was pushing for still did not occur, I did what I felt was right. Following your ethics and values is sometimes hard, but weighing the overall situation makes it easier.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Shelly, as well as your own experience advocating within your organization. It is often more difficult, in my experience, than fighting the ‘big systems’ outside of our agencies, even though those can seem more intimidating at first glance, because the stakes are higher in our own agencies, and those considerations can so often blur our view of the ethical response–not just (or even primarily) for students. What helped you gather the courage to take this stand? While you weren’t successful in getting the change for the client, neither did you face retaliation, right? I’m just thinking about the lessons you learned, in terms of the costs and benefits of taking such an action. Thanks again.

  14. I guess I am confused as to why the coalition would be embarrassed or wouldn’t want testimony from survivors to be told. I would be incline to believe that representatives want to hear about the experiences of those they are making legislation for. To assume that they don’t is to assume that they could not relate or do not care, when in reality it looks like the coalition doesn’t care. I know that sharing the not so “nice little stories” can be uncomfortable, occasionally eliciting emotions in others that are not pleasant, but isn’t that the point; To strike a nerve in legislators to facilitate change? Without the faces to go with the experiences and without the experiences to go with the insistence of justice how will they know that change is needed?

    • I don’t think that they were embarrassed so much as authentically thought that these particular stories could harm their ability to win the support they needed from policymakers. And that really makes this all trickier; if it was really the case that the organization was being selfish, then there wouldn’t be a dilemma. They would just need to change. If, instead, actions that are harmful to individuals are pursued from a sense of their best interest…that doesn’t excuse the client silencing, but it does put it in a different perspective, to me. How do you see this through that lens?

  15. Hearing stories like this is a major reason I advocate for the implementation of trauma-informed care. It is an approach that emphasizes the needs of the client and finds the power of their individual stories. I wish that I could say I am shocked about the legislator’s disinterest in hearing the survivors’ stories, but I’m not for several reasons. The client-centered focus appears only now to be picking up the pace; it is my hope that more advocates step up to push for policies, procedures and legislation that is client-centered. The trauma-informed perspective is a new way of evaluating clients’ experiences and shifts from the idea of determining what is wrong with a person to what happened to that person. In asking “what happened to you?” versus asking “what is wrong with you?” the approach to care becomes one in which there is recognition of the multiple ways traumatic experiences impact individuals’ well-being and permits the provider to focus on policies, procedures and practices that promote healing and recovery. The trauma-informed perspective involves the realization of the widespread impact of trauma; there is a recognition of traumatic symptoms in people part of our organizations and systems; and a trauma-informed response that yields changes in policies, practices and procedures in order to avoid the re-traumatization of people we encounter in our organizations, (SAMHSA, 2015). In recognition of the pervasiveness of the experience of trauma, the trauma-informed approach involves the practice of prioritizing safety, trust, empowerment, collaboration, and peer support through the adoption of policies and procedures embedded with these principles.

    • Great connection, Jessica, between trauma-informed care and principles of client-centered advocacy–how different would be our standards for how we advocate, if we truly understood the effects of trauma on people’s affect, cognition, and even presentation of self. How can we continue to advance our understanding of trauma, in individual practice and in our policies? Where do you see the most promising examples of this?

  16. Wow! I guess I could say that I am suprised that the coalition didn’t want the survivor stories being apart of their “advocacy efforts”, but I’m honestly not. My practicum is in an organization that focuses on the well being of women and children, and their “advocacy and lobbying” efforts are pretty minimal. In fact, I have created a survey that will be given to the Board of Directors in January, that is designed to help them reflect how they are doing as advocates for the agency. My hope is that they will see they are not doing enough, and will in turn be motivated to do more on behalf of the agency and the population served by the agency. The Executive Director said that I can present the results of the survey, along with a piece about how to be better (more effective) advocates. The agency I am placed in has a DV shelter located inside, and I have often wondered why not give the ladies that stay there a chance to share their story with legislators. This could be a crucial step to the healing process in their life. The women could work with their case manager, write up their story (with all of the names changed) and mail it to their congressperson with a request for more funding for victim’s services. I think that client stories are way more powerful and how they were impacted by the agency that was there for them in their crises, than any kind of “twitterstorm” that is led by the agency in an attempt to get funding.

    • Yes, Jamie–there are so many ways in which clients can share their stories, often ways that we, as professionals, might not even consider, if we’re not creatively engaging and empowering clients to claim their own narratives. I’d love to see the results of your efforts like this!

  17. This blog post went along well with another discussion I just had around organizational policies, which can affect the organizational culture. The fact that this organization’s administration and coalition were afraid to give the clients a voice and once they did, did not agree with her voice, is mind-boggling to me. It was also disheartening to see how the dignity and worth of this client was not trusted and instead questioned due to power systems at play. How can we expect to amplify the voices of those who are being isolated, when we are the ones isolating them? It’s almost as though the organization gave these clients a megaphone so they could think they were voicing their stories, but left the batteries out so no one could hear it. This story was disturbing to me, but also a reminder to not lose sight of true client-centered advocacy.

  18. Oh, Danny–that’s a really terrific metaphor (if a chilling one). Great insight. I appreciate you pointing out, too, the mutual relationship between organizational policies and cultures–yes, policies shape culture, but, yes, cultures also lead to the institution of certain types of policy approaches, too, which then often serve to reinforce the cultural norms dominant in that institution. I do think that this particular organization subsequently saw the need to change how they approached advocacy, at least somewhat–the professional’s actions held a mirror, of sorts, to their conduct and its effects on clients, and I think they heard that message. But we cannot afford for those we serve to hear anything other than “we privilege your voices”, since they get the opposite signal from so many quarters. How will you trumpet this cause in the organizations where you’re working? What will it take to do so, while navigating the opposition you may receive from others in power?

  19. The complexity of social issues can be very difficult to digest let alone begin to understand. I hear this advocates frustrations and I believe I would have similar emotions. I have too seen the issue of organizations “censoring” what others know especially those in power. The issue then becomes limited because if we only present parts of a story we only get solutions to parts of the puzzle. We often talk about social issues often needing multiple policies and or programs in place to help alleviate the problem, but when we limit our policies because we want to “censor” what others are hearing we may in fact be further hurting the communities we serve. Beyond policy and beyond the existence of effective programs, we still have to recognize and organize around ideologies and behaviors. We can tackle issues and restrict people on the legal ends, but without the combination of policy, enforcement and cultural change we cannot completely extract ourselves from the issues we face. I like to believe this is why it is so crucial for coalitions and agencies to have community members/clients be a part of their board. This does not mean just one person who is homeless, or a victim of abuse, or a housing assistance recipient, it should mean the majority or at least half. These individuals are best at knowing their experiences, at knowing what works and what does not, at telling their own stories and as advocates we should be giving them the space and time to tell it like it is. As social workers we speak about our values in regarding the dignity and worth of persons, yet we do not always present ourselves this way. I commend you for your strength and pushing through and advocating for your clients. You emulate client-centered practice, a practice so many agencies seek to present yet they have no plan or do not include this in their goals, mission or vision. We have a lot to work on and if we continue to challenge our communities and agencies we will build a momentum, hopefully that allows our clients to serve as leaders to attaining their own rights.

    • What would it mean for nonprofit organizations to so dramatically reconstitute their governance boards, Gallal? And what would the risks be, particularly re: their ability to be effective in engaging with other targets (e.g. decision makers), if organizations were to purge their leadership of those without such an authentic connection to the issues and the work? What would it take to make this happen?

  20. I have noticed this scenario playing out more often than not, unfortunately. The “we know whats best” mentality of social services organizations and coalitions is undoubtedly troubling. Rarely have I witnessed clients playing a role in program design and development, decision making, etc. Further, leadership teams rarely interact with clients and therefore, I think, make poor advocates. I recognize directors are often busy, however, its paramount to the work they are doing to remain connected to clients. I appreciate this story and feel it’s in line with my most substantial take away from this semester thus far. In that, people are the experts of their own life and the center for developing solutions to their problems. I hope to encourage the agencies at which I currently work to incorporate more client input and participation, an action I’m sure will result in better outcomes for everyone.

    • What ideas do you have for how to encourage/facilitate more client participation in your organization? Have you experimented with anything so far? If so, what have you tried, and how has it been received? Are there any ‘bright spots’, in terms of staff who do a particularly good job empowering client leadership, or examples of when the organization has successfully taken these steps? What can you learn from these victories?

  21. Wow, how impactful that post was for me because it validates the same concerns I have and the same things I have tried to express in my employment over the years. I have worked in social service agencies surrounding domestic violence and child welfare for almost 20 years. It seems like a life time. I have always, always, followed my heart and my gut and tried to use my words to express the concerns that I was seeing and hearing from the clients I worked with. It is devastating when the agencies that we are working in propose to help, empower, advocate for our clients, but instead look more towards the “safe” routes so they can continue to follow their mission statements. It is mostly about appeasing the funders and ensuring that financial assistance continues to come in to keep services available. During the course of this semester I can admit that I have earned a new respect for my executive director, but I also can still see the ways in which agencies do a disservice to their clients. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can all continue to get our own personal needs met (funders want what they want) and allow for clients to get their direct needs met while also learning ways to engage in the community, help clients find a productive way to speak for themselves and change policy. It’s hard, true, but those that are passionate, driven and also capable to bend a little can always get things done. I have to testify in court a lot for my job. Court for some is not fun, it’s anxiety driven, you have to prepare and prepare for something unexpected. Defense attorneys can be AWUL, but they are just doing their jobs well when they are being at their worst. I love court! I thrive on being in court and testifying to what I know, what I’ve done, but I also see it as a game. There will always be someone waiting to make you look bad, or look like you’ve failed at your job, to make you doubt yourself. What those people don’t expect is for you to keep your head up, stay calm and defend yourself in a way that is professional, graceful and ethical. That is how I view my role as a social worker and that is how I anticipate I will work as an administrator. You have to be able to be vulnerable, acknowledge when you are wrong, show that you can learn and also stand your ground in a way that others can respect when you are working to empower, encourage and engage in your clients and the community you serve. I hope that this guest blogger keeps fighting the good fight and knows that they are supported by the those of us who are fighting along side even if we don’t actually know each other’s names or faces. Thank you for your openness and honesty and I hope that you are receiving encouragement, peace and love from others!

    • Thank you so much for this, Brandy! I can really picture you in court, and I am so glad that your clients have you as their representative. I really appreciate how you articulated your simultaneous regard for your director and the challenges she faces, while finding ways that the organization might approach its work differently, in order to better meet your clients’ needs. That can be a crucial part of your strategy for change, I think–demonstrating to leadership that you understand the constraints, while making the case for policies and strategies that more completely align with your objectives. I look forward to continuing to see where your career takes you; I know it will mean great things for the populations with which you work.

  22. This blog post brings up the conflict between administration and social workers, and between advocates presenting a sympathetic controlled image of something and presenting the reality. This situation really shows the fear that organizations and advocates have of losing support and presenting an image that is not “worthy” of future support. Here the coalitions and organizations should be the one’s embracing stories that relay the reality of people lives rather than attempting to pick and choose what victims are “perfect” in order to present the most sympathetic image. The coalition in this example is not respecting the voices of survivors, the women that they are advocating for, because they think these voices will not further their goal. This represents a disconnect between this coalition/organization and the people they are trying to serve. The more disconnected the coalition and organization are from clients the worse job they will do at advocating and working for these clients. It’s ironic to me that agencies specific presentation of their work and the people they serve to get funding often reinforces stereotypes that hurt an agency’s ability to do their work. My past practicum at catholic charities developed an emergency assistance department a few years before I got there. They had very specific grant based requirements to give out utility and rental assistance that disqualified most applicants. These requirements were totally a judgement on the worthiness of an applicant for assistance. Sure they were able to say they served this specific population with their funding but they also left behind the majority of those that came to them for help. Agencies should figure out away where they are representing their clients in an honest realistic way and be able to get funding. The first step to making this happen is to educate the public on the reality of the problem– rather than shut down this education like the coalition in this situation did.

    • It’s absolutely true, Katy, that there are real dangers when organizations act in ways other than entirely consistent with authentic representation of their clients’ interests. One of the key points of this post, though, is something that I think we do need to grapple with as social workers–what if the organization really thinks that their strategy is the one that will result in successful change? And, if that change is in clients’ best interest–and more likely if the organization works its strategy, rather than clients’–then what are the ethical dilemmas involved? I mean, it’s not that much of a dilemma if an organization is just taking a shortcut or seizing power for itself, but what if a case for ‘beneficence’ can be made? Does that change anything?

  23. Over the years, I have pondered about whether it is best to create change as an outsider, or to create change by working within a system or organization. There are benefits to both approaches. Creating change from the outside, such as through grassroots advocacy or through litigation, can be effective, but also difficult to implement and sustain. Creating change by joining and working within an organization can often feel like being inside the belly of the beast. It would probably be more difficult and would take longer to change the beast, but when it is done effectively it can produce long-term benefits for the many individuals we intend to serve.

    As social workers, we need to be aware of how different levels of practice affect our clients. A macro-level change to a system is usually (hopefully) intended to benefit many people, but it could also have a negative impact for a few individuals. We need to think ahead and prepare for how we will address them. Working with individual clients will probably do little to change the system, but this type of practice could have an immense impact on those individuals’ lives.

    Sadly, I am not surprised that those in power did not want to hear the client’s “uncontrolled message”. They probably wanted to hear a clear, easily understood and sympathetic message, without the murky and complicated issues our clients face every day. Their intentions may have been honorable, as they wanted the client’s story to advance their agenda of creating awareness of domestic violence. It is a great disservice to censor clients’ stories, though, if they want authenticity. Some people just can’t handle the truth.

    I believe that giving clients the opportunity to have a voice is incredibly empowering, and should be offered as much as can reasonably be done. Through sharing their “uncontrolled” messages, the individuals we serve are given the opportunity to take control of their murky and complicated lives again and advocate for themselves. Opening up leadership opportunities for these clients within organizations would be even more empowering. Heck, social workers might even work themselves out of their jobs, which I believe would be the ultimate sign of success.

  24. This is interesting to consider, Ruth–I’m not sure that creating change from the inside does take longer–sometimes, it can be a struggle even to gain access, as an outsider, when those working from within have a ‘seat at the table’, at least…and I’m not sure what criteria should guide these decisions, either–is it expediency? Efficacy? Or less ambiguous ethical decision-making? Can we maximize all of these constraints, or are we always having to make trade-offs?

  25. Advocating for change brings about many ethical considerations. This is true when advocating within systems, as well as outside of systems. Unique to advocating for change within systems is the issue of administrative resistance and control, the ability to be an advocate while still fulfilling your other job responsibilities, and the threat of losing funding. An organization that receives federal and/or state funding might feel that advocating for systemic changes might put their funding at risk, which could contribute to administrative resistance and control. Maybe this pressure does not dissuade an organization from advocating, but instead influences how they advocate. It could create a similar situation to the one presented above. An organization that controls the content and delivery of the message.

    I think a direct service agency that is committed to advocating for systemic changes, especially to involving those directly affected, is critical. I think it can strengthen their rapport with clients. They also have access to both those directly affected, as well as other leaders and potential key stakeholders.

    However, I do believe it is also important that those with no skin in the game are also part of the advocacy efforts. An independent, impartial voice is important, especially if the administration of the direct service agency is controlling the messages of those affected.

    Important skills to be an effective advocate are the ability to listen, to be patient (as large systemic change can be slow), and to be persuasive. If you believe that those directly affected should be involved, and that the ability to authentically tell their story is not only right but will be most effective, then you need to be able to convince those in power that you are right.

    Being strategic may also be important. It may come from a well-intentioned place that the agency wanted to “censor” the message of their clients. They felt that their strategy would be more effective. I think there is no way to know this for sure than without approaching it both ways and seeing what produces the intended effects. Or you might be able to eliminate or at least reduce this dichotomy if you involve those directly affected in the strategic planning of the advocacy process. Coming to a consensus and creating your strategy together can eliminate these conflicts.

    • Thank you for this thoughtful response, Lucy. I think this is the heart of much of our anxiety–“the threat of losing funding”–I mean, we face resistance from many quarters, but it’s only when advocating where we work, that the stakes include loss of livelihood (usually; certainly, this is always a risk when there’s a chance of incarceration, as a result of our activism). I appreciate what you said, too, about the importance of having an outside voice, and the very real chance that those who advocate from a different perspective may be more effective than those with perceived compromises. I look forward to seeing how you view these trade-offs at the end of your year of advocacy, too. I wonder how your experiences may shape your perspective?

  26. What a powerful post! I can relate to some of her experiences through the work I’ve done in the past at mental health agencies. It seems that there are times that we as social workers face a dilemma that the agenda of the agency we work for and the agenda of the clients we serve are at odds. In the example above, these survivors needs to have their stories heard and understood. In contrast, the agency wanted to maintain and control the perception of domestic violence, and ultimately the face of the coalition. When organizations do this, they are often maintaining cultural norms and stereotypes which undermine the very cause of the organization. As social workers, I think it is our job to remind the agencies we work for what our clients needs are. I think the best way to navigate this conflict is sometimes to simply ask clients what their needs are whether they feel those needs are being met. Establishing some kind of routine meetings with agency administrators and agency clients to conduct a sort of needs assessment or “check in” could create a venue to have open and direct dialogue surrounding some of these issues. This could be a great way to involve clients in the decision making process and keep administrators connected with clients.

    • I can totally relate, Christina, to the connection to mental health centers–I see this with children a lot, too, that we want to ‘control’ what they say, or how they present their message, often in ways that really silence their authentic voice. I think there’s a need for social workers to reflect back to colleagues/administrators what we’re seeing, how it feels, and what it looks like, too, since I do think that, at least for some, it can be hard to differentiate between trying to ‘prepare’ someone to take on an advocacy role, and really trying to script them. Those aren’t comfortable conversations, certainly, but they are really important ones.

  27. Wow. What a harrowing yet accurate depiction of the current state of women’s rights. Systematic oppression, shaming, and controlling of the narrative are too common of barriers which prevent survivors from ending the cycle of re-victimization and it is disappointing to hear story after story which highlights social service agencies – or other helping professions – shirking away from addressing said barriers. It is absolutely disgusting how legislators or other influential members of the policymaking sector specifically attempt to wrestle away power from women whenever the opportunity arises. Personally, I feel the ethical considerations implied through this blog post are fairly clear cut: there is a victimized population (i.e. women) who are literally in or have been in some degree of danger, so any decent person’s priority should be to offer assistance to this population or at the very least validate the struggles the population has been through, ultimately empowering women in the process. I would argue for education being a key skill in addressing the issues of violence against women, but as was the case with the example of the Coalition, many influential policymakers often do not want to be educated due to the at best misaligned and at worst arrogant belief that promoting women’s rights will negatively impact the livelihood of the men supporting women (even acknowledging these concerns, what is so wrong with conceding some “power” to promote equity among the sexes??). To me, this blog post illustrates the flaws with our culture surrounding women’s rights—even agencies which claim to want to help people fear losing funding or support from influential members of society to the point the agencies would rather not help people. I do concede, however, that the issue is much more nuanced than I am describing (I mean, losing funding could directly affect the agency’s ability to provide community assistance in general). I would then argue there is systemic bias against women (or anyone who is not a white, Christian male) in the upper echelons of society which contribute a noticeable portion of money and support to social service agencies, meaning if a social worker wanted to combat these social injustices, the risk of losing funding is always going to be present. The situation is a Catch-22: either you help women and other marginalized populations and risk losing money or support, or you keep funders/sponsors happy and lose sight of your mission as a social worker. Granted, I do not believe this perceived Catch-22 should be a justification for inaction in any capacity. As social workers, we take an oath to help victimized and marginalized populations and as people I believe we have a propensity to strengthen our communities. Whether regarding women’s rights or social justice in general, even if solving an issue is complicated on the macro-level, we can still work on the micro-level. Perhaps that is what is necessary at this stage of societal evolution: empowering women and other victimized populations individually or at the community level through local advocacy, because as far as I am concerned, standing by and doing nothing is simply not an option.

  28. Does your assessment of this situation change at all, Josh, with the information that most of the key players were also women? Maybe not, but I do think it’s important for us to reflect on the extent to which these power dynamics have become so entrenched in our society that we can perpetuate them even without consciously realizing it. Indeed, in many cases, they can appear to operate as headless systems, almost invisibly, even though there are of course individuals putting them in motion. As a man, how do you operate within a female-dominated profession, in recognition of these gender imbalances and how they play out in our organizations?

    • Personally – and maybe I have been going about addressing gender imbalances the wrong way – unless there is an explicit reason to be referencing inequalities among the sexes and advocating for someone (for instance, anyone openly shaming or belittling a woman in my organization, which honestly I can say I have not witnessed), I try not to let someone’s gender influence how I treat them and extend the same professional courtesies to all I interact with. My thought is treating anyone the same – regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. – will help normalize equity on a micro-level, which I think it an important step in achieving true equity on a macro-level and is also something I can do as an individual. So this thinking also informs my answer to your first question: while slightly more appalling that the key players from this post were women, my assessment remains more or less the same, at least the perception of the Catch-22 situation. I suppose – and this truly is just a string of thoughts – on one hand I do not understand why women would actively act against promoting gender equality, but as I touched upon in my first post, I also realize the situation is not black-and-white and there are certainly other factors influencing the decision-making processes of this situations’ stakeholders. As a man, sometimes (and truly more often than I care to admit) I wonder what I really can do to promote gender equality with all the stakeholders and different nuanced factors influencing the overall situation; however, I truly believe standing by and doing nothing is simply not an option, so even if I may question the extent by which my actions actually benefit gender equality, I do something. I have to do something.

  29. Jorden Matney-McCorkle

    It was so disheartening to hear the reaction of the coalition to the survivor’s story. As social workers, we know that the stories of survivors many times are not prim and proper. I agree that if we are to make strides when it comes to social reform the true stories of survivors need to be shared to paint the accurate picture of the problem.

    In situations like the one that you shared, social workers often face the ethical dilemma between commitment to the client and commitment to the agency. Being forced by your employing agency to stop working on a program that you feel best would benefit the client in the long run creates a difficult decision. Social workers all too often face this type of dilemma in their place of work.

    These advocacy tasks present a unique set of challenges. The agency telling you not to devote any amount of time to a program that focuses on presenting the stories of victims. I would continue to stress the importance of sharing the true stories of survivors to both the agency and the coalition. Also working with other agencies within the coalition to put pressure on them by stressing the importance of these stories. I would also try to find another way to share these stories that may be less “threatening” in the eyes of the coalition. Maybe offering the stories to be presented to the legislators in a “planned out” way such as previewing the stories so that the coalition is aware of what will be shared.

    • You have some really solid approaches outlined here, Jorden–a mix of finding ways around the challenge, by working within coalitions, reducing the tensions, by increasing the clients’ advocacy capacity and efficacy, and using your own relational power within the organization to help people reexamine their opposition. Thank you for sharing your great ideas!

  30. Chloe Bridge-Quigley

    I think this article sheds light on the fact that even within a group there can be privileges that many take for granted. The women running the coalition and advocating might not realize all of the underlying themes that different women might face due to skin color, ethnicity, and so on.These situations are something that I am not looking forward to confronting in my career, so I appreciate the time to evaluation different situations now.

    It seems like this social worker is having to confront the reality of being loyal to her agency and wanting to lobby for the people she wants to serve. An ethical consideration for the social worker seems to be whether to keep advocating for the people directly affected to be the main voices of change, or to let a coalition keep “strategically building relationships” and “plan legislation”. This seems to be a disservice to those directly affected because they are not allowed to evaluate the legislation a coalition wants to push even though they will bring valuable insight.

    There is no other choice from the social worker than to continue to advocate for directly affected women to be able to be the primary voice on issues in the coalition. The relationship building with people in power is a good skill, but then the coalition needs to bring a woman to introduce to the person as well. Maybe having the woman testify for the first time when hardly anyone knew they were doing it is a tricky situation, but one that can happen when people are on board. I know in the agency I am placed in we do try to coach people’s stories so that they sound good to the majority, but even that is a slippery slope. Why can’t people speak their truth and be their authentic self after they have been told for so long to not speak up for themselves? I am not sure what the balance is between these two tasks, but I look forward to seeing it how it can influence legislation as my agency does this kind of work next session.

    • This is an important point, Chloe, to highlight the role of intersectionality in this dilemma, and the need for the social worker to attend to the dynamics of power and oppression within the work, in addition to those that create and perpetuate the existence of the problem. Approaching it from an intersectional lens obviously doesn’t tell us precisely how to move forward, but it does help to highlight the biases that can keep us from really ‘seeing’ each other, and explain how we can find ourselves confronting these kinds of entrenched conflicts.
      Do you have examples that illustrate how your practicum agency navigates these tensions? Or do they even have them–in other words, is the organization’s culture such that clients are clearly positioned at the center of the advocacy, or do they sometimes struggle with figuring out how to be strategic and authentic?

  31. Stephanie Stauffer

    I feel that I have experienced many moments in a variety of organizations where there is a fear of advocacy. I have been told before that I should not participate in policy advocacy, because it is not a part of my job or a part of the agency’s mission. One time, I advocated for an organizational policy change and was told “what we are doing is legal, so there is no reason to change”, even though the policy was potentially harmful for clients. I really struggled with this because it seems like an assumption that organizations and work with clients can function in a vacuum. However, we know that there are systems that work to create the barriers for our clients. And some clients are affected by more barriers based on their intersecting identities.
    If my job as a social worker is to correct these systems of oppression, then I cannot do that without becoming involved at some level in policy advocacy. Also, disallowing clients to tell their own stories is an act of silencing. We cannot silence clients without taking part in oppression. I think this comes back to what we discussed in class- sometimes it feels like an ethical dilemma, but really it is just a gross or uncomfortable situation. A culture of advocacy is definitely something I bring up in interviews now. It is difficult to come into an organization where there is a culture of silence. I also ask about how clients’ voices are heard and used to guide the organization.
    If I found myself in this position today, I would come to the table with the organization’s mission, connect advocacy to the objectives of the organization, and tie it all together with literature about what works. Finding allies in the organization and starting with small changes can also go a long way. When you talk about organization culture change it does not usually happen overnight, but it has to start somewhere: usually with a well-meaning question and discussion.

    • I love everything about this response–the reminder that we begin to change organizational cultures by holding up mirrors so that people can see the implications of their actions, and by asking hard questions, including from the first moments of interaction with organizational systems, and the articulation of concrete questions you pose and how those can spark institutional self-reflection. Thank you for sharing this comment, and mainly for posing these challenges and leaving ‘ripples’ that will result in an organizational landscape more conducive to honoring people’s authentic voices than the world ‘as it is’ today.

  32. This was really interesting to read 8 years later now that we’ve seen the momentum that women have gained by authentically speaking their own truth with movements like #metoo. There is still such a long way to go but I think these genuine, personal stories from so many women have shifted public opinion around “women’s issues” such as sexual and domestic violence. I wonder if the administration of this agency would see this conflict in a different light now.

    This would be a difficult conflict for me to confront because I am very committed to empowering the people social work agencies serve and I believe that their voices have been silenced and/or sanitized for too long. However, I understand the pragmatism and risk avoidance of the coalition in wanting to push a consistent, well-planned and vetted message that they believe will move policymakers to act in the interest of the populations they serve. I think a compromise could have been reached wherein the agency and/or coalition could work with survivors in crafting and sharing their stories to avoid harmful messaging while still empowering them by better preparing them to offer testimony and answer questions of policymakers.

    I am thankful that consumer empowerment and storytelling is an issue my practicum placement agency takes seriously and proactively discusses and strategizes around. My field instructor is very cognizant of the way older adults are routinely infantilized and talked over about issues that affect them and she is committed to doing this work in a collaborative rather than paternalist manner. KABC seeks consumer input and encourages consumers to tell their stories to policymakers and the public, but they also help craft the stories and connect them to their own messaging. I think it’s important and moving to hear genuine stories from the people affected by an issue and I hope helping them present those stories in the most effective manner doesn’t take away from the authenticity of the story or the feelings of empowerment for the individual. I think those are important aspects to keep in mind while helping social work clients self-advocate.

    • Thank you for the reflection about KABC, Whitney–it’s an important reminder that these dynamics of oppression and silencing don’t occur just in domestic violence, but in so many of the sectors and organizations where we work. And that’s a really excellent point about the passage of time and how much may have changed in terms of how this organization–and others–see these trade-offs between pragmatism and empowerment. It would be good to go back and see how this social worker experiences this context today; however, the last I knew, she had moved away from IPV work, burned out by the secondary trauma and needing to find a healthier space for her practice.

  33. At my previous practicum, my field instructor once told me, “clients are the best experts of their lives.” This is something I remind myself in almost everything I do as a social worker, even at the macro level. It is our responsibility to provide our clients with the support and tools to empower them to address their own needs. As the guest poster, I too would have assumed a self-proclaimed client-centered organization would be on board with a survivor led advocacy group.

    There are many ethical considerations in this situation. As social workers, we have a commitment to the organization that employees us, but also to our clients. While it may be easy to tell this woman to leave the organization because their orders interfere with her ethical practices, her clients would no longer have this dedicated and passionate advocate. This could huge blow to women who have already been disregarded by the systems, and possibly even loved ones, that are “supposed” to be on their side.

    My first approach would be to request time to educate leadership on the broad range of advocacy activities outside of lobbying and how these activities have the possibility to benefit the client and the organization. I would also share various case studies of similar organizations that found success through integrating advocacy into their current operations and programs. Although, it sounds like there is more to this organization’s resistance than simply lack of advocacy knowledge. Reliance on certain grant funding may be one issue. I would try to get to the root cause of this resistance through open-communication (trying to understand leadership’s perspective) and requesting to implement small changes that would move in the direction of a survivor-led advocacy group.

  34. This blog post was very moving! However, I found myself becoming angry while reading through her journey regarding advocacy and doing the right thing. I enjoyed at the beginning how she stated she spent a lot of time in “time out” with stacks of write ups labeled “insubordinate” for doing what she vowed to do…advocate for the most vulnerable of people.
    My current practicum is at a foster care agency, but, my last year’s practicum was at Community Health Center of SEK, where there were multiple advocacy groups that consisted of people LIVING the life, or nightmare, of the very thing they were seeking change for. There was a support group, led by a peer mentor who was employed and had themselves experienced the topic of the group, for addiction, sexual assault survivors, family of hospice patients, people suffering terminal illnesses, depression, or any type of mental illness. It is easy to tell someone “hey, go see a therapist to move past this trauma” but the fact of the matter is, sometimes the best therapist we can seek help from is others who truly know how we feel and what we need, which is why victim advocacy groups are so vital to change and healing.
    While I can see where the agency is coming from regarding wanting to be careful how they frame the outreach efforts due to the strict “no lobbying” policy written in the grant that pays her salary, however, also educating the leadership on ways their goal of an advocacy led survivor group could take off outside of lobbying efforts. I also find it odd and alarming that she had even presented the idea within her plan to contact the grant funder to discuss her vision and passion for this program, but was told she could not actively patriciate in the conversations.
    Education is key in changing the way society victim blames women who have experienced violence, in any form. I find it truly disgusting that when survivors were encouraged to attend the advocacy day, they were accused of essentially being “too raw” and real with their stories, so much so that it alarmed the coalition and they had the audacity to turn around and blame the survivor for her “uncontrollable emotions.” If anything, especially as a social worker and women, I would have been enraged at hearing her story, and used that fire to push forward for change and push the idea of the advocacy group forward.
    People need to realize how big of an issue violence against women really is. It is not something to be sugar coated. It is not something to beat around the bush about. It is not something to ignore. Our dedication is to our clients, and when we put their feelings and needs aside for our own political or community reputation and gain…we no longer are doing our job as social workers. We need to find ways to service our clients while also maintaining ethical practice of our organization.

  35. Really important points, Morgan, about the gendered nature of perception of emotion, how quick we are, often, to judge women (and, I’d argue, people of color) for acting in ways perceived as outside of the ‘norms’, and how often those kinds of judgments are used to marginalize, isolate, and disempower those whose experiences really should be at the center. Thank you for sharing your reactions.

  36. Wow, so grateful for the perspective of this post and so many of the points made, namely about how her specific line of work helps survivors “craft, draft, and tell” their stories for the purposes of healing, so why not help them craft stories “to connect and correct the larger injustices?”

    It seems she faces the difficult consideration of whether to fully comply with the agency’s direction or with empowering clients to advocate for critical change. I think she is doing the right thing by, even though she was taken off the project, continually pushing for the coalition to institute a survivor-led advocacy group. At the end of the day, the organization can be part of lobbying activities to a certain level and denying the desire of survivors to have a channel through which to tell their stories to legislators denying them service and their dignity and worth to give voice to systemic oppression.

    Her comment about how the organization was misinformed about the parameters of how nonprofits can lobby is important, and I am finding fairly common. Several organizations in a short-lived coalition considering a ballot initiative I observed this summer were hesitant to financially contribute to the campaign efforts or offer an official endorsement even though passing the initiative would have directly benefited their clients. In retrospect, I am wondering if they too were misinformed, or if they thought identifying the amount of lobbying effort for the IRS was too much trouble. It is important for macro social workers to understand these rules and be able to communicate them to organization leadership. After all, if someone in a marginalized position cannot contribute to systemic change through an agency that claims to center their needs in direct service, the agency may not be understanding its place within larger systems.

  37. Thanks for this, Hayden–I, too, remain so grateful that she wrote this up and let me use it. There’s so much that’s still relevant in this piece. I wonder if you or any of the organizations you worked with on that ballot idea are going to be on the webinar I’m doing Thursday re: nonprofit advocacy rules in election years? If not, we’re recording it, and I’d encourage you to share it with folks. Certainly, here as in many cases, there were dynamics other than concern about legality at play, but to the extent to which we can counter some of the defenses and obstacles posed, we can either possibly dismantle them or, at least, gain valuable insights into the true nature of the opposition.

  38. Jumping on the band wagon and must say I loved this blog.
    I appreciated the author always questioning authority and navigating power dynamics to best support the survivors to tell their stories and advocate. I found it interesting that the agency didn’t like the stories survivors told, they’re a domestic violence agency and didn’t like the uncontrolled stories of survivors ?Too messy? Domestic violence is messy. Many state laws are archaic, women are not protected, children are not safeguarded either. All stories should be welcomed or in the least honored and respected. DV is a tough field for me and I realized a long time ago it’s not something I desire to work within everyday. I am a survivor.
    Thinking about advocacy that comes from a client base as it relates to my work, I think about the RYAC group for child welfare. RYAC is the regional youth advisory counsel, which also makes up the State Youth Advisory Counsel. This is a wonderful organization which not only helps to shape policy at our agency level, but also has the opportunity to advocate to Kansas legislators. What is lacking perhaps in this is the space for parents to have an organized body of influence in order to better advocate for their needs and speak to their experiences with navigating the child welfare system.
    At my practicum at Big Brothers Big Sisters St. Joseph, one of my tasks is to develop a youth advisory board. We’re going to call it the “Little Committee.” Little’s from other BBBS organizations have become involved in advocacy, recruitment, and even development by speaking at fundraising events. I’m tasked with surveying the kids involved in BBBS to gauge interest in leadership group work, and to go from there.
    I feel that client led advocacy groups are the best way to find out what works best and what doesn’t. Client centered organizations with client led advocacy groups lines right up with the code of ethics and would be the most desirable advocacy work for this social worker.

    • First, Dana, thank you for this response. Also, I would be more than happy to talk with you about the committee you’re developing, to see how I might be able to help you think through some initial plans. I do that kind of work for nonprofit organizations breaking into advocacy, and I’d love to see what you’re thinking. In terms of the experience the post represents, I don’t even know it’s that the organization “didn’t like” the survivors’ stories–in some ways, that seems almost easier to deal with, since it would be so obviously in conflict with the organization’s mission, so as to be really indefensibly unethical. Instead, I think it was more a question of not knowing what to do with the stories, as they tried to reconcile the demands and expectations of funders and policymakers–and their belief that they needed to be ‘players’ in the political landscape if they were going to get what they needed for clients–with survivors’ desire to authentically claim and deploy their own stories. That’s a clearer case of conflicting aims and nearly irreconcilable differences that, then, sets up practical and ethical dilemmas for the worker in this case–and for us all.

  39. This blog was so accurate in many different ways! I think the points made by the author about the difficulties she ran into when trying to advocate for her clients is something many social workers engaging in lobbying or advocacy work encounter. I, too, often find myself questioning/challenging authority not just because, but because I want to make a change for the people i’m serving. My agency struggles with connecting their clients with their decision makers and, in turn, clients feel as if their voices/opinions don’t matter. When we do provide them with an opportunity to be heard, we selectively pick a handful (if they even choose to engage in the conversation) of people to represent or speak on behalf of an entire population. The ones that are normally picked are people who the agency/organization knows for a fact they will only have positive things to report. We rarely EVER offer someone who has had a bad experience with our organization to speak to the public or on behalf of the agency and almost shun the ones who have negative things, rather than learning from and building on their thoughts. I think another contributing factor to this advocacy discrepancy is the media. Agencies are afraid of allowing people from within to do any kind of lobbying or advocacy work because of the attention it may bring. Organizations do not trust their workers to say or do the right thing when in the spot light, which could be detrimental to the agency as a whole.

    • I have to say, Alex, I laughed out loud when I read your reassurance that you’re not challenging authority ‘just because’, but in clients’ best interests–always a worthy fight! More substantively, thank you for sharing this reflection about whose client voices we’re willing to listen to and highlight and, then, what that means for not only what others hear about our organizations, but also how we’re perceived, as largely transparent and open to critique…or not. And, finally, thank you for elevating the fact that this selective listening isn’t only about suppressing clients’ voices, but also workers’…which has important implications for worker well-being and for organizational change (or resistance to this). Thank you!

  40. Wow! From everything I have learned so far about advocacy has pushed for personal client or victim stories being important. It shocks me an advocacy organization would have not thought to bring a victim before, and then say they did not want that to happen again. Letting victims use their voices can be empowering! Silencing or controlling the victim just puts this organization as part of the systemic abuse. An “uncontrolled message” is exactly what should be getting back to the capitol! Abuse is ugly and a victim’s story or response to it should not need to be constructed in a way a specific agency sees fit.

    I know a lot of advocates are not social worker so they do not have the same ethics to follow. As a social worker, I would always be more concerned about my client’s needs first. The staff of this organization may be experienced on specific types of advocacy techniques but need to acknowledge that they are not experts on abuse, the victims are. If this organization is client-centered as it claims, hearing the victim’s stories and opinions on domestic abuse should be the first priority.

    Also, the organization not being aware of lobbying rules and regulations is concerning. Proper education on this issue would be helpful.

    • Yes, Brianna–so many issues here! I’m not sure that the ethical imperatives here are entirely clear, though–on the one hand, certainly a social worker shouldn’t ‘silence’ a client’s story; on the other hand, we have obligations to our organization, and there may be real risks (although they may not be that real, so that’s something that should be interrogated here) to the organization’s funding/standing if the client-led advocacy seems to go in directions supporters don’t, actually, support. Your point that so much of this seems to hinge on perceived loss of control (as false and fleeting as that is, really) seems to pinpoint the heart of the dilemma though: when we cling to the illusion that we can script reality, we’re setting ourselves and, even more crucially, our clients, up for serious failure.

  41. I have also experienced reluctance to incorporate certain types of advocacy work in my current practicum. My advocacy work has been temporarily postponed because leadership has decided to implement a specific strategy that requires the work of a few rather than the voices of many. It reminds me a lot of the “controlled messaging” that was mentioned in this blog post.
    I understand why the strategy is being used. I understand the end goal. I do not agree with the means. Like the guest blogger, I assumed that incorporating the many stories and voices of those served would be a natural way to share the story, but that is not the case. It seems like advocacy work in many organizations, not just in my agency or the agency mentioned in this post, is done by leaders who have the mindset of “we know what is best”.
    I could be wrong, but if that is the case, I strongly disagree. From my experience, many individuals who lead advocacy efforts have experience and expertise in the litigation, legislation, and/or service provision side, but they often have not lived the experience of those who receive services. No matter how many needs assessments are done, it is impossible to understand the various effects of the social problem. And censoring the real experiences in order to create clean messaging just because it works seems unethical. It reshapes a problem and does not give the full scope of what needs to be addressed or why. I think our guest blogger should be applauded for the continuous push to incorporate the survivors’ voices, because it is the only way to ensure needs are met and their stories are appropriately honored, even if it isn’t deemed as palatable by decision makers.

    • Wow, Catie–thank you for sharing this. Is this experience related to your efforts last week to try to get a broad set of voices to coalesce around shared messaging, or were those primarily partner organizations, rather than service constituents? Are there particular stories or voices or messages the leadership seems concerned about ‘getting out’, or do you think it’s more the fear of the unknown? Are there allies within the organization who might help you strategize how you could make some inroads? What are your thoughts around having clients make a direct push to seize their own storytelling (risky, inasmuch as there might be pushback, but sometimes, the only way leadership will budge)? I’d be happy to talk through some of this if it would be helpful. It sounds pretty fraught.

  42. Her final statement is so accurate – for true change, “the people who are most affected by the problem must be at the center of righting the wrongs.” Violence against women is a social issue and public health crisis that society is only just starting to acknowledge, and its complexities and lasting impact on the individual, family, and society will never completely be understood if the survivors’ experiences are silenced. I am surprised by the coalition’s reaction, and I wonder if it might be different today – 9 years later. I feel for this survivor who spoke and was shamed. What she went through was not her fault, and she did not deserve to be shamed when her story did not fit with the “strategy” of the coalition. I like to think progress has been made in this recent decade with the reauthorization of VAWA and passing of other survivor protections – yet I have seen other instances of silencing the stories in exchange for statistics. Statistics don’t tell the full story, they simplify something that is truly complex. To understand the destructive nature of intimate partner and other domestic violence, the stories must be told. Of course it will seem “uncontrolled” and will not be an easy one to hear, but survivors cannot be shamed into keeping their experiences to themselves. I hope this writer found on outlet for the voices of the survivors, if not at the former organization, then in some other or on her own path. The change movement needs insubordinates as herself.

    • Great points, Erin–I actually checked in with her to see how well she thinks this reflection has ‘stood the test of time’, and she said that she thinks it’s probably true that things have changed, maybe even pretty considerably, but she could think of a few examples in the past couple years where, even if there wasn’t an official statement discouraging survivors’ voices, there were at least murmurs and some obvious discomfort with display of ‘raw’ emotion…even when it was evident that such a display was what clients were feeling and, further, what they felt they needed to live, in those moments. Thanks for weighing in on this, and for the reminder of the potency of ‘insubordination’.

  43. I am what the kids would call, livid. This is absolutely outrageous to say the least. But what is most frustrating is just how common this is. Lobbyists and politicians act as if having human connection is the worst thing to ever happen to anyone. But when it comes down to it, the only real way to make the change we need is to get people affected by these issues into positions of power. Sad that that is the way it has to be, but since nothing else has worked, it’s the only option left. It just happens to be a slower process than we would like because it does ultimately mean a lot of responsibility. It is understandable that someone would shy away from such responsibility, especially if they did not have the funding or support they needed. But I have hope that we can integrate our way into positions of power and tear down the establishment that keeps so many people down systematically.

  44. Are there examples you see, Clayton, where people have been able to make these inroads and, then, leverage them for transformation? I think it can be so easy to get discouraged; are there bright spots that give you hope? I love a good ‘speaking truth to power’ story!

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