**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.