On being a megaphone

*I’m still on maternity leave this month and, so, revising and republishing some of my favorite posts over the past two years. This whole idea of “advocacy on behalf of” instead of “alongside” is still one of my obsessions, and so I thought we could all use a chance to think anew about the kinds of megaphones we want to be.

People would often make comments about how my work was ‘giving voice to the voiceless’. This might sound romantic, of sorts, but I usually found it offensive. The people with whom I had the honor to work are not/were not voiceless. They may not have spoken much English, or always known exactly the ‘right’ words to say, and they may not have had the kind of power that ensured that they were always listened to, but they are far from voiceless. I would usually respond that my job was really to be a megaphone, to amplify the voices of those with whom I was working so that they would be heard, and really listened to.

You, too, can be a megaphone.

In advising social workers about how to do advocacy alongside those with whom we work (our ‘clients’), I almost inevitably hear at least a couple, “our clients can’t be expected to…” objections. Without trying to sound too outraged, I point out that most of my advocacy work was with limited English proficient, largely undocumented, Latino immigrants with very limited formal education, many of whom were also underage. Honestly, if they could be effective and articulate spokespeople on their own behalf in a political system overtly hostile to their interests, it’s hard to imagine a client population group that is completely incapable of participating in their own advocacy! Conversely, however, I react strongly when I see organizations shoving their participants out in the spotlight with little preparation.. What we need is an approach that is neither paternalistic nor exploitative, but that seeks to provide people with informed consent as we assist them to develop advocacy roles that meet their own goals for personal empowerment and, to the greatest extent possible, also fit within our campaigns. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, from an ethical and a strategic standpoint, because I have had the horrible experience of having clients experience negative consequences of their advocacy, and I’ve also had clients push back because they didn’t feel that they were being given enough control over the advocacy that affected them.

If you are currently engaged in a strategy to amplify the voices of those with whom you work, what’s working for you? What resistance are you encountering from your colleagues and allies? What are you witnessing in terms of the impact on those you serve? What advice do you wish to share?

The following lessons learned apply to work involving service participants/affected populations in legislative advocacy, community organizing, and/or media work–anytime that you’re asking people to take on public roles that reveal something substantial about their own experience of a social problem. We cannot possibly (nor should we try to) sterilize this experience, stripping it of all vulnerability and risk, but neither should we blithely assume that our clients are as capable of absorbing these costs as we might be from a position of privilege. Advocacy can and should be transformative for all involved, but that transformation can be scary, and we have an ethical responsibility to walk with people on this journey.

  • Make no promises. You cannot possibly predict what the outcome of an individual’s courageous leap into advocacy will be, so don’t pretend to–people need to make the decisions associated with personal advocacy with a full understanding of the potential risks, and they can’t do that if the social worker they trust is busy glossing over them.
  • On the flip side, don’t try to protect people. We get into big trouble, ethically and in terms of promoting empowerment, when we make decisions ‘for (people’s) own good.’ You can’t know that your clients are too busy or too ill or too scared or too confused to participate in advocacy activities; your job is to raise their consciousness about how collective action could improve their lives, give them the tools they need to participate, and then let them make their own decisions about their involvement.
  • Model respect for your clients, and it’s more likely that others will respect them. The language that you use to describe people, the kinds of questions you’re willing to answer from reporters, the types of relationships you build with lawmakers will set a tone that can create a sort of ‘safe zone’, in which people know that you will not tolerate abuse of those with whom you’re working.
  • Remember that anonymity is never guaranteed, and comes with its own problems. I remember one reporter who wanted me to find an undocumented immigrant to put on the news, talking about his/her ‘decision to come to the U.S. illegally.’ He said that he knew that the immigrant would be afraid of being revealed, so he was ‘willing to use a voice distorter and to put the person in the shadows.’ I couldn’t really think of a worse way in which to portray undocumented immigrants–as shadowy, scary-sounding people who just willy-nilly ‘decide’ to come into the U.S. illegally. I told the reporter that I found that objectionable on many levels and that I couldn’t accommodate his request. Conversely, against my recommendation, I once had a client who wanted to use his full name and photo in a story about undocumented immigrants who can’t get driver’s licenses; he said that he wanted to show that undocumented people are ‘just like everyone else, except they don’t have papers,’ and he thought that hiding his name would suggest that he had ‘something to be ashamed of.’
  • Whenever possible, practice with people. It’s better if you ask the ugly/hard questions first, before the reporter or lawmaker. Give people a chance to experience a little bit of what it will feel like to be challenged. I worked with a young woman once who did several roleplays with me before her legislative testimony. The actual testimony experience was, in my eyes, horrible–she was accused of being a terrorist, interrupted several times, and told that she ‘wouldn’t be able to get a job anyway, so why bother (with college)?’ I hugged her afterwards and asked if she was okay. She smiled and said, ‘of course’ and pointed out that some of the committee members and one reporter were quite receptive to her testimony. And she was very proud of the fact that she had not cried!
  • Try to cultivate a habit of never speaking for people when they can speak for themselves. Sometimes media representatives and elected officials may prefer to talk to you, as a professional, than deal with people who can be emotional, hard to get a hold of, or (in my case) need an interpreter. If you consistently defer to those who are experts in their own lives, people will eventually get the message.
  • But, finally, don’t expect anyone to be a spokesperson for an entire group. It’s offensive and it can lead us down a very treacherous path of policymaking by anecdote; we all deserve better.

    One final story to bring this point home:
    I had been battling several members of one committee over our instate tuition bill; some were overtly hostile, and others were just very confused–they kept asking how students who don’t speak English would be able to go to college and whether these students would ever be able to fit in with U.S.-born peers. I was giving them facts and statistics and trying to answer all of their questions, but I was drowning. Then came the day of the first hearing. About 12 immigrant students, all of whom would be affected by this legislation, were there, some to give testimony and some just to watch. As the committee members filed in, the students were being teenagers–texting on their phones, talking with their friends, (in one case) doing their hair. The committee vice-chair turned to me and said, “so none of the students who would actually be affected by this legislation were able to be here today?” Confused, I answered, “No, they’re here–they’re sitting right there.” Her mouth dropped open. “But, Melinda,” she stammered, “they seem just like American kids.” Um, yeah, that’s the point. Those kids are far from voiceless, but they didn’t even have to really open their mouths to make a far greater impact that day than I had over the past several weeks. They just had to be themselves, and my job was just to give them a platform on which to do that–a megaphone, so to speak.

  • 4 responses to “On being a megaphone

    1. Pingback: Too vulnerable for empowerment « Social Exclusion,Marginalization & Resistance

    2. Pingback: My worst policy presentations | Classroom to Capitol

    3. Pingback: Twitted by melindaklewis

    4. Pingback: Anniversary Week: My favorites! | Classroom to Capitol

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