Can advocacy be taught? We try.

This semester, I am back teaching a class that has, over the years, been one of the most rewarding experiences in my academic career: Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice.

It’s controversial, I know, this idea that advocacy can be ‘taught’. I view social work practice the same way, though. Can we really ‘teach’ practice? Absent the context in which to apply the skills and the knowledge?

I view this class, then, as part building blocks–exposing students to some of the components of advocacy practice and, perhaps even more importantly, the resources to which they can turn when they need guidance and assistance in navigating advocacy–and part semester-long pep talk, since I see reluctance to tackle advocacy as, itself, one of the biggest reasons that more social workers haven’t successfully integrated advocacy into their work.

What I love about this course is the moment–maybe as part of practicum, maybe as part of a class assignment, maybe in the course of a class discussion or online discussion board–when students begin to identify as advocates.

Their language begins to change, often, as advocacy becomes ‘something that I do, as part of being a social worker’, instead of something vague and foreign and threatening.

To get there, we do fairly traditional academic exercises: readings, discussions, guest speakers, written assignments.

But I also do a lot of mentoring, even more than I do in my policy courses, and certainly more than students would normally see, as part of graduate study. It is my hope that, as a result of the semester, they not only have a better sense of what needs to go into an advocacy practice, and how to do those things, but also at least one real example of what trying to be an advocate, as a social worker, looks like…as part of their journey to figure out what it could, and should, look like for them.

My plan for this semester is:

  • Help students craft their own definition of ‘advocacy’, so that they can begin to articulate where and how it fits into their social work practice. There’s a real benefit in having these conversations at this point in their nascent careers, when their overall practice is, itself, an evolving work in progress.
  • Critically examine the realities of nonprofit social service agencies as locations for advocacy, so that students have as few illusions as possible about the advantages and disadvantages of their organizations as venues for social change.
  • Encourage self-awareness, one of an organizer’s greatest tools in the long slog that is working for justice.
  • Articulate how being a ‘social work advocate’ is different than other professions’ pursuit of social change, with particular emphasis on helping students navigate the ethical dilemmas that often arise for macro practitioners.
  • Sharpen students’ skills in social problem analysis and, especially, ‘cutting’ issues–while we teach problem analysis from an academic perspective in other courses, students usually have little experience translating their concerns into issues that have a real chance of making it onto the public agenda. This is certainly as much art as science, but we need to help them see that problems aren’t necessarily ‘problems’, just because we think they are bad.
  • Confront power–our own, our clients’, systems’, our targets’…I spend time in just about every class I teach helping my students become more comfortable with power, and power analyses, because no one wins when we pretend that our power doesn’t exist…or, conversely, that it is sufficient.
  • Expose students to real examples of what community organizing and mobilization looks like, which, admittedly, is the hardest piece to replicate in an artificial classroom environment. I try through using readings that bring in different perspectives, copious use of very generous guest speakers, and some film representations.
  • Build frames, because so much of advocacy rests in how we communicate about what our communities need, and why it is in our collective interest to deliver it. This is usually students’ favorite part of the semester, because it’s fascinating to learn new things about how we think about what we think we know…and why.
  • Prepare students for participation in coalitions, often their first opportunity to experience community efforts in action and, unfortunately, often a rather disappointing one.
  • Engage in legislative advocacy, which I intentionally put towards the end of the course, because it’s often the first (and sometimes only) way that students think about ‘advocacy’, and I want to break them out of that more narrow conception of the forms social change can take.
  • Discuss and experience electronic advocacy and the influence of the rise of social media on how people identify as ‘community’ and how they organize themselves.
  • Make plans for integrating advocacy into practice, including (new this semester) assessing students’ current organizations’ advocacy capacity.

Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. While most of the students I’ve taught in this course in the past 5 years have not gone on to be full-time advocates, I believe that they are more politically and macro-engaged than most, although that certainly cannot be causally inferred from their time in my class, since they have to identify as interested in advocacy in order to opt in (and they’re awesome, it should be said, especially since many of them are regular readers!). At some point, it would be cool to do some research about the impact of academic offerings like this. For now, it’s a bit of a walk of faith; I build the best experience I can, promise to walk beside them, and hope that the journey is a fruitful one.

From the outline above, what do you think is missing? What do you wish you had known as you had embarked on your advocacy career, that could have been taught in class? What kinds of experiences are most important for new social workers who hope to have a macro impact? Where would you like to see instructors build these in?

9 responses to “Can advocacy be taught? We try.

  1. Thanks for sharing, I can’t wait to take this class. I’m taking it next spring, and I’m also taking grant writing in the summer. I did a legislative advocacy project for my foundation level Social Policy class. I love policy advocacy but also like community organizing…I think the problem with social work is there are so many ways of being a good social worker that it is hard to choose!

    • I think some of the most effective policy practice activities integrate community organizing and policy change, so maybe that’s good news for your future plans! Helping people claim their power for policy change is a tremendous experience!

  2. Thanks…..I am hoping to do my next practicum in an organization that does community and policy work. 🙂

  3. Hi Melinda,
    I recently ran across your blog and really enjoy your thoughts and materials you use for class. I teach a similar course at University of South Carolina College of Social Work. I was wondering what film clips you use to expose students to what community organizing looks like? I have struggled finding this material. Any thoughts are appreciated!
    Lynne B.

    • It’s great to hear from you, Lynne! I am so glad that these resources are helpful to you. There are a couple of films I have used in their entirety–Norma Rae and the Milagro Beanfield War, in particular, but, lately, I have used a lot of YouTube clips–a lot of labor unions and community groups have channels where they have short videos about their work, sometimes featuring interviews with leaders, scenes from community events, and public actions. Students like these because they are short and you can present a variety of organizations’ perspectives, and there’s usually something students can relate to pretty well. I’d love to hear what you do with your class, and let me know if there’s anything else that would be helpful!

      • Thank you! This is my first semester teaching this course so I’m on the lookout for material. Any specific YouTube channels that you recommend? I also prefer short clips/stories with a discussion afterward.

      • I have used some of the SEIU Justice for Janitors stuff–they have some good profiles of worker leaders, telling their stories about why they got involved and what justice means to them. I hope this link comes through-it’s a Bill Moyers interview series with community organizers, and Jim Hightower talking about people’s movements: Feel free to email me, too, and I would be happy to exchange more ideas.

  4. Thank you! I’m going to use these clips this weekend! Very excited, it was exactly what I was looking for. I didn’t see an email address to reach you, do you mind sharing?

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