Advocates’ Autobiographies

My favorite assignment, from all of my classes, is one that I use for the Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice course.

Students write their ‘advocates’ autobiographies’, narrating their own stories about how they came to their commitment to social justice. Social work students, in my experience, are often asked why they decided to study social work (a question, and a subsequent conversation, that sometimes bothers me, because it can come across as part of the ‘why would anyone want to be a social worker?’ lament, which just feeds the narrative of powerlessness that social workers should repudiate. But we much less commonly trace the multiple influences that take us towards an identity as ‘advocates’, only some of which may overlap our professional journeys.

In past years, my students have shared stories about raiding their pantries for canned goods in grade school and learning that we must want more than leftovers for those who are in need; about witnessing injustice and, even at a young age, startling those around them with their passionate and informed responses; and about becoming frustrated with 1:1 interventions and craving more systemic change.

Some of them have come to be advocates from a place of relative privilege, others, after having suffered considerable injustice themselves. Some, of course–given the overlapping inequities and multiple oppressions that make up our society–have known both paths.

I share some of my own advocate autobiography, which includes dressing up like Mother Theresa in first grade, even though my Dad tried to convince me that the other kids wouldn’t be in costume, and filling an entire composition book with my ‘lists of worries about what’s wrong in the world’ when I was about 9. I tell them about a coincidence found me proficient in Spanish when I was in graduate school, at the same time that the immigrant community was growing in size and prominence in St. Louis, Missouri, and about how my Protestant guilt, I guess, provoked me towards immigrant justice instead of the work I thought I would do, with older adults.

We talk about how there is no one ‘right’ or ‘true’ path to advocacy; it’s one of those things where, I believe, the end matters more than the means.

But it’s important to know your story, to claim it–not to romanticize it; this isn’t about turning ourselves into martyrs, but about understanding that who and where we have been will shape the lens through which we see the world, and the struggles in which we engage.

So, in the interest of expanding their world and growing their circle, will you share a snippet of your own ‘advocate’s autobiography’? Is there a moment that shaped your journey? How do you trace your progression from ‘then’ to ‘now’? And what do you imagine, for how the rest of your narrative will unfold?

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2 responses to “Advocates’ Autobiographies

  1. I’ll have to send you my policy brief from last semester sometime, it was about some teen dating violence legislation that was in congress this year (unfortunately, it died this month in committee). I worked with Senator Moran’s office on it for my advocacy assignment.

    My interest professionally is violence against women and girls with disabilities mostly due to personal experience, but 1) there isn’t a field in that area because it’s so specific, 2) most of my work before my MSW program (and even in my foundation year) has been in those areas, so my mentors in the program are pushing me to explore another area for my practicum. I was lucky enough to have 2 placements this year (one last semester in domestic violence and another this semester in children with autism spectrum disorders).

    I’ve really had to generalize my interests more (at least for the purposes of classroom work) to something like, “women and girls with and without disabilities”, simply because you can only get so specific for the KU research database. 🙂

    • I would be happy to look at your stuff. I think there is definitely a need for your niche within the DV movement, but I also see the value if branching out. I started working with older adults and then moved to immigration, both areas reshaping our demographics. There is so much important work to be done!

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