Fearlessness and Humility: Assets in Inquiry and Advocacy

Just when you thought you were done with cholera.

Almost, I promise.

There is one more passage, describing the way that Dr. John Snow worked, that I just really want to share. I’ll quote it at some length:

“Here we have a man who had reached the very pinnacle of Victorian medial practice–attending on the queen of England with a procedure that he himself had pioneered–who was nonetheless willing to spend every spare moment away from his practice knocking on hundreds of doors in some of London’s most dangerous neighborhoods, seeking out specifically those houses that had been attacked by the most dread disease of the age. But without that tenacity, that fearlessness, without that readiness to leave behind the safety of professional success and royal patronage, and venture into the streets, his “grand experiment”…would have gone nowhere” (p. 108).

I spend quite a bit of time reflecting on what makes advocates succeed, sometimes because I’m looking for inspiration to share, and sometimes in the hope that there are specific pieces of advice to pass on.

And while I think that tenacity is widely-regarded as an essential quality in an advocate, because we suffer so many more setbacks than victories, these other aspects of Snow–his fearlessness and his willingness to disregard and even endanger the professional reputation he had built–were just as important. For him, and for us.

Most of the time, our advocacy requires that we convince people to do something different, or at least differently. That means that we have to be willing to be wrong, even spectacularly so, or else we’re probably not reaching far enough. We have to ask questions to which we don’t know the answers. We have to be willing to reach beyond the realm of what we know we do well–direct service, program administration, supervision–and do something that we fear we might not be as good at, because that’s where we are needed.

We have to be not just tenacious, which could be accomplished by doing the same thing over and over again, but also fearless, ready to take on bigger risks or try less-sure things. We have to be fearless for our own sake and also for those we hope to inspire; Snow only got other public health leaders to investigate cholera at its source by first going in himself.

What else would you add to the list of imperative advocate characteristics? What does fearlessness and humility look like in your social change work?

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