We did extensive training before the organization let us do our first run. I remember one exercise in our many hours of training was on the meaning of advocacy. Advocate is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot in social justice circles. Empower, educate, advocate... yell out a couple abstract terms and people will believe anything you say. However, it is critical to have a firm understanding of this word in order to be truly impactful. For an English buff like myself, advocate is an amazing word. It can serve as either a noun or verb without changing the structure of the word at all. Additionally, advocate has mostly all positive connotations and it evokes emotion. When you look advocate up in the dictionary, it is defined as "to support or fight for" or "a supporter of." Pretty simple, right? So, let's take our definition of advocate to my role at the rape crisis center. I am a hospital advocate for, a supporter of, victims of sexual assault. This doesn't mean I get to walk in that hospital room and urge the victim to file a police report. I won't tell them to take certain measures for his/her body, or to recount for the atrocities committed against him/her so I can best be of help. No, my sole purpose as defined by advocate is to support the victim. To support is defined as promoting the interest or cause of. If I walk in that hospital room and take charge to "save" this victim, how do I even know what his/her best interest is? I have yet to hear the victim out. That is silencing them and, I would argue, is another form of abuse. You see, these victims have already had their voices silenced by someone objectifying and abusing their bodies. I do not need to continue to shame them by taking their voice out of the decision for what is best for them.
Advocates listen. To assess how to best support an individual or community you must know what they need. Regardless of what you think is best for them, it is their call. That is a human right. We have seen the way seemingly well intended ideas to further educate or rescue from itself a community quickly turns to oppression and violence. Colonialism, imperialism, the Crusades. It is a slippery slope. With a mindset of saving someone, you are imposing on them the idea that they are too weak, too ignorant, too hopeless to care for themselves. This breeds dependency, resentment, and a whole host of issues for that community.
Sitting in the hospital room, holding the hand of a strong and resilient survivor, I began to see hope on her face. She begins to realize that this is not the end for her. No matter the pain and fear and road to healing, she sees someone is there to walk with her. Not someone to do it for her, not someone to tell her what to do every step of the way. Someone to tell her that she is strong. Someone to answer her questions. And with that, I have given the power back to her.
In our fight to make a lasting change for underprivileged communities, our passion is to steer them toward self-sufficiency and sustainability. This can not be done of our own devices. We must have the support and involvement of the community. They must tell us their greatest need, we must evaluate together, and in our collaboration, unity and empowerment are born.
Everyone deserves to have a voice. How can you advocate for a person or community in your life?