Paper presented to a Dochas Participation seminar on 16 April 2015.
I am speaking to you today because I have just spent the last three years running a project called The Advocacy Initiative; a broad community and voluntary sector project aimed at examining and better understanding the advocacy of C&V organisations. The Initiative first emerged in 2008, so its history parallels the turmoil of the last six years. It was an attempt to respond to a changing context, but it was also a response to pre-existing dynamics.
In 2008, there was a real sense that advocacy was under threat from the state. The experience of many advocates and their organisations was that the state was working to silence advocacy through a mixture of control over funding and shutting down spaces where advocacy happens. A concern pervaded that the relationship between participation, monitoring and accountability had broken down.
But there were no or few spaces for reflection and dialogue about social justice advocacy. Where spaces existed there were low levels of trust, we rarely shared perspectives and there was not always room for dissent from dominant narratives within our sector.
There was something unique in how The Initiative did its work. It was a deep collaboration between organisations and individuals who may share much but rarely articulate the same values or frameworks. We invested in projects, space and opportunities – avoiding setting up an institutional structure. And, pretty uniquely for a civil society project, ended in August 2014!
In examining the role of social justice advocacy in Ireland we learned a lot, some of this work continues through our legacy projects. Much is captured on our legacy website.
Some of the challenges the Initiative faced reflect the bigger challenges of participation: How do we maximise our impact in participating in democratic processes? How do our own internal structures and processes create a flourishing environment for participation? How can we best create an environment in which those experiencing poverty are empowered to participate?
I remember one conversation, in this room, where we invited a diversity of civil society organisation and actors to share what they learned about facilitating participation. How did they facilitate people experiencing the issues in their advocacy work? People from development organisations, equality organisations, human rights, community development, and people experiencing the issues themselves sat around these tables. I have to be honest and say it was not a conversation that worked well. There was a really genuine commitment and deep felt sense of responsibility, but we faltered in learning from each other.
Maybe it was how we planned that meeting, but participation is really really hard. Too often both the state structures and our own civil society organisations underestimate the challenge or do not have to resources to meet it in a meaningful way. We may all agree about the value of participation in principle, but in reality we have very different ways of going about organising it.
Because it is so fundamental to our legitimacy and our value base, it can be difficult to challenge ourselves and others.
So I want to finish these remarks by recalling another meeting we organised during the Advocacy Initiative. A much smaller one this time, 11 people in the Sophia Wisdom Centre on Cork Street. This meeting was not in our work plan. The Initiative planned a series of conversations with all the different advocacy stakeholders – politicians, civil servants, media, trade unions etc. We organised these fruitful, engaging and interesting conversations. But our original plan did not include talking to those experiencing poverty about their experience of being involved in advocacy.
So we asked people involved in advocacy and campaigning with different organisations to tell us what they thought about the state of social justice advocacy. They had experience of a broad range of challenges including issues affecting migrants, people with disabilities, people who are homeless, people with mental health needs, people who are unemployed, young people, Travellers, those who are poor, those with literacy problems, older people, and carers. The group included six women and five men.
We asked them about advocacy, social change in Ireland, and what we as ‘professional advocates’ need to do differently. This is what they said:
Social justice advocacy is… Empowering, Successful, Hard, Important, A skill that can be learned.
Social change in Ireland is… Slow, Not taken seriously by politicians, Resisted by powerful groups, Not talked about in the media, Linked to European/global change.
Social justice advocates need to… Get more people involved, Give real power to people in running campaigns, Work better with other organisations, Make better use of social media, Use plain language, Organise protests and be more political, Be funded, Have high expectations.