Thursday, April 13, 2006

Addicted to Advocacy

Advocates for causes are often drawn from the ranks of those who do actual work. We see them all the time in social work -- they get brought in to speak at department meetings, and there seem to be conferences for just about anything. Advocates want to influence one of two groups: either those who are still on the front lines seeing patients, or governments. Getting a lot of other human service people to buy into their views on the transgendered, or peer support, or motivational interviewing, or Feng Shui, or Reiki provides some rush, but getting the government to pass legislation or send money is the real prize.

These advocates act differently than those of us on the front lines. I don't know if they become different or start out that way. But they are clearly energized by the big rolls of the dice. Spending two years getting some homelessness regulation changed just seems so much more important to them than finding actual housing for people for two years. Listening to them speak at conferences and Grand Rounds, they are either angry or condescending. As they get farther from actual clients, that latter becomes more pronounced. I guess when you spend your time mostly with other advocates and the people who are resisting your advocacy, it tends to polarize you.

The advocates who are parents of children that something tragic or difficult happened to are sometimes cut from a different cloth. They are more likely to just be regular folks, bending their energy to making changes in the world. I like those people. Some few of those who have endured the tragic circumstance personally are also remarkably gentle, powerfully persuasive people. Too often, they are the angriest, or the most condescending. The emotional leakage of the contempt that have for those who will not make the changes they want is considerable.

Advocates for a new cause can often pick off low-hanging fruit pretty quickly. Making others aware of some grossly unfair circumstance and getting the worst excesses eliminated or punished is a quick reward and a powerful rush. After that the battle becomes longer and harder.

And yet not harder. How hard is going to meetings and eating donuts? How hard is it to sit among people who think you are doing the work of angels and strategize how you are going to convince legislators and administrators to do what fits your vision of how the world should be? There is no failure anymore. If the state legislature doesn't officially recognise the rights of your favored group to get more money or be given their own government agency to get them stuff, you haven't failed. The stupid legislatures have failed. Society has failed. You're still just fine. Sure you didn't get that big gambling hit of winning the lottery, but you cashed a few scratch tickets and you were darn close this time.

It works sometimes. Sometimes advocates change the laws, or the standard practice, and presumably someone down the line benefits. But mostly it's a hoax, a way to waste your life pretending to be important.

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