A Culture of Care in Advocacy

Here I share some reflections and suggestions for engaging in advocacy in a way that honours a culture of care for ourselves and others.

My younger self was quite combative. Out of necessity, I felt. In Palestine, Uganda, Kenya and other countries I worked in, I spent my days either researching or writing about forced disappearances, unlawful detention, torture and other forms of abuse; or engaging with lawmakers, police officers and government officials to end these injustices.

I would go into these meetings as if going into battle. Knowing I had an agenda to push and an argument to win. Viewing these people through the lens of their uniform and the institutions they represented. Feeling that given how much power they had compared with me, I had to puff myself up much like a cat does when it is threatened, and be as intellectually astute as possible if I was to stand a chance.

And I would come away from these meetings drained and unsure of myself. Did I get my message across? Did they hear what I had to say? Was I strong and articulate enough? Did I meet their prowess in our exchange of beliefs and agendas?

Photo by Daniel Lonn on Unsplash

Over the years I have come to realise that these point-scoring approaches, these shows of machismo, these ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ binaries only get us so far – and sadly they can, in some cases, only result in further alienation and separation.

We are faced now with more social division and polarisation than I have ever witnessed in my lifetime. Whilst it is true that we must continue to condemn and fight against violence, oppression, war crimes and genocide, I believe that we have to seek opportunities where we can  show up with more compassion and more care.

When all we ever do in our advocacy is show up with the hostility, the bravado and rigid agenda that matches that of our interlocuters – we are repeating systems of division and abuse that got us into this mess in the first place.

To quote Audre Lorde: The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

What a Culture of Care means for our advocacy efforts

So what does it mean to show up with more care in our campaigning and advocacy efforts? This is a topic I discuss in my book The Vulnerable Humanitarian, where you can go deeper into these concepts. Here are three ideas to start building your resources:

1. Settle your body

Before each meeting with a powerful decision-maker, spend a few minutes taking some deep breaths, and noticing how you feel in your body. If tension or nervousness are showing up in, for example, a rapid heart beat or a stiff neck and shoulders or a lump in your throat, keep taking some conscious deep breaths and having a dialogue with those parts that feel uncomfortable.

Are you able to tend to yourself in a way that you might to a small child who is scared, simply by saying to yourself ‘I am here for you, I am listening, I care for your suffering’?

2. Connect with compassion and humanness

Is it possible to view the person you are meeting as a multi-faceted human being, beyond their job title or their uniform?

I want to stress here, that this is not easy work – and sometimes perhaps it will feel impossible when faced with someone who has enacted terrible violence or abuse (see point number 3).  And, importantly, sometimes our rage and our pain need to be fully witnessed, before it is possible to bridge differences and build peace.

But also there are times when we can show up in all our humanness, and also meet the other personin all their humanness too.

When I was in these situations, meeting ‘the oppressor’ in my human rights advocacy work, I would often picture the person (who was usually a man) holding a small child with tenderness and adoration. The chances were that these police officers or government officials were also fathers – or they were at least a husband, brother or son, and would have experienced unconditional love in some way.

Are we able to show up remembering that we are all human beings, with hopes, desires, and fears that may be more related than we realise? Are we able to meet that person from that place of connection and shared human experience, whilst still holding that our views and beliefs may be wildly different? What difference might this make to deeper listening and understanding in our advocacy efforts?

3. Respect your boundaries

Sometimes, we must fully commit to healing our own broken hearts, our own trauma or grief, before we can throw ourselves into the difficult work of peace-building and resistance to violence and oppression. This healing can be a life-long process, so this is not to say that we must pause all our advocacy efforts until the healing is complete – because there will always be more to heal! But we can be engaging in an ongoing gentle inquiry about ourselves – what hurts, why it hurts, what we need – as we continue our humanitarian and human rights efforts.

This includes putting in boundaries when we need to; knowing when to engage in the battle and when to step back and protect ourselves. And honouring the time of rest – knowing that rest is also a form of resistance to the working cultures and structures that push us beyond our limits. Spending that time of pause or rest being supported by others who understand your struggles, building your community of love and connection in this way, is also going to help hugely when the time comes to step back into the fray.

I hope these suggestions are helpful for you as we start to imagine a new advocacy. I would love to hear from you if you have ideas about how to transform your campaigning and advocacy efforts in ways that cultivate more care and compassion.