CHARITY, CHANGE, AND POWER: Advocacy and Movements

Contribute money for an Advocacy group while enjoying the pleasures of a bike ride and picnic:  Why not?  The Talmudic Rabbis taught that while we are not required to solve the problems of human life, neither are we allowed to ignore them.  Advocacy steps beyond charity to systemic change – improving the public policies and institutional practices that shape life possibilities for the benefit of all, ourselves as well as those most in need.  Contribute!  Come!  Learn!  Join!

                Bike4Life Boston:   an annual, fun, family-friendly ride that benefits LivableStreets Alliance.                           Sunday, Sept.30,  9am-2:00pm, Auburndale Park, 201 West Pine Street, Newton, MA                                     20 & 40 mile rides, 4-mile kids’ ride, with post BBQ celebration                   1. Register and fundraise to help reach $50,000 goal –                  2. Sponsor a rider or the ride–                  3. Volunteer to help with the ride by emailing [email protected]                                          For more information:


There is a moment in Fiddler on the Roof where the village beggar sticks his cup in front of the rich businessman who says, “No.  I had a bad day today” to which the beggar replies, “So?  Just because you had a bad day, why should I suffer?”

It’s a good line; everyone laughs.  But it contains an essential truth.  According to Jewish law, our obligation to relieve suffering does not depend on our own level of well-being.  Helping others is a moral obligation of everyone at all times – the rich man as well as the beggar. We are not expected to be saints, to give away everything in order to share starvation with the starving.  But we can be called on to do what we can, from each according to his/her means – which is the ethical basis for the progressive taxation that libertarians and right-wingers hate so much.

Charity is a good thing.  At its best, it is an expression of our inherent empathy and care-giving impulses, which we elevate into folk wisdom like “you get what you give” and the Golden Rule of “do unto others that which you want others to do unto you.”  At its best, it is about sharing ourselves, personally connecting with someone else, rather than simply tithing our wallets.  On the other hand, personal philanthropy is often distorted by ego and status issues, which is why the old Rabbis said that anonymous giving to unknown recipients was the purist form of charity.  And depersonalization is also a positive aspect of societal-level charity – the tax-supported programs that provide a more humane life for the elderly, the developmentally injured, the chronically or mentally ill, children, and even prisoners.  Creating a strong safety net is not just a shared-risk insurance scheme to protect ourselves if we should trip into misfortune’s holes.  It’s also the right thing to do:  as the bumper sticker says, “the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”


But charity, whether personal or organized, can also be a trap.


We’ve all heard about the difference between giving someone a meal and teaching her to fish.  Instead of carrying someone across the goal line, you help them be able to run.  Conservatives prattle endlessly about the danger of government programs that create dependency (although they don’t seem to like government programs that promote empowerment either).  In reality, few people enjoy the subordination or the humiliation of dependency and most people will do their best to stay or become more self-governing?  Empowerment is like compound interest – it feeds its own escalating growth.

However, individual betterment can be its own dead end.  Being able to run is better than crawling, but what if the playing field is discriminatorily tilted?  And what if the tilt isn’t focused on any particular individual but on an entire category of players, creating extraordinary difficulty for everyone coming from a particular direction?  Not tilted so much that it prevents an occasional exception, but enough that the overwhelming majority of particular groups don’t make it.  No one expects utopian equality: some people will always be relatively less well-off than others and the rich and powerful will generally do whatever they can to institutionalize their status in accordance with the other Golden Rule: he who has the gold makes the rules!  But when the tilt gets really bad a country ends up with a small group of super-rich, a huge percentage of people struggling on the brink of failure, limited and decreasing upward mobility, a culture that distracts from the real issues, and the weakening of the democratic feed-back mechanisms that could be used to rectify the problem.  We used to think of these phrases as describing Latin America; now we realize it’s true in the USA as well – no wonder the Tea Party has attracted a populist wing vocal enough to make the GOP’s dominant corporate leaders nervous enough to try placating the rebels with anti-outsider rhetoric and policies.


Empowerment at its best also deals with the societal balance of power.  It addresses not only what is needed by individuals but the factors that shape the societal context and determine the population-level odds we face based on the demographic accidents of our birth:  the institutional patterns that privilege the attributes of one group over those of another, the unequal access to resources and opportunities, the disparities in family health and wealth and connections, the compounding effect of passing past inequities on to future generations, and more.   Empowerment requires understanding that while we all create our own lives we have to do it with the materials, tools, training, and connections that we are given – and very few people are able to significantly transcend the limitations of those opportunity-defining inputs.

It’s all very overwhelming.  If you think too much about the difficulties of making things better you’re likely, like most of us most of the time, to decide it’s better to go about your own business and simply be nice to your family and friends.  Being a good person is a difficult enough challenge: most of us repeatedly violate our good intentions in order to serve our self-interests, rationalizing every step of the way.


But there are some times when we get involved.  We become advocates not just for ourselves or the individuals around us but for broader change.  Advocacy, like other forms of public engagement, is important because the fact that a tree is rotten doesn’t mean that it will fall, someone (or some group of people) has to push.  Just because something is unfair or inefficient or just stupid doesn’t mean that it will change on its own.  Someone (or some group of people) has to make it happen.  On the other hand, pushing is a useless gesture unless the tree is ready to fall; nothing will change unless conditions – both inside the tree and in the surrounding environment – are ready.  And, no matter how much analysis gets done, there is no way to really know if conditions are ripe unless someone acts to test it.  Advocates are actors.

Organized Advocacy seems, for now, to occupy a relatively sweet spot in our culture.  It’s more issue-oriented and less unsavory than the world of politics, whose perceived ugliness extends from the nasty pettiness of “office politics” to the corruption and hypocrisy of electoral politics and corporate lobbying.   And it’s less pretentious than the moral purity of evangelistic true believers who proselytize their fundamentalism as a justification for controlling other people’s lives.

At the same time, Advocacy, at its best, shares aspects of both moral idealism and political realism.  Unlike self-serving “interest groups,” Advocates are seen as being (and mostly are) primarily motivated by outrage at injustice and inspired by a vision of how things could be better.  And they are seen as (and mostly are) system-savvy, able to “get things done.”


At its best, Advocacy sparks and mobilizes Movements, in which large numbers of people take action to further a cause.  Sustaining democracy requires periodic re-invigoration and flushing of the channels of bottom-up communication that inevitable harden as elites seek their own security.   Turning the gears of social change, knocking down rotten trees and building something solid to replace them, requires putting a whole lot of shoulders to the wheel.  Strengthening the social safety net to provide a softer landing for those who have tripped or (better yet) leveling the playing fields requires having appropriate elite allies and a lot of luck.  But the starting point is creating a constituency, learning how to exert pressure against the current trends of business as usual – building a Movement.  Advocacy is not sufficient, but it certainly helps.

(Self-Interested Disclosure: I was a co-founder of LivableStreets Alliance and still sit on its Board, although the cash flow of my connection is from my checking account to the organization rather than the other way around.)


Related Previous Posts:


THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT AND ADVOCACY: Institutional Reform, and Organizational Development (Part II)

SUCCESSFUL ADVOCACY: Lessons of the BU Bridge Campaign

THE AGONY AND THE ACTIVISM: Looking Back at the Big Dig

QUICK, VISIBLE, REMOVABLE: Improving City Life By Unleashing Citizen Creativity Through Government Initiative

Boston Bicycling: Five Changes To Move From Better To World Class

MOVING URBAN INNOVATION BACK TO THE FUTURE: Reclaiming the Village and the Street

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