PROTEST, PUSHING, PARTNERSHIP: The Three Phases of Advocacy

Advocacy generally goes through at least three phases: Protesting against what you don’t want, Pushing for what you do want, and Partnering with the implementing agency to make sure it’s done right and kept going.   

If we ran the world we wouldn’t need to advocate for anything.  We’d just do it, or order it done.  Advocates are sometimes prestigious or influential; their requests are listened to, carry weight, and often followed by decision-makers.  But, by definition, the need to advocate for something implies an outsider status, a less than all-powerful position – often a position of relative weakness or even marginality.  Perhaps even a degree of invisibility.  If power is the ability to directly make change, Advocacy is about influence – the ability to get those with power to make the desired change.


PROTEST: Demanding Attention, Exercising a Veto

If you are starting from relative weakness you have to find some way to get people’s attention – both those you wish to mobilize and those you wish to influence.  The classic “people’s power” move is to bring noticeable numbers of angry people out on to the streets or into a meeting room.  This doesn’t take a lot of people; probably less than 1% of Americans actually participated in a Civil Rights demonstration, but their issues were framed and acted upon in a way that resonated with broader swaths of the large population.  The announcement of support by powerful allies can also boost your impact.  And skillful use of the media can make it all feel very unsettling to your targets. If you’re really lucky, the situation feels a bit tense, with a subliminal threat that things might get out of control.  (In fact, riots can be a form of protest, even if spontaneous, chaotic, or self-destructive.)  However, it’s important to remember the difference between anger and nastiness, assertiveness versus arrogance, outrage versus insult – to remember that it’s not the politicians or Agency staff that you’re protesting but the bad policies, distorting procedures, and negative impact upon people.

The strategic goal of protest is to stop the regular unfolding of the status quo, to force key decision-makers to notice you and acknowledge the existence of your objections – to disrupt “business as usual” in order to open political space and begin occupying it.  As one state official told me, “politicians respond to noise; keep making noise.”   In addition to capturing attention, the goal of direct action is to change the framework within which an issue is discussed: the Occupy Movement’s “99% versus 1%” slogans didn’t directly cause any policy or legislative changes but it did make inequality a central part of the political dialogue.  In the most serious situations where the most basic societal values or well-being is at stake, and where the protests have become large enough, the goal of protesting might be to create a crisis of public confidence in the ability of society’s rulers to keep basic institutions functioning – a fear that contributed to some national leaders turn against the war in Vietnam.


Long-term Resistance

Protest is almost always an “anti-something” effort – you are protesting against racism or police violence or a war you want to stop.  It is an outsider’s game.  You may have an alternative in mind, but as a protest movement you have very little control over what those in power do in response to your efforts to veto their actions.  Of course, if you don’t like their response you can continue to protest which can be very effective so long as your numbers, energy, and visible disruption remain high.  But because protest is often as disruptive to the protesters’ daily lives as it is to those who they are trying to influence, it is hard to maintain over the long haul.  Winter comes.  Bills are due.  Other responsibilities call.  The Occupiers eventually go home. 

Because of this, no matter how dedicated the participants are, protests are particularly hard to sustain against entrenched, institutional opponents capable of riding out a difficult stretch.   I’ve been involved in fights against University expansion where the 50-year planning horizon of the institution simply outlasted our community efforts to influence their use of local land.  Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and in Hong Kong in 2014 all found that the country’s authoritarian state was quite capable of waiting until momentum waned and then crushing the remnants of the democracy demonstrations.  

Long-term, sustained protest is possible.  But it typically takes the form of embedded and non-dramatic daily resistance, primarily by those most caught inside a social problem.  High drama requires mobilization and provokes oppressive response from established power.  Daily resistance is expressed in small, often private or even invisible actions – although they are often noticed by other people suffering from the same problem.  It can take many forms, from subtle non-compliance with offending social norms or orders from above to cultural expression and mutual aid -- from poor work habits to song to solidarity.


From Outbursts to Movement

Still, for all its limits, most change starts with protest of some kind; some campaigns are conducted entirely within the protest stage.   The Tea Party movement, while small, was relentless, extremely locally focused on a particular elected official, and almost totally negative – demanding rejection of Obama’s policies – and as pushy towards politicians who supported them as those who were opposed.  One of the powerful aspects of protest is that because of their limited “anti-something” basis they are able to (at least temporarily) bring together broad coalitions of people with very different ideas of what they want to see done once the bad things end.  Being “anti-something” is a simple concept to grasp and if it expresses a widespread feeling, especially of frustration or anger, people in other neighborhoods or around the country can quickly copy illustrative actions and start local efforts.  The “anti-1%” national Occupy movement, the preceding anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations, and the more recent “Black Lives Matter” activities are examples.

However, evolving from scattered disturbances to a Protest Movement takes organization – or at least a network of people with the ability to hear about distant actions and the skills and resources to act locally.   And it usually requires years of unheralded and media-unnoticed ground work.  The Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s spread across the South because of decades of quiet heroism by local people contesting racism and creating social networks of mutual support.  The “sudden” appearance of today’s Alt-Right, Tea Party, and other Ultra-Conservative components of the Trump coalition built on years of collaboration among Fundamentalist groups, decades of leadership development through local political campaigns by far-right wingers in sunbelt communities, and a steady influx of ultra-right wing billionaire money.


Militancy: Motor and Trap

Society is often quite willing to ignore problems and injustices, no matter how grievous – action, sometimes requiring militancy, can force society to pay attention. In fact, Movements almost always have an “action faction” – people opposed to “analysis paralysis” and “death by discussion” who believe that momentum creates its own tail wind, that the issue is too important to be delayed, that extreme militancy is both morally required and politically necessary.  The action-now demand does get people moving and often increases their willingness to take the risks needed to force attention to important issues that the “powers that be” are ignoring or causing.   At their best, demonstrations, marches, and civil disobedience build community among activists, brings new recruits to the cause, shows the larger-than-expected size of the movement, and attracts media attention that energizes supporters and gets noticed by decision-makers making the transition to Pushing more impactful.  As environmental activist Bill McKibben has written, “The point of [direct action and] civil disobedience is rarely that it stops some evil by itself; instead, it attracts enough people and hence attention to reach the public at large.”  

However, the essential edge of chaos around a large protest creates space that can be filled by people with anger and issues far removed from the original cause, and whose destructive actions end up discrediting the entire effort.  For some of them, this is also a principled position:  creating chaos is itself the goal based on the belief that society has become fundamentally evil or that the country as a whole is the enemy.  This strategy of Apocalyptic Disruption can be religiously motivated:  some Fundamentalists (Islamics get the most press but there are similar tendencies in Christian, Hindu, and Jewish fringes as well) believe that evil has taken over the world and their God will only return when the false temples are destroyed.  It can have political motivation:  for example, Minuteman vigilantes who believe the US government and most of our society have been taken over by a conspiracy of Communists, United Nations agents, or Jews.   Or it can be motivated by emotional implosion:  when someone or a group catastrophically feels their world is collapsing and they want to take everyone else down with them – as expressed in several of the mass-murder/suicide horrors we’ve gone through in Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and too many others.  

The humbling reality is that Direct Action although is enormously emotionally important as an expression of commitment, or even of rage, is seldom, if ever, a form of direct power unless it is massive, widespread, and sustained.  Although it initially has important mobilizing and impact effect, the demand for ever-escalating militancy can lead movements into a dead-end of isolating public rejection – as happened to some sectors of the anti-Vietnam War movement.   In addition, there is often a mistaken conflation of militancy and violence – two very distinct categories of action.   And frequently, the push for inflicting physical or property harm is eventually revealed as the work of police agents setting up a group for discrediting violence and subsequent arrest – a tactic we now know the FBI so successful and murderously used against anti-Vietnam and Black Power groups in the COINTELPRO program.   Whether or not one believes in non-violence as a moral principle or simply see it as a potential a tactical and strategic orientation, it is a powerful and effective method of avoiding being set up for defeat by your enemies.  


PUSHING:  Positive Visions, Specific Ideas

Protest can force decision-makers to pay attention to you and stop what you don’t want.  Protest has a veto power but, except through negation, it doesn’t get you what you do want.  Even worse, the exhaustion of prolonged effort, the closing off of options, and the resulting inability to control the response to your protest can leave Advocates in the difficult spot of having to defend inadequate “solutions” imposed on you simply because it’s the best you are likely going to be able to win at that point.  To get the desired policies, programs, and processes you want requires pushing for a positive vision and a specific agenda. You need to not only understand the problem; you also need have ideas about a viable solution.  Sometimes it’s possible to push for a generally approach.  Often, it requires having, or drawing upon, a significant amount of technical expertise about the problem, potential solutions, and desired measurable outcomes.  Knowing what you are talking about has the added benefit of (usually) helping gain the respect (however grudgingly given) of the professional staff in the target agency, which makes them more likely to take your suggestions seriously.  The downside, of course, it that you are also taking on the risk of having your proposals criticized, of getting “lost in the weeds” of details that you lack the expertise to know, of losing some of the energy of your Protest and the support of some part of your coalition.  Balancing the “outside” and “inside” threads of activity is difficult.  But it is vital to have ways to allow the continued expression of your constituents’ anger at the same time you are working with decision-makers.

Successful pushing builds on a huge amount of preparatory work.  Making sure your proposals reflect the needs of those most affected. Researching best practices.  Building a coalition and developing a consensus around both general vision and specific demands.  Prioritizing what to ask for.  Figuring out an effective strategy and tactics for getting your proposals heard and then adopted.  Thinking about how to maintain pressure for progress even after you “win.” Designing ways to monitor and evaluate progress towards implementation and impact of the reforms.      



The “pushing” phase of advocacy can be seen as a kind of lobbying.  Lobbying is usually portrayed as a form of influence pedaling that is almost inherently corrupt.  It’s true that lobbying is usually an insider’s game for people with something to exchange – from expertise (lobbyists often know much more about a particular issue than Legislative staffers) to money (even indirectly: simply knowing that a lobby group might contribute to your opponent creates pressure on an elected official) to perks (politicians are always needing ways to help constituents or supporters, and sometimes don’t mind getting something for themselves as well).  

However, there is nothing inherently immoral about lobbying per se.  Lobbying is simply talking to decision-makers.  It is the process of providing your input into policy formation and program design.  It’s a key way that public needs and desires can be turned into government decisions.   Therefore, it’s an essential part of Advocacy, when you convert your “demands” into concrete “asks” and proposals you want elected officials, agency staff, or leaders of other types of organizations to respond to.  And, in fact, the longer (and more successfully) an Advocate has been involved with an issue the greater the likelihood that she will have developed personal relationships with top decision-makers and the more she can (and should) use those connections to further the effort.

Lobbying doesn’t have to be done behind closed doors.  “Citizen Lobbies” bring large numbers of people to the state house to ask their representatives to vote for or against something – an action that played a key role in Boston neighborhoods’ success in stopping highway expansion in the 1960s and 70s. 


Inside Allies

As with Protesting, it is possible for Pushing to be an “outside” effort.  You can keep bringing your proposals to the Agency’s doorstep and demanding their adoption.  This can be effective if your organization already has the legitimacy of previous victories or is supported by already powerful people.   Similarly, sometimes a move from the outside using well-framed media coverage that suddenly makes an issue visible and prompts politicians’ response.  These tactics are most likely to succeed if the needed action is relatively non-controversial, if doing it won’t threaten any established group’s status or power, and if there is little organized or vocal opposition. Even so, if you’re just an ordinary citizen, lobbing ideas over a wall hoping someone picks them up isn’t the most effective strategy.

It’s much more effective to have inside allies who echo your arguments and push your ideas from within.  Almost every agency has long-suffering staff who have been waiting for years for someone to create the opportunity to do what they know ought to be done.  These people are Advocates’ friends – so long as the protest and pushing hasn’t been so vitriolic and across-the-board condemning that all possible bridges and back-channels of communication have been burned.



In some ways, the most confusing part of Advocacy is the need to add Partnership to Protest and Pushing.  It happens because even after you’ve stopped what you don’t want and successfully gotten the policies and programs you desire adopted, Advocacy work is not done.  If the Agency is still fundamentally opposed to implementing the new policy, continued pressure from the outside is still vital.  After all, that pressure is probably a significant part of what led to your current level of success.

However, what if key leaders and staff in the Agency are willing but there is continued skepticism or even opposition from other parts of the Agency, from other Agencies, from various politicians, the media, or even segments of the public?  You need to maintain pressure for implementation without playing into the hands of those who wish to kill your reform. 

Similarly, what if there is general support for the change but the assigned Agency lacks the expertise or resources needed to successfully carry it out?   You can let them flounder, risking delegitimization and loss of public support, or you can jump in and get involved in the weeds of implementation.  Perhaps the tone of your public work needs to change from condemnation to encouragement and an offer to help.

Even if there is general support and the Agency has the needed capacity, implementation requires an endless series of daily decisions by people deep within the Agency bureaucracy that ultimately shape the reality of the program.  And those decisions are not made in a vacuum.  Advocacy seldom leads to a complete victory.  Compromises of many sorts are an inevitable part of every negotiation.  So it is vital to continue watching, measuring, and analyzing how things play out.  But it is also vital to participate as much as possible in discussions that shape the details of policy and program formation to make sure that the essence of your goals is not lost in translation.  However, unless you have more political power than Advocates usually do, anyone seen as an enemy of the Agency will not be invited to participate in those talks and if invited will not have their suggestions taken seriously.  Your allies within the Agency, the people who you need to become internal Champions, will have to keep their distance.

As editor Katrini van der Heuvel wrote in the Nation magazine’s 150th Anniversary issue: “Against entrenched injustice it takes a movement of courageous citizens sick and tired of being sick and tired, but also principled political leaders with the will and the skill to push change through a system designed to impede it.”



Partnership is the transition from publicly criticizing decision-makers and Agency staff to finding ways to have constructive conversations about how you can help them succeed – or even to look good when they aren’t fully succeeding!   This doesn’t mean that you don’t continue to publicly push for as good a policy or program and results as possible.  Advocates need to keep holding out for the best possible results rather than the most easily obtainable.  They need to develop a partnership, but it needs to be a “pushy partnership” or even a “frenemy” relationship rather than a marriage.   At its best, these discussions lead to closer and more respectful relationships between Advocates and program practitioners, allowing more informal and ongoing interactions about relatively deep levels of daily work.  It means that you balance the level and tone of your public actions against the influence you can have by having a seat at the operational table.  In international negotiations the slogan is “trust but verify.”  Advocates need to maintain their vigilance, but in order to effectively influence the operational details of what they’ve fought to create it may be most effective if they can move beyond hostility into partnership.

Advocates need to understand and support the implementing Agency’s need for funds and flexibility, and the real constraints suffered by the often overworked and beleaguered staff.  Supporting the Agency’s requests for funds (or even going beyond the Agency’s requests to push for more), defending their actions and performance against unjust accusations – all are legitimate parts of an Advocacy campaign.

Can existing staff be retrained, or do new people need to be hired?  Can current vendors and consultants do the job, or should outsiders be brought in?  How must existing organizational systems and procedures be revised?  Influencing these kinds of operational realities requires having influence inside the organization, at internal meetings, at work reviews.   Advocates have to find ways to pass on their expertise and broad knowledge of best practices. To gain entry to this interior discussion, Advocates have to transform themselves from outside critics into cooperative, even trusted, friends.  They have to become Partners, with enough access and credibility to know what’s really going on and enough respect and clout to be listened to when they make suggestions.


Moving Inside; Saying Thanks

Sometimes a campaign ends up with the Advocates getting hired to work in, or even to lead, the implementing Agency with all the advantages and challenges that change of role creates.   (One down-side of becoming an insider is no longer being able to exert the outside pressure that got things moving in the first place.)  But even if Advocates stay arms-length away, it is hugely helpful if they find as many appropriate occasions as possible to appreciate the Agency and its staff.  I have never dealt with a public agency whose staff didn’t at some point say, “getting what you want from us would be a lot easier if you occasionally noticed and publicly praised the good things we do.”  Public employees, especially, are seldom told “thank you” by anyone; doing so, even privately, can make a huge difference.

There’s another reason for public praise.  Victories are often tenuous, with opponents just waiting for a chance to undermine or even eliminate what has been accomplished.  Faced with such an onslaught, there is a need to rally around the flag, to defend what’s been won no matter how incomplete or poorly implemented.  Being a cheerleader for something you know is less than great, or even less than good enough, is a confusing role to play but – no matter with how many misgivings – it is sometimes what is necessary if any chance of future progress is to be preserved.   At the same time, preserving and promoting the vision of what real progress would look like is vital in order to avoid getting blamed for the program’s shortcomings.

And at some point, Advocacy must begin again – hopefully not at the beginning – to protest the problems that compromised programs don’t solve or even create.



It’s true, as we are reminded by the Margret Mead quote that we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world”, that progress begins at a discouraging scale and speed. The challenge is not in the original number of participants or in the original nature of the response from decision-making authority but in the strategic ability of the group to work their way through the overlapping phases of the Advocacy process – protest, pushing, partnership. Doing that successfully is what will increase the support for and the receptiveness to the campaign over time.  And, the paraphrase the saying about planting trees, while the best time to have started was years ago, the second best is right now.





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