THE ADVOCATES DILEMA: When The Need for Action is Immediate But the Pace of Change is Slow

There are situations where the danger is so great, the potential damage so devastating, the outrage to decency so powerful that you feel that immediate, radical change becomes an emotional and moral imperative.   And you do everything you can to advocate, to make the world take notice, to make people in power take action.  Right now.

But, with few exceptions, change happens slowly. Creating change requires getting decision-makers to act, attracting the support of powerful interests, or mobilizing important enough segments of the media and/or the public – none of which usually happens quickly.  And then implementing significant change requires transforming systems, which almost always have enormous inertial drag towards the status quo.  And having an impact requires the changed processes and outcomes to replace current conditions, which can be incremental and uncertain.


Advocates are sometimes wrong.  The problem may not be as big or as bad as they believe.   Or it is; but decision-makers, even those who want to address the issue, are not free to act as decisively as needed.   It is true that in moments of transfixing emergency – a devastating hurricane, a terrorist attack, a spreading pandemic – the government is able to command the entire society and mobilize a broad response; although George Bush showed us that such efforts are not necessarily well done and can create as many problems as they solve.   But in more ordinary circumstances, public (or even corporate) leaders are remarkably constrained.  At last year’s Boston Bicycle Update, when someone asked Nicole Freedman why she was talking about paint and signs when we needed to redesign our streets to stop the killing of cyclists, Nicole said, “paint can be laid down in months, moving curbs takes years.”  And that’s true, even were Mayor Menino to order it done.

Still, the more drastic the consequences of non-action the stronger the tension.  For some people, the distance between what should be and what is causes them to lose touch with reality and end up in violent dead ends that violate the very values that originally motivated them.  Other people are inspired to leap over the gap through symbolic action of ethical heroism.  However, most of the time, for most people, a belief in the possibility of change gives them the fortitude to endure the countless conversations, endless meetings, and repeated disappointments that are the necessary foundation for their eventual partial success – although they often hope for the emergence of a mass movements capable of driving their issue through the swamp of transformation.  In fact, it is exactly in the intolerable space between what ought to be and what is that advocacy (and most of life) occurs.  


The inability to change the world can lead to cynicism or, more commonly, the focus on purely personal affairs that shapes most lives.  But it can push people to the other side of the spectrum:  extreme “voluntarism” – the belief that radical social change can be catalyzed at any time through the action of hyper-committed individuals.  (Che Guevarra’s “foco” strategies were a revolutionary version of this, with predictably disastrous results in Bolivia.)  This doesn’t only come from elitist or “vanguardist”arrogance.  Letting yourself feel too much of others’ pain can drive you crazy, especially if you believe it could be stopped and that you are partially responsible for making that happen.   Given a particular personality type and the dynamics of small, isolated, or beleaguered groups (both political and religious) the stress can lead to such poor analyses of reality that ideological perspectives over-rule understanding and violence seems to make sense.  The “Weatherman” spin-off of the anti-Vietnam War movement believed the killing would only stop if they “brought the war home” by attacks within the USA; immediately.  Earth First activists felt the globe-threatening destruction of our forests and environment had to be stopped; immediately.  Anti-abortion activists feel that women have to be stop ending their pregnancies, immediately.   The lack of immediate and complete success drove (and for the anti-abortionists still drives) each of them to violence.

Even if not pushed to extreme action, the effect of this tension can be dramatic and emotional.  Some friends of mine were panic-stricken this year as we passed the 400ppm point of no return for atmospheric carbon dioxide.   I saw the same angry intensity on the faces of people last winter as they demanded the city do something to stop the surge of cyclists’ deaths on Boston roads.

A different type of extreme behavior happens when advocates channel their commitment, and (especially when the action is individualistic) perhaps their egos, into self-sacrificing civil disobedience.  In a way, they ignore the limits of current reality and act, even if only symbolically, to force awareness of the problem and point to the final goal.  These people are the stuff of legends.  The people who poured real (or fake) blood on draft system files in the 1960s; the people who sailed into nuclear testing zonesor the Greenpeace efforts to stand between harpooning whale ships and their intended victims– these and the others like them set a high bar of what it takes to live out your values.  But they are sometimes so far ahead of the rest of society that while they may bring attention to an issue and sometimes inspire future work, they seldom make an immediate difference – or sometimes any difference at all.

No less heroic, but much more effective as Movement building strategies, are collective actions — which often pass from symbolic to actual transformations of established power relations.  The thousands of people, a majority of whom were “ordinary” African-Americans, who risked or suffered beatings and arrest during the Civil Rights Movement, are our epoch’s most important examples.


Rather than pretend they can create large scale transformation, many advocates (and others) wait for a Mass Movement to arise that will create enough pressure to force the leaders of government or business to take the desired actions.  In fact, Mass Movements are the desired but elusive goal of most advocacy efforts.  A Movement is not simply a protest, an outburst of anger at an intolerable situation or an effort to veto a threatening change.  It is also a demand for a more positive alternative, perhaps even a somewhat idealist vision.  At best, it is the mass application of bottom-up People Power — although the support of various sectors of the Establishment is usually welcomed and vitally needed!

And those of us who have participated in mass Movements, who have experienced the joy and affirmation  of being surrounded by hundreds of thousands of like-minded comrades, who have internalized the life-altering realization that nearly everything about human existence is shaped by human beings and can be changed through collective action – we are the lucky ones!  We know that “the personal is political” in ways that have given meaning, satisfaction, and community to our lives.

But Movement’s aren’t created; they emerge.  True:  this usually happens only after years of preparatory work by organizers and funders (the 40 years of care and cultivation that led to the rise of today’s Right-wing movement is a perfect example!).  But the exact timing of the emergence, the exact combination of events that trigger it, the extent to which is becomes not merely a ripple in the social fabric but a tsunami surging across the land – all this is utterly unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Movements often start out with transformational implications and hopes.  But they usually succeed by discarding their more radical overtones and finding ways to become “reforms” – minor or even major improvements to the overall functioning of the surrounding society or in the inclusion of formerly excluded groups into the established mainstream.  (This inclusionary dynamic is, in fact, one of the distinguishing and wonderful aspects of US society as compared to most countries of the world.)

The Women’s Liberation Movement originally envisioned the total transformation of sexual relationships, family dynamics, as well as the structure and culture of the business world.    It’s true that fathers now spend more time with their kids than they used to, and day care is no longer described as an excuse for maternal inadequacy.  But feminism’s biggest impact was to force business to open up the job market to individual women.  The Gay Liberation movement once sought to redefine sexuality; but its successful fight for Same Sex Marriage only came after re-oriented itself to demand inclusion into the once-denounced conservative institution of legal family bonds.   The Civil Rights Movement has not ended racism, but it has made it impossible to explicitly exclude people because of their skin color – and for a man of color to become President while people who remember lynchings are still alive.

On the other hand, even as they evolve, Movements often spawn other Movements.  Over the past 70 years it was the Civil Rights Movement, confronting (still) the historic core contradiction of our democratic self-definition and the capitalist nature of our economy, that was the mother of most others.   The first Student Movement activists were those who brought their Southern experiences back to the campus.  They began the Anti-Vietnam War (and anti-Imperialist) Movements.  The Women’s Liberation Movement spun off from those, and then birthed Gay Liberation, which laid the base for the explosion of activism around AIDS, which led to today’s Marriage Equality efforts.


Unfortunately, most issues will never generate mass Movements.  Movements require that a substantial number of people feel significantly threatened and that they believe there is a chance to protect themselves.  The anti-Vietnam War student movement got a great deal of its energy from the prospect of being drafted and sent into the jungle.  The Civil Rights movement was both a fight for survival and a demand for dignity.

Having the right combination of underlying interests, demographic latency, and triggering incidents for a Movement is an unusual occurrence.  As a result, most of the time advocates channel their feelings into nondramatic, issue-oriented work.   They may adopt some aspects of “being the change they wish to create” and they may be willing to play a “pushy” role as leaders and organizers, but their key attribute is their long-term commitment and their ability to envision an alternative to the present reality.   It can be a very satisfying effort.

There is plenty to do.  The day-to-day reality of advocacy combines protesting to stop the unwanted, lobbying to get decision-maker’s attention and impact policy, and partnership with agency staff to make things work as well as possible.   Much of this has significant but small impact.  It is “reform” rather than “revolution.”  Still, it makes a difference.  And it is what advocates have to do to lay the groundwork for being able to take advantage of moments of major-change-allowing crisis or the emergence of a society-changing “Movement.”

Most advocacy campaigns never get beyond the contested issue level.   No matter — issue-oriented Advocacy is good, important work.  Combined with the emerging understanding of “tactical urbanism” – the focus on small, Do-It-Yourself, low-cost, and even temporary improvements done by agencies or citizens – it takes advantage of the currently possible to point the way for the desperately needed.   Without it, Movements would have no vision and society would get no better.


Thanks to Victor Silverman, the “raft rower,” for feedback on an earlier draft.


Related previous postings:

SUCCESSFUL ADVOCACY: Lessons of the BU Bridge Campaign

THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT AND ADVOCACY: Movement Building, Institutional Reform, and Organizational Development

CHARITY, CHANGE, AND POWER: Advocacy and Movements

OUR NEW EXTENDED FAMILIES: How the Built Environment and Public Services Shape Social Relationships and Democratic Government

ADVOCACY 102: Advice For Job Seekers and Volunteers




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