How do you make anything “conventional” exciting, let alone policy? Is it possible to make something that has traditionally been characterized by daunting bureaucracy and inaccessible, exclusionary practices more appealing, engaging and effective for everyone who is interested in, or dependent upon, social justice?
Historically, there have been many different policy-making models from the 50s through the 90s, from the rational model to the garbage can model. Some focused on values or human rights while others claimed economic factors are paramount. Most called for rational and systematic approaches to problem analysis and decision-making and most were created by white North American men. Surprised? Me neither. Ultimately, while they may appear different, the underlying narrative is always the same: a select group of people with power and privilege decide what will work for another, much larger and less-privileged group of people who stand to lose far too much if the policies are ineffective or downright harmful. Policy development also doesn’t mean policy implementation. This can be seen in HIV/AIDS harm prevention work that initially produced more research, statistics and reports than it did substantial aid to afflicted countries.
I’m not saying that “conventional” necessarily means “bad”. On the contrary, when tackling a complex social problem like high infant mortality in Macondo, following a set of guidelines is helpful, especially with tight resources and timeframes. This is what Care, one of the largest international humanitarian organizations has done to support their members and build internal capacity for advocating for effective social policies on the ground. Care’s approach to advocacy is a good example of merging objective, methodological approaches with collaborative and flexible ones that include the local communities. Collaboration and community engagement also came up in interviews of 39 non-profit organizations in Saskatchewan as key components for effective advocacy. This is something we don’t see from our municipal government here in Toronto which arbitrarily decides to slash funds to vital social services.
Policies can be effective as a guideline but they shouldn’t be relied on too heavily, and we should always question their makers. Let’s think more outside the box! I’ve had more success engaging my clients when I take risks and use creative ways to connect, which I also believe can lead to better civic participation. When working at a residential mental health program, I facilitated a group discussion for clients to help encourage them to vote. I found that clients were more likely to take interest in social policies if they understood how the policies affect them. They were also able to see how they were part of the bigger picture by getting staff support to exercise their right to vote. And what is voting if not the most basic form of policy advocacy?
So, how do we make policy advocacy more exciting and inviting? We can start with dropping the jargon and the professionalized attitude. No one ever truly mobilizes for “policy analysis,” including social workers. But people understand fighting for their rights and wanting to be heard and validated. Let’s talk their language, and ours.
– Ilaneet Goren