Taking the “Us Versus Them” Out of Advocacy

by Terri Hart-Ellis

When was the last time anger and blame resulted in positive change for your child? Strident outrage has nearly the opposite effect on me and on many, as our natural instinct is to dig our heels in and defend our opinion. Our positions become further estranged.

fightThose who bellow, “WHERE IS THE OUTRAGE?” are focused on blame, not on change. The approach is one of anger and attack, not of advocacy and activism. Those who respectfully, purposefully, methodically seek out unintentional ignorance and neutrality to draw connections where there once were none are the revolutionaries.

Advocacy is not always about changing a mind—sometimes it’s about filling in a gap of understanding. Assuming the worst and railing is not advocacy—it increases the divide. We must draw the other nearer to be heard, not push them farther where they most certainly cannot hear us.

Through trial and error, through advocates before and alongside me, as well as through formal advocacy development training such as Partners in Policymaking, I hold tight to some useful understandings about drawing those with differing or absent opinions nearer.

School: Us versus Them, or Teamwork

In all of the IEP trainings I did beforehand, in most of the links I looked up, the situation was described as automatically and inherently contentious: us and them. They will lowball you on services, so we have to come in armed asking for everything and then some. This approach gives neither the team nor you as a parent any credit for communicating constructively. And the student—your student—gets lost in this tug of war that never had to be.

It’s not about what I can get for my child. It’s about whether everyone in the room can see my kid, their student, clearly. In my book, I start by ensuring they “get” my kid, they understand what makes her tick, what makes her laugh, what makes her keep going, what makes her give up, what makes her feel proud, what makes her feel demoralized, how she learns, how and when she demonstrates it, how she feels about having to “prove” her abilities at any given time. Only after the team is on the same page (I believe that page is often dryly referred to as present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, sadly), can discussions about goals, services and trajectories become productive.

Certainly knowing our rights, IDEA, FAPE, LEA, ADA and all other Special Education abbreviations is wise. Walking in expecting to be opposed and outraged, and so leading with a combative list of legal protections is not the quickest route to an effective education for your kid, nor the kids that come after him. Developing rapport, understanding, common ground and focusing on the kid (as opposed to policy and protocol) is a long haul, fruitful investment.

Community: Us versus Them, or Engagement

I’m talking about strangers here, people who stare, say things without thinking, and behave in exclusionary ways. When we huff away offended, we confirm separateness. We judge intentions and declare our opposition. When we stop to treat the ignorance with care, we give the other and ourselves credit for the ability to learn and grow. Even if you do suspect pure evil, your “mistake” that it’s about confusion and not bad intentions may be just the ticket.

When our daughter absorbs long stares, we respond with, “You look interested in meeting Addie, let me introduce you.” When someone uses offensive language that leverages cognitive differences as an insult, I show them a photo of my daughter and tell them a little story about something amazing or funny she did. I show them that living, breathing, learning, loving, smart humans are in the path of the destruction they cause by using words that marginalize a population.

When someone pats my hand and tells me I’m an angel for my sacrifices, I ask them to elaborate on it, to tell me how it’s different than parenting any kid—we do what’s needed to support our kids as they find their place. I point to my daughter laughing on the swing and tell them I smile when she smiles, I wince when she suffers, the same as every parent. The more individuals see connection rather than separation, the fewer doors my daughter will have to try and pry open herself.

Politics: Us versus Them, or Understanding

Again, research helps—understanding the legislation your representatives sponsored and voted for in the past will tell you something about perspective. Actually reading the bills you oppose or support is critical, doubtless. But it’s your real life application that makes the difference to legislators, your real stories of impact. Legislators admit they sometimes vote along party lines if and when they don’t have a strong belief or connection in a certain area. Don’t let the happen, don’t waste neutrality on a party line vote. Take that vote by testifying in person, or meeting with your legislator in the district.

Better yet, have them meet the child that ignites your passion over a certain issue. Let them know what’s important to you and your family in very concrete ways—ways that will last beyond a single vote, a single session. Become a trusted resource to your legislators on disability and education policy. Political party has no bearing: our issues are human issues, not political ones.

In advocacy and activism, there is no us and them. The outrage tree bears no fruit. There is only the exchange of clarity and perspective among the collective us. Change takes root one conversation at a time.

Author: Terri Hart-Ellis • Date: 8/27/2013

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