When an advocacy organization deals with the same target over and over, the relationship between the target and the advocacy organization gradually becomes a continuing context for change initiatives and it also becomes an inherent part of every change strategy.
The relationship can vary from simple agreement on where and when to have negotiation meetings to longstanding relationships that include deeper knowledge by both parties of the other, or even friendships that extend outside the advocacy initiative.
The traditional view of the advocacy relationship in the abstract is that the advocate adopts a position on an issue and the target counters that position with one of its own. The advantage of such an approach is that it is straightforward, and the position serves as the focal point for all advocacy effort. The disadvantage is that the position is likely to be a very abstract frame for what would actually have to occur to make the change real. We give up effectiveness in actually creating a solution for clarity of principle.
Advocacy and Engagement can develop a very complex relationship over time. Adversarial relationships often create collaboration and engagement on solutions. Remember that “War makes for strange bedfellows”. Traditional advocacy is usually seen as a purely adversarial process in which we defend a position, as in a court battle over legal and substantive rights. But even in court, some level of cooperation is required to hold the adversarial contest, follow the rules for speaking and arguing, etc. I noticed in my time as an advocate at MPAS, that we often used a strategy I called “bounded collaboration”. Basically, we would cooperate until some line was crossed. At that point we became adversaries.
Traditional advocacy is usually seen as a purely adversarial process in which we defend a position, as in a court battle over legal and substantive rights. But even in court, some level of cooperation is required to hold the adversarial contest, follow the rules for speaking and arguing, etc. I noticed in my time as an advocate at MPAS, that we often used a strategy I called “bounded collaboration”. Basically, we would cooperate until some line was crossed. At that point we became adversaries.
More recently, I have found that simply taking a position as an advocate has become less and less fruitful over the years, and that engagement of the other parties in the stakeholder environment is necessary to move advocacy along. Most policy implementation problems these days, especially in health and community supports, are very complex and contain structural problems that must be resolved before positional advocacy can work at all. As an example:
Two models of creating affordable and accessible housing have developed (with many variations):
Segregated Housing: All housing units are part of a single building project with a focus on a single community (say, vets, seniors, poor, adults with disabilities), with supports provided in the building by a single provider.
Distributed Housing: Each housing unit is developed and built in the larger community. Supports are provided to the individual or family in that individual unit by a provider hired by the individual or family.
There are specific economic and control reasons why The System (and its subparts) has wanted to create and maintain segregated models of housing:
- In the creation of plans for housing projects, it is much easier to propose a single site, with infrastructure, a single design of individual units, tax credit use, and the scaling of supports through a single provider contract.
- There are economies of scale with a single site for maintenance and repair of individual units and the project as a whole.
- It is much easier to hide and manage the unethical use of project funds in a single site because the number of stakeholders that must be managed to hide unethical use is smaller.
- It is also easier to enforce control over tenants and sanction them for violations, both of formal and informal rules, making it easier to serve the interests of the managers at the expense of the tenants.
- Scapegoating and bullying individual tenants into conformity is much more effective when you tie supports and loss of lease together. Failure to conform can result in loss of housing, a powerful threat.
There are also social/emotional reasons that perpetuate segregated housing and segregated community models:
- Especially in the early phases of recovery, most people prefer to spend their social time with persons who are experiencing struggles similar to their own. The first goal in recovery is usually feeling safe.
- The preservation of the feeling of safety, basically relief from pain whether physical or social, becomes self-perpetuating in the same way that any relief from any pain does. Not ever leaving one’s comfort zone becomes a permanent way of living.
One accepts the abusive control that project managers exert as the price for feeling safe. One’s life becomes permanently constrained.
So, segregated housing supports segregated communities and vice versa.
One way (one of a huge number of variations) of “complementing” these two opposite models would be to always separate supports from residence, so that individual tenants can’t lose tenancy for choosing a different provider of supports or no provider of supports. Another would be to put limits on the length of time a person can remain in segregated projects, or deliberately create a framework of supports for all transitions. A third would be to make a transition from segregated to distributed housing a standard part of planning supports and skill building from the first day of tenancy in a segregated project. All of these would alter the dynamic of the Segregated Housing vs. Distributed Housing policy issue and the positions associated with these alternatives.
But to effectively change the complexity of such policy alternatives requires a much deeper understanding of the experience of meaning behind the target position. This understanding is only possible through engagement. It carries the risk, as all understanding of others does, that we will appreciate why the target takes a particular position, and this empathy might undermine our commitment to the principles that led to our advocacy position in the first place.
At the end of the day, though, we can’t make a false choice between commitment to our principles and our positions and the deepening of our understanding of our target of change. Empathy is not agreement or sympathy. It is the understanding that comes from seeing the world as our target sees it.
Next Post: Opposites and Complements