All advocacy occurs in what might be described as negotiation possibility space. Each advocacy effort is an ongoing “conversation” with a target about the division of some resources.
These resources can be based on a rights schema but usually involve actual negotiation over other kinds of resources, including money, power, target control over infrastructure and decisions, and just about any other trait the target might have that impinges on the access by the person, family, or community being represented.
The target ordinarily views the negotiation as a contest over the division of resources-money, staff time, staff tasks and obligations, and so on. While targets have some commitment to the rights of the person, they view rights as negotiable precisely because rights involve the division of resources in a process of negotiation, not as inalienable rights of the person.
It is important for advocates to remember that the right to autonomy and free choice is not what is being negotiated. It is the resources that are necessary to make autonomy and free choice real. It is easy to forget this fundamental truth in a tense long negotiation over resources. Also, over time, it is easy to develop habits of thought and action that focus on the resources being negotiated and not the autonomy and freedom that is the only justification for the advocacy.
When people negotiate over resources, they will suffer some loss even if the negotiation is viewed as successful. This is the nature of negotiation between parties who each have some power. This is another reason why negotiation should not be viewed as the same as the right to autonomy and freedom.
We use our ability to abstract as a way of making a map of some territory. We use the map to get some insight into, say, the target of our advocacy work. Once we have the insight, we are supposed to put that insight back into the territory. But we often stop before putting it back. Instead, we treat the insight as though it were the truth of the territory. We confuse the useful map for reality, and we make decisions based on our now false sense of reality.
We can use the base metaphor as our example. I am old enough to remember when I had to use an actual book of maps to find my way around for the many advocacy activities I di at Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service. I might have 3 separate advocacy meetings across six counties in the Thumb of Michigan in a single day. It was common that I was traveling to a place I’d never been to before. I had to plan my trips to assure I had a decent chance of arriving on time. Poring over the maps was necessary most days.
But it was easy to forget that, especially back then, there were no notices of road conditions, accidents, construction schedules. The map route was not the actual process of traveling in the real world. And that is the difference between the map and the territory. If I did conflate them, I could very well get caught up short in my plan by reality, in a dead end, blocked by an accident, by the change of location of the meeting, and so on.
But a lot of map-territory conflation is not so easily detected or so quickly punished. Confusing the map for the territory is a common kind of misinformation that often goes undetected because believing the map to be the territory allows for political and financial control over the distribution of power, reputation, and wealth. There are no obvious consequences to the belief that the map is the territory (at least not in the short run), This failure of thought becomes habitual, and undermines our ability to see and plan with some level of clarity.
This fallacy arises from the way we use language, and so is unavoidable. We must question our abstractions, not just use them for real world analysis. By not questioning, we make strategic errors in our advocacy, and undermine our ability to create valued outcomes. We use planning and the logic of the “logic model” to organize “things” that don’t exist. We assume that people will change according to the way we manipulate them as abstractions (director, asshole, enemy, ally, etc.)
I’ll use education as the basic model for the discussion of the ecosystem idea since everyone has lived experience with it and advocating in education has been advocacy in which I have been deeply involved.
Ecosystems are self-evolving frameworks of many interactive parts and are a type of Complex Adaptive System (CAS). The parts act for their own benefit, so the stability of the CAS requires interactions in which the parts need each other to survive. This idea is equally true of Advocacy Target Ecosystems.
Model of an Advocacy Target Ecosystem:
Imagine two circles.
The inner circle is the education system that is your advocacy target. Within this circle, the strong relationships/processes that make up the target drive its ongoing behavior and purpose.
The outer circle includes all the peripheral organizations and communities that relate to the education system. They constitute weak relationships/processes that buffer the target system and effectively prevent the strong processes of the target from running away and undermining the ability of the target to fulfill its purposes.
These two subsystems make up the actual target ecosystem. Together, these two subsystems act as a roughly stable ongoing process. If we wish to change the target, we must engage these subsystems.
The standard way of engagement is to disrupt or destabilize processes in the subsystems, to force the target to respond to a change in its control. However, it is very difficult to destabilize or disrupt the strong processes without undermining the ability of a target to pursue its purpose. In fact, it is the gradual corruption of these strong processes that divorces the target from its reason for existing over time. (See The Struggle of Two Missions).
It is easier to disrupt or destabilize the weak processes.
Because they are weak processes, why would the target change its behavior to respond to a disruption or destabilization of its periphery?
The relationship between a target and its peripheral buffering weak processes (from the perspective of the target) is ideally one where the weak processes cycle through a repeatable set of predictable actions. If the predictable cycle breaks down, the target must invest energy in restoring the predictable cycle, even if it means changing in some small ways inside the subsystem of strong processes. It will expend this extra energy (from a capped total amount of energy that also supports its strong processes) in order to restore rough stability and continue as much as it can to behave as it did before.
So, advocates disrupt the weak processes by filing a complaint or calling for an IEPC or reaching out to stakeholders to which the strong subsystem can’t avoid responding. They try to leverage the target systems to make changes that expand the personal autonomy and possibility space of choice available to students and their families. This engagement is the standard way that advocates change target ecosystems.
There are many variations on this standard way of engaging a target ecosystem. And, the weak processes that stabilize and support the target consist of much more than rules and due process. There are many weak processes that support any target, and all of them are potentially subject to destabilization/disruption, forcing a response from the target. For an education target, these might include the school board, the various funding mechanisms necessary for the strong process subsystem, the political interface of the target in the larger community, target policy or action failures in any part of the strong process subsystem, and so on.
Our advocacy must become part of the weak process subsystem before it can be effective over the long term, and before we can be in a position to approach changing the strong well-protected processes of the target. This means that, in addition to our work to disrupt or destabilize weak processes, like the target, we must engage the weak processes and build ongoing relationships with them. We must become part of the target ecosystem to be able to effectively advocate.
A few years ago, I created a short presentation as part of a grant to train LTSS Supports Coordinators in the Why and How of PCP. My presentation was part of the Why. I did the presentation is a Microsoft Tool called Sway, so I could see how the tool worked. Sway is a way of rapidly creating online presentations that is easier than PowerPoint.
I decided recently to redo the presentation using a Social Justice Framework instead of the more step-by-step version I did back then. Here it is, and I’d be interested in your view of the results…
A Social Justice Response to Disability-Based Oppression
I estimate that more human beings are enduring agony today than ever before; the number could be greater than the sum of sufferers throughout history. I speak of starvation and epidemic; war and terrorism; deprivation, exploitation, and physical torture. I repeat the word agony; I am not talking about “hard times”. -Stafford Beer
All forms of oppression deny, distort, degrade or disrupt the exercise of agency by individuals, families, human communities (however they are defined by gender, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic of identity), race, ethnicity,or nationality. Because all these examples of targets for oppression have members who have disabilities, the oppression of the disabled embodies the deep richness of the meaning of intersectionality and its possibilities for real empowerment.
For most dimensions of identity, social justice progresses through large-scale activism, focused on community-level protest and policy advocacy. Successful activism creates “affordances”, tools in the environment that can be used by members of the community to resolve or correct some form of oppression. For People With Disabilities (PWD), while such activism is a core part of our progress in Social Justice, the level of oppression embedded in the infrastructure of every society in our world is so ubiquitous, that community level social justice progress is not enough. Each PWD needs a very local and granular set of affordances to experience and pursue the same freedom that other communities can explore through the modern advocacy of valued social justice outcomes.
Although we tend to focus on the advocacy task at hand, our work to support the personal agency and full life of individuals with disabilities does not occur in isolation. As advocates, we are a part of a larger complex adaptive system (CAS) that includes support and funding systems, policy and legislative systems, and communities of people with Lived Experience from the many communities of people with disabilities. Our focus on the current task assumes the ongoing operation of the larger ecosystem as a context for all our advocacy work. We make use of affordances (agencies, laws, rules, funding, expertise, etc.) that act within the larger advocacy context as ongoing processes which we can influence to achieve valued outcomes.
In the larger processes of this ecosystem, all subsystems change and adjust over time through advocacy activities (and many other activities as well). Our goals as advocates are to:
•Build our relationships with other parts of the ecosystem in order to carry on advocacy and the other kinds of communication necessary to maintain these relationships.
•Evaluate and adapt our advocacy planning and actions based on a constant debriefing of the impact of our actions and an equally constant monitoring of the ongoing changes in the rest of the ecosystem, that both enable and disrupt our advocacy strategy.
•Facilitating a more effective advocacy/target ecosystem, in the sense that it becomes easier over time to advance valued outcomes.
•Introduce New Values and Novel Expectations into the interacting parts of the ecosystem. Successful introduction triggers a cycle called Autocatalytic Mutualism which drives changes in the ecosystem. Effective advocacy is always creative in this sense.
This part of the project will explore why we need to keep the entire advocacy ecosystem in mind while we work toward our valued outcomes. We are a part of this ecosystem and never stand outside of it, though our focus shifts as our work and the context of our work evolve.