(P3): Advocacy within Local Communities

A tryptic of pictures; in the center a crowd of persons with disabilities in a rotunda surrounded by police; On the left side a police officer arresting a blind person; on the right police

Our disability community needs a community advocacy strategy that is about more than disability-related issues. All the following issues deeply affect our lives as well as the lives of many others where we live:

  • Health Care and Supports: Impacts children, elders, poor people, workers, LGBTQ communities. all oppressed communities
  • Climate Change: Impacts everyone, most especially our community
  • Transportation: Impacts elders, poor people, workers
  • Housing: Impacts all oppressed communities
  • Access to Healthy Food: Impacts people who are poor or who don’t have access to easily accessible transportation
  • Physical and Program Access to Supports: Impacts everyone who needs supports
  • Education: Affects all oppressed communities
  • Pollution: Especially affects oppressed communities
  • Community Development Policy: Impacts all the other issues listed here, and affects small business creation and survival

In the past, our community has focused on issues that  were concretely connected to the immediate experience of individuals with disabilities. We need to change our narrow focus and expand our advocacy through alliance with others who share the impact of these local community issues with us. This means putting continuing effort into getting to know one another, building advocacy alliances around specific issues of interest to other communities, using these relationships to create mutual education about how different community issues impact different local communities, and working together to build an effective and continuing advocacy presence in our local area.

The goal in community advocacy is secondarily to stop one political decision or action, and more to make the governing constraints of our local social/community CAS more effective at supporting enabling relationships and activity for all the members of our larger community. This strategy is a different view of every aspect of organizing for change and requires us to broaden our existing idea of inclusion to reach everyone affected. This, in turn, requires us to rethink every aspect of our organizing and advocacy.

In effect, it requires a more radical vision of inclusion and advocacy that reflects an expanded understanding of “Nothing about us, without us”.

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(P3): Legislative Advocacy: Part Two

A diagram of how Advocacy Coalitions affect systems. See link in resources for image text.

Ultimately, if we wish systems advocacy to approach the scope for which we hoped, we will have to change both the kind of macro-frameworks within which we advocate, and the methods and mobilizations we use to impact both the existing frameworks and the innovations we wish to build.

This post will cover how we need to change our methods and mobilizations, and a later post will cover the creation of new visions of support systems that reflect the reality of complex adaptive systems, and the rejection of bureaucratic and mechanical forms of support.

How will we do systems advocacy differently in the future?

I am old enough to remember the talking points we used to mobilize against discrimination, institutionalization, the taking away of rights generally, and the de-valuing of people in our community. Rather than go over those points, I would like to reframe our values for talking points that could be used in this era to begin the creation of systems with governing constraints that promote our current understanding of what it means to support our community in the expansion of life possibilities, personal autonomy, and the endless exploration of choice.

Some preliminary notions of how we might talk about the governing constraints of potential new systems of support:

  • All systems must permit broad customized collaboration among all relevant actors organized around the hub of the person who is creating the personal support, and that person’s social network.
  • Systems of support must embrace the tension of locally developed mutual support alternatives or complements to the System’s closed approach as a normal and expected part of deeply engaged collaboration in creating customized supports for a person.
  • Collaboration is viewed as necessary to enable and coordinate the emergence of genuinely customized and flexible support over the lifetime of the person.
  • Supported Decision-Making is the core mental framework and skill set for making new support system governing constraints genuinely effective.

These principles can’t be implemented in a closed system of rule and regulation that limits outcomes to the preconceived. As Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety points out, only “Variety absorbs variety” ( see the link above). The systems that can collaborate to realize the values in the preliminary notions above must create a temporary Complex Adaptive System (CAS), the planning collaborative group, that can creatively marshal resources and enable the emergence of a customized support in the actual life of a real person. This is no different in principle (though different in size and scope) from anyone embracing an intention to do something they have never done before, and then exploring their possibility space to produce an emergence of something that reasonably matches their intention.

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(P3): Legislative Advocacy-Part One

A typical hall of a legislature, with tourists, lobbyists, advocates with disabilities, and legislators moving about.

Legislative Advocacy (whether focusing on local zoning rules or appealing a lawsuit to the US Supreme Court) is the traditional arena of what has been referred to as “systems advocacy”. It includes policy, rules, regulations, and all the astounding number of areas that government touches.

As a community, we have worked on macro-frameworks, like universal special education, Social Security Disability and SSI, Medicaid, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the downward flows from these frameworks to the state, local, and individual level.

I believe that the current macro-frameworks have largely exhausted their potential for expanding personal autonomy and choice for our community. They are becoming increasingly brittle and rigid. In fact, to the extent that these macro-frameworks represented an entitlement to expanded autonomy and freedom of choice, they have contracted more or less steadily from their initial promise to smaller and smaller opportunities for tweaking existing patterns. Along with a dramatically contracted arena of possibilities, they have all shifted from a vision of who might be eligible for their benefits to a growing effort to make it more difficult to use them. Put another way, they are no longer vehicles for expanding supports, but increasingly vehicles for denying support.

I don’t view this conclusion as hyperbole. I think that more administrative funding is spent on ways to deny eligibility and reduce supports than is spent on fostering those promises from so long ago.

These symptoms of support system aging have impacted our systems advocacy. Lawsuits are now used to prevent contraction of rights, less so to foster their possibilities. We organize and mobilize to stop disastrous outcomes rather than to foster positive ones. Our targets of change have become smaller, sometimes focusing on word changes in what exists now.

Even in the development of civil rights advocacy for communities left out of the old macro-frameworks, we use the arguments we used then, not unfairly, to expand the meaning of existing rights, without asking ourselves if the macro-frameworks can actually handle the weight of the justice they are asked to bear. Or will they simply fail to deliver?

To some decreasing extent, of course, they can. But I see them less able to produce the kinds of outcomes we would hope would represent our best take on what rights can mean to people’s lives. And now, even those more limited possibilities are shrinking in the face of relentless assault.

In summary, the system’s vehicles for rights definition, expansion, and protection, are degrading over time and we are less able to use these vehicles for our advocacy purposes.

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(P3): Advocacy with Groups of Persons and Families

A group of adult citizens engaging in a public conversation at a Santa Cruz library.

Usually it is easier to produce systems change through advocacy with a group that has related advocacy goals. It is easier to destabilize a weak constraint in the system if there are several similar but somewhat different ways for the system to lose control of the destabilized constraint. A standard model of this process might involve eliminating a segregated classroom by arguing that each student in the class has a right to an integrated educational experience and doing this through a group collaboration.

Each student can pursue a separate action to move to an inclusive environment, since the typical reason why a system would segregate a group of students is to reduce the costs of similar supports for these different students. If the system loses even one of these advocacy initiatives, they will have to provide the supports outside the cheap classroom, and they will have to absorb the cost of the hearings that advocacy triggers. So, 6 students can mean 6 hearings, six separate hearing costs (maybe $20,000 each). It is cheaper in the long run to develop a model that provides the supports that would be ordered in a hearing result.

Also, systems have developed methods to isolate single family advocacy efforts by demeaning their competence, educational knowledge, purposes, impact on other students, and so on. These tools are far less usable when there is a group of similar advocacy efforts.

A group with a common purpose forms a temporary complex adaptive system (CAS). This purpose is the governing constraint and frames a set of possibilities that the group will explore as it moves toward a valued outcome in their work.

In addition, a group with a purpose can more easily pursue destabilization of many additional weak constraints that are part of the system. Political activities, public relations, educational initiatives, public policy planning, and many other possibilities for advocacy are much more feasible in a group.

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(P3): Why you shouldn’t destabilize Strong Constraints

A collapsed bridged over a river in the summer

The effort to destabilize social groups and their relationships is currently everywhere, being used at every level of every human Complex Adaptive System (CAS) of any size. Mutual destabilization has become the way various parts of CAS politically relate to one another at a scale that was ordinarily reserved in the past for plagues, wars, and large-scale natural disasters.

Such destabilization is often justified on the grounds that once the destabilization is successful, a new era of prosperity and social value will automatically blossom. In psychology, this is referred to as magical thinking.

The only way a brittle CAS becomes simpler and more humanly useful (oriented to a valued human purpose) is through a collapse, though the collapse need not be total (apocalyptic). The real problem with using any method of destabilizing the governing constraints in a CAS is that there is no way to predict or control the actual outcome of successful destabilization since the whole point of WTA (winner-take-all) constraints is the way they allow creative exploitation to run wild. The social relationships that enabled successful outcomes will become competitive one person at a time, and there is no way to see how that breakdown will spread and change the CAS. Think of a novel infectious disease and how poorly we predict its spread (say, for example, tick-borne diseases).

There is no automatic rebooting. There is no way of assuring that the “better angels of our nature” will drive the dynamic of recovery, and many reasons to think it won’t be those “angels” that drive the resulting change. Instead, the recovery will reflect the second by second interactions of what remains, not what we think should replace the past system.

It took millennia for humanity to evolve enabling social/physical systems that reflected significant support for the system’s members. It took all this time to build individual social relationships that were oriented toward general social improvement (enabling). These relationships were hard to build and hard to maintain. Destabilizing them (which is the point of the methods described in the last slide and this one) will destroy those enabling weak constraints, and there is no telling what will result.

If you review the links above, you’ll find that all recovery from collapse always takes much, much longer than the collapse itself.

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(P3): Other Examples of Weak Constraints

Stylized figures of generic viruses, bacteria etc.

Because the CAS that we target for advocacy are very complex systems tied to a very complex larger environment, there are a very large number of weak constraints (WC) available for potential destabilization. Obviously, not all weak constraints might be similarly effective in producing a specific advocacy outcome. And, in fact, we tend to use multiple weak constraints to effect a positive advocacy outcome.

But because it seems easier or more efficient to use techniques that have proven successful in the past, we build habits of ignoring other possibilities (a kind of faux “efficiency” argument). I would argue that creativity is an essential part of successful advocacy, if only because the target system will adapt to your advocacy efforts, and you must have a ”habit” of introducing novelty into your advocacy efforts to not have them degraded significantly over time.

So I offer this list, not as anything like a complete one, but to allow meditating by review of the possibilities. Perhaps one of these might trigger a realization on your part that would point to a more sophisticated novel approach to a high-quality advocacy outcome.

Legal WC:

  • Complaints
  • Fair hearings
  • Lawsuits of various kinds

Political WC:

  • Publicity
  • Politician-targeted problem solving
  • Boards and Councils
  • Elections

Financial WC:

  • Public Funding
  • Resource Allocation
  • Financial Disparities

Systemic WC:

  • Threatening Governing Constraints
  • Introducing Novelty

Organizing WC:

  • Emerging an Insurgency
  • Building local or community resistance
  • Effective Advocacy Training
  • Building Community Advocacy Supports

Any single or combination of these WC’s could be targeted for destabilization in a specific advocacy strategy.

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(P3): Destabilizing Weak Constraints in Advocacy

Image of the Night King from Game of Thrones Series

  • I came to a stark realization: chronic surpluses could be almost as destabilizing as chronic deficits. –Alan Greenspan
  • One of the points about distractions is that everything they do is destabilizing.
    -Bruce Sterling
  • Yet, history has shown that if material force can defeat some ideologies it can no longer obliterate a civilization without destabilizing the whole planet.
    Abdelaziz Bouteflika

In a Complex Adaptive System (CAS), any form of interaction between the system and the outside world can be usefully viewed as a weak constraint and a potential target for destabilization. Obviously, some constraints are closer to the heart of your advocacy outcome than others.  But there are always more ways to go after a valued change than whatever works the first time we use it.

The biggest problem we advocates have in interacting with the CAS is that we settle on a technique or procedure that has worked for us in the past. This approach, while understandable, dramatically reduces the palate of ways we might destabilize the CAS for a valued purpose.

When we use the same techniques with the same CAS over and over, the CAS will adapt to them, making our advocacy more complex and expensive for us to use. Additionally, when the larger environment in which our target faces the same set of destabilization techniques, that larger environment will also adapt, narrowing the impact of our efforts to destabilize and making the outcomes we achieve more predictable, and, thus, more manageable by targets. Both the target and our advocacy become more rigid.

An example (in the next post) will give you the idea of how local, state, and national CAS and our advocacy approaches adapt over time to successful advocacy.

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Part 3: Advocacy

A poster listing many names of PWD killed by their parents or caregivers; entitled Mourn for the Dead and Fight Like Hell for the Living. From ASAN

Advocacy is the active representation of interests. You can advocate on behalf of another, on behalf of yourself, on behalf of a network, or an entire community. You can work as an individual, in a group, professionally, or as part of a larger movement.

Advocacy is a framework for change, and since change admits of no boundaries, neither does advocacy.  Advocacy is not an end in itself, no matter how necessary or relentless it might seem.

You must embrace a personally and genuinely valued purpose to truly advocate. Otherwise, advocacy becomes just another kind of inauthentic political gaming.

I chose advocacy as the metaphor for changing complex adaptive systems, because most people have some understanding of the concept and because using that concept makes it easier to remember that changing a complex adaptive system (CAS) is for a valued purpose, not simply a logic model for obtaining a grant.

While advocacy can be used by anyone, it is a creature of great diversity. The most basic frame for advocacy is to threaten a target with more change than the target would experience if it accepted your claim for change.  Most basic advocacy negotiation entails this kind of trade-off for the target.

The target of advocacy can be almost any system from an individual to large bureaucracies, local governments, global coalitions. The target you choose is the one you believe can make the community interests you value real.

The trade-offs that frame any advocacy negotiation can also, and usually are, extremely varied and complex, and revolve more around constraints that might be destabilized than, say, for example, the simple cost of the advocacy demand. The cost can always be “managed” but forced change in the basic operating framework of the target is typically viewed by target systems as an existential crisis of some importance, and something to be strongly resisted.

If I tell you that the negotiations in a special education disagreement are mostly around the dimensions of expense and precedent for the school district if they agree to your demands, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t also highly personalized dimensions in every education advocacy process, for example.

These personal issues in what seems to be a procedural or legal negotiation are important to advocates because of how the personal impacts the value of the advocacy outcome. For the target system, there is no more powerful constraint that must be managed than the relationship the system has with individuals to whom it provides services. Systems don’t like customizing anything for anyone who is entitled to disturb their peace.  If you can sustainably change the obligations that any system has to the uniqueness of those it serves, you are creating an entirely different system, and deeply altering the purpose and behavior of that system.

In effect, learning to use, create, exploit, and leverage constraints is the heart of advocacy toward any target system.

While achieving a valued advocacy result requires the use of tools, don’t make the mistake of assuming that the tool is somehow sacred because it helps you to achieve the result you want. There is no holy path to advocacy success. There is only the uncertain struggle to make complex adaptive systems change.

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(P2): A Weak Constraint as a Potential Insurgency

A painting of a medieval revolt. Many people and soldiers fighting one another.

Mostly, CAS (Complex Adaptive Systems) view both internally generated and externally driven encounters as disturbances or perturbations. For purposes of understanding how you can advocate for change in a CAS, I prefer to think of these triggers as insurgencies.

An adjacent possible is something you can do readily from where you are right now. Some insurgencies keep resurfacing, an indication of an adjacent possible.

There are always more adjacent possibles than you know. They are often weak constraints, and we tend to pick one, stick with it as our preferred novel change target, and fail to see the other possibilities lurking close by. Our ability to survey the possibilities of the uncertain world around us is encumbered by our automatic focus on the easiest possibility to perceive.

Insurgencies subvert by their mere existence. In fact, a traditional way to turn a weak constraint into an insurgency is to trigger a response from the Target CAS. This is part of the reason why they are so hard to eliminate. Failed insurgencies are typically replaced by changes that will also trigger a new set of possibilities and a new insurgency.

Subversion is always possible. There is no way to build a fortress that is impervious to an insurgency. In fact, I think it is reasonable to describe the ongoing human conflicts in every State in the last 7,000 years as an insurgent struggle for change and freedom against a status quo struggling to increase and preserve control.

So, an insurgency is a kind of constraint, and it can move from a “weak” constraint to a powerful force for change just because the target reacts to its disturbance.

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(P2): Weak Signals as Weak Constraints

Drawn picture of black slaves fighting off white slavers trying to recapture them.

  • I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.
    -Jeff Bezos
  • The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.
    -Igor Stravinsky 
  • Problems are hidden opportunities, and constraints can actually boost creativity.
    Martin Villeneuve

So, how do we use weak signals as a basis for changing Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS)? We must look carefully at the weak signal to understand how or if this signal represents a weak constraint, and what the constraint means to the Target CAS.

Earlier I pointed out that weak links buffer the wildness of CAS. This buffering is a form of constraint, and that’s why buffering works. The buffer acts a bit like the banks on a river, constraining the flow of the river without dictating the movement of individual water molecules.

Our usual understanding of system constraints mimics the beliefs of the homeless community and uber-rich communities. Constraints are barriers to the safety or freedom of these communities, and so they are eliminated. Successful elimination of such weak constraints makes those social communities brittle and hyper-responsive to small disturbances.

The image above is a drawing of the effect of the Underground Railroad during and around the Civil War. The Underground Railroad functioned as a weak constraint on the Southern Slave System It was largely ignored when it was small but was attacked (ineffectively) when it expanded and began to operate as a sign of the weakness of that Southern Slave System.

The Underground Railroad was more than a simple barrier. It actively forced the Southern Slave System to respond to it. In the same way, weak constraints do more than provide simple barriers to the system of which they are a part.

Target systems for our advocacy have many weak constraints that are a normal expected part of their day-to-day experience. They are usually ignored or tolerated because the behavior of the weak constraint is a small local cycle that doesn’t threaten the larger system’s normal behaviors. If the weak constraint begins to expand its impact on the larger system, it will trigger a response of some kind from the larger CAS.

In Part Three, I’ll talk more clearly about how we use weak constraints (and sometimes strong constraints) to produce advocated change in CAS.

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