A Strategic Approach to Advocacy Success

We tend to value our success changing The System in tactical terms:

  • Creating this specific improvement in support; this specific elimination of discrimination, bullying, limits; this change in public policy or practice.
  • Enabling a move into a better or more expansive “adjacent possibility”, unavailable before this specific advocacy success.
  • Bringing with it increased funding, skill enhancement, recognition, and an expansion of our current reach.

But, underneath our judgment of immediate value lies a deeper and far more extensive meaning, that we would call a strategy if we understood what a strategy is.

We don’t understand. We think a strategy is a clever engagement with the System of Focus (SOF) to force them to accommodate us. It isn’t.

A Strategy is a scaffold for engaging our environment with effective decisions over time, when:

  • The future is unpredictable. If the future was predictable, we wouldn’t need a strategy. We could just make an operational plan like a logic model and success would roll out like a boulder falling off a cliff to the ground.
  • We don’t have enough resources. If we had infinite resources, we could just keep plugging away, through trial-and-error, until we succeeded.

The traditional view in the military is that strategy is embraced through ends, ways, and means, the “dimensions” of strategy implementation.

So, what should the underlying strategy in our disability community advocacy that allows us to decide on our ends, ways, and means, and be effective advocates?

I propose that we should embrace a two-pronged strategy:

  • We should continue to work to make The System on which we all depend, better at supporting our needs, and providing more ways we can control the supports that the system provides.
  • We should also begin building an alternative system based on our local, collaborative ability to supplement what The System locally provides, to make a base for supports that we control democratically and through the synergy of our various skills, abilities, and experiences. In other words, we band together to make up for the shortfalls of The System, and to provide support no governmental or private system would consider worth pursuing.

This strategy recognizes our current dependence on The System, and the complexity of reducing our dependence on it. It also says that we, as mutually supported and respected friends, families, and allies, can and should create what we want right now. This is true, even though the process of creating that alternative will be long and complex. Only through our mutual determination to take each step together will it be possible for us to realize what we should have had available to us all along.

(P8): Using The System

A buffet of many food choices in a restaurant.
A Buffet of Many Choices

If we must continue to use The System while we try to build supports that we can effectively control and scale, we will need to understand how The System operates, and what we might do to make the best use of it.

The first reality that we must accept is, “The purpose of a System is what it does”.

It isn’t:

  • The stated Mission of the System
  • The Strategic Plan of the System
  • The stated Policies of the System.

Does this characterization seem harsh to you?

For example, I have watched the changes in the Social Security system around SSI disability supports since the early days of the system. Starting in 1981, there has been an incremental alteration of the original purpose of the program (to provide basic income and health care access), to one that reduces real-time eligibility and bureaucratizes due process to the point that it has become a system for denying eligibility to the greatest extent possible without triggering too much bad publicity and political backlash.

My experience is not unique. Everyone who became an advocate in the early days has recognized the same overall deterioration in the purpose of SSI.

Because the purpose of a System is what it does, not what it says.

And our use of The System to support our community must reflect that reality.

The System is always corrupt (maybe disrupting is a better word). Not because the people in it are necessarily committing financial crime. The System is corrupt because, over time, its original purpose degrades, and the uses to which The System is put gradually become as diverse as the local needs of all its stakeholders, including us as members of the disability community. Such complexification of the original mission is a normal response of aging in any CAS, including each of us. If no one tries to alter this trend, you get a trajectory that tracks the following phases:

  1. Narrowing and self-centering of mission (Bureaucratic Narcissism)
  2. Mission and Self-Interest become Indistinguishable (Functional Psychopathy)
  3. Use of System assets for personal gratification (Frank Exploitation)
  4. Networked misappropriation (Gang Exploitation)
  5. RICO activities ( Corrupt Insurgency)

AND, at the same time:

The system is always different from what it was just before now. Novelty, broadly understood, is constantly changing The System. Novelty includes all our efforts to make The System work more effectively for us. All CAS create micro-diversity as part of their evolution. The people in the system are only dimly aware of this, which means the behavior of the system is often surprising. It is the micro diversity which give The System its resilience, but this micro diversity triggers in any bureaucracy a futile effort to eliminate that diversity. It is the inability of the system to eliminate this diversity or its production that provides us with a landscape in which we can become better at using The System.

We have two main methods for getting better at Using The System. One is scanning and learning (Fishing for Tools), and the other is Crowd-Sourcing our search for solutions.

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(P8): Making FutureStrategy Real-Two

A diagram with two triangles pointing from the left and right sides at a circle. The circle is red and contains text, Expand Our Freedom, the left and right triangles are yellow-orange, and contain text, respectively, Change the System on the left, and Bild our Systems on the right. There is a photo behind each triangle. Behind the left an image of a cross community protest related to disability rights. Behind the right a poster of mutual aid around the pandemic.
Our Complementary Strategies

Even though our strategy of iteratively improving the legal framework of disability rights has certainly expanded our life choices, over time it has become less and less effective in making new improvements. The System has gotten better at undermining our advocacy and using its System Logic to marginalize our gains.

We need a way to move forward that doesn’t require us to allow our gains to be degraded by the logic of the System.

At the same time we will continue to need the System as a source of funding and expertise, because of the complexity of our needs. Few of us can simply drop our relationship with the System entirely.

But we do not need to view the System as The (only) Solution. Instead, we must learn to view the System as a tool, and begin to make our own systems to augment, replace, and finesse what we need from the System. We must build what we need together and use it to orchestrate a more effective strategy for achieving our freedom. The systems that we build will be:

  • Local
  • Intersectional
  • Collaborative
  • Community-focused
  • Self-funding

They will be based on social justice models, rather than civil rights entitlements. That doesn’t mean that we don’t use civil rights laws to advocate. Again, we view civil rights laws as tools, not solutions.

Our systems will build from the bottom up, not from the top down.

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Part 8: Making FutureStrategy Real-One

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge wildly rocking just before collapse in black and white photo
Rock and Roll is Here to Stay…

Summary of the Current Situation:

Until recently, the strategy of the disability community has been one of incremental improvements in civil rights law, and local initiatives to improve some aspect of daily and community life.  This strategy has resulted in substantial policy and legal changes over the course of our lives. But I believe that we are now getting less improvement for our efforts from this strategy than we were, and that the changing conditions of global culture and economy are moving this approach to organizing our community’s future to a declining path.

Some of the changes that make our current community strategy less fruitful:

  • The global reaction to civil rights initiatives of all kinds has been to slow their impact and undermine the resource commitment needed to make the advances effective.
  • The global connection of diverse communities of people with disabilities has made the white nonprofit model of disability civil rights advocacy a real barrier to progress.
  • Advocacy organizations have two missions. One is the purpose for which they were created, and the second is to keep the doors open. There has been a gradual shift to focusing on keeping the doors open by advocacy organization management and boards, though there are many small organizational initiatives to refocus on original purpose. In the same way that politicians have increasingly focused on getting money as their job and modifying their ideologies to match the most effective ways of getting that money from their constituencies, so too has there been a gradual shift in the organizational base of the pursuit of personal autonomy and freedom of choice in our community.
  • Our current approach envisions the creation of disability freedom as
    • Creating models of effective and meaningful policy and law
    • Getting these models embedded into policy, practice, and law
    • Using the System to implement and enforce these policies and laws.
  • But the System is far less open to effective implementation and enforcement than it has been since the early years of our civil rights movement (true for all devalued community rights initiatives). The System’s logic for implementation and enforcement is to minimize the impact of  successful rights initiatives both in terms of their values and the resources committed to them. This means that our successes have less and less actual impact by themselves. In effect, the imposition of System logic gradually guts our successes.

Our community needs a different strategy to confront these realities.

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(P7): A Broader View of Strategy and Change

Young child playing Jenga, a board stacking game where the object is to pull wooden parts from the stack without causing a collapse of the tower.
Be Careful!
  • We know more than we can tell
    Michael Polanyi
  • If you want to change things, then you need to let a thousand flowers bloom —Dave Snowden
  • Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy. –Sun Tzu
  • Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking
    Antonio Machado

Back to Basics

In my model of Disability Rights Systems Change, Strategy is a framework for making decisions when the decision processes are clouded by future uncertainty and scarce resources. Ultimately, your strategy is an enacted framework of change design. The change design concerns four arenas of action:

  • Ends
  • Ways
  • Means
  • Integrity

Ends

In the language of advocacy, ends are valued outcomes, not simply possible outcomes or most likely outcomes. Advocacy fails if a valued outcome isn’t achieved, even if some other outcome is achieved.

Ways

You can think of ways as design paths to change which  you try and learn from. The paths can be conceptual, rather than geographic as they might be in a military action.

Means

What tools, resources, and other assets can you use to support your change efforts? In advocacy, there is also a dimension of morality in the use of means, which doesn’t exist in other arenas such as war, politics, and finance. Each effective use of means to change asks a moral question that must be addressed in our advocacy. For example, it wouldn’t be moral to fabricate a lie about the person representing a target in order to disrupt the ability of the target to negotiate effectively.

Integrity

Because advocacy can develop into long term negotiations with many ups and downs over the course of an advocacy initiative, we need to constantly assess whether our effort is retaining the values and broader advocacy purposes that were part of the initial change effort, or whether we are drifting away from that secure value-driven base.

The next part of this series will explore how FutureStrategy can be made real.

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(P7): Advocacy and Negotiation

Decorative
Negotiation

Students with Disabilities: An Advocate’s Guide

What disability advocates do

What is Structured Negotiation & Tips from Lainey Feingold

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.

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(P7): The Map is Never the Territory

A map of native tribal territories from the time before Europeans came to North America.
Tribal Map

No matter how hard we try to make it so.

No matter how many times we convince ourselves.

No matter how hard we wish.

The map is never the territory.

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.

Example:

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.

Results:

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.)

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(P7): Basic Idea of a Target Ecosystem

A simple model of a biological ecosystem, with the sun providing the basic source of energy, energizing producers to feed consumers, and letting consumers feed decomposers. All this action creates and maintains an Inorganic nutrient pool available to producers. Producers, Consumers, and Decomposers shed heat. And so the cycle goes.
How It All Works…

Educational Ecosystems
What Kind of Ecosystem Is Your School?
Net EDU Project: Educational Ecosystems
The Struggle of Two Missions

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.

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Person-Centered Planning and Social Justice

By Norm DeLisle: For Entire Post, Go Here…

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…

We are here, Get used to it.

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.

(P7): Enabling and Managing the Ecosystem of Advocacy/Targets

 An abstract view of how Community-Based Organizations participate and drive delivery system reform, as an example of an advocacy ecosystem. See link below image for text
Text Description of Image

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.

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