What is Advocacy? Advocacy is a word we all hear on a regular basis, thrown around on the news, in the paper, etc. In fact, a Google News search for the word yields nearly 74,000 results. Despite its growing commonality, is it a word whose definition we fully understand? What is advocacy, exactly, and what does it mean to be an advocate?
According to the group Rights of Older People, advocacy “involves representing and working with a person or group of people who may need support and encouragement to exercise their rights, in order to ensure that their rights are upheld.” Speaking, writing or acting on behalf of those who are disadvantaged or groups being discriminated against are core ideals to the definition of advocacy.
The Alliance for Justice suggests several activities that could be included in a demonstration of advocacy: conducting research, organizing a rally, broadening public education and awareness, mobilizing voters, engaging in litigation and lobbying. Furthermore, the group encourages organizations wanting to be more involved in advocacy to become educated on current policies and issues; evaluate the organization’s missions, values and strategic plan while also collaborating with those who share similar values and goals.
Now it may seem to many that advocacy is virtually synonymous with the word “activism,” as they both involve public action and support of a particular belief, policy or group. According to DoSomething.org, activism “can be described as intentional action to bring about social change, political change, economic justice or environmental well being.” Most often equated to notions of protest or dissent, activism takes a wide variety of forms, ranging from writing letters and political campaigning to locking yourself in chains or organizing a sit-in.
While advocacy falls under the umbrella of activism, not all forms of activism are necessarily advocacy. “An advocate can also be involved in controversial activities or issues,” says DoSomething.org, “but because they are speaking on behalf of a group, they tend to be more likely to follow the paths of lobbying and legislation.” It seems as if speaking, rather than acting in general, is what distinguishes advocacy from activism.
Linguistically, the word “advocacy” stems from the Latin roots meaning “to summon,” “to voice” or “to call to,” as UNICEF explains, evoking the image of “calling people to stand by your side.” Defined by UNICEF as “an active verbal support for a cause or position,” advocacy involves public vocalization, not necessarily direct action; as an advocate, the main priority is to make your voice heard, especially if your voice is representing an underprivileged class of individuals.
These definitions and explanations help to make advocacy less abstract and more tangible and accessible. You do not have to engage in a protest march, donate bundles of money or even organize a political campaign to be an advocate. In the end, it boils down to this one fact: if you have a voice, you can be an advocate.