18 May, 2010

Advocacy: Not About You.

How do you do advocacy? How do you care for those who are in the midst of what many of us would call hell? How do you do so while giving dignity and individuality and human-ness back to the people you are trying to tell others about without making it all about you.

While I do not think there is just one way to do advocacy - I think we need to be careful that our efforts don't become more about us that those we are trying to help (not save!) and that is #1:

You are not here to "save" these people. You are not God or a savior; you alone will not end the war in the Congo, Darfur or end the spread of AIDS. You are a piece of a larger movement. So, keep that in perspective and do not put yourself into their suffering and pretend that you understand... 

Which leads to #2:
It is not about you, ever. You do not know half of what you think you do, and if you think that coming out of some State University where you have sat behind a desk and read Heart of Darkness and White Man’s Burden suddenly makes you an expert on the Congo and you can fix in 5 minutes what hasn’t been solved in 15 years – then you need a reality check and to realize there are people who have lived in this muck for 15 years and can’t tell you how to solve it, because if it were that easily believe me someone would have thought of it by now.

There is a man in the Sudan who is combating the LRA by brandishing a gun himself and pulling kids from the LRA and placing them in an orphanage to be cared for. The fact this man is doing this all in the name of God is a different post for a different day, but I think these paragraphs alone points to why were started with #1 and 2:
His story sounds more like a myth than reality when you first hear it: a white guy from the United States carrying an AK-47 in the back country of Sudan fighting crazy rebels with his small band of Sudanese soldiers. Sometimes the odds of him coming out alive is slim to none, such as the time when it was five against 200. But the unconventional pastor will explain time and again that God’s protection is the reason why he is still alive. He will also state that he is fighting God’s battle.

“Even in my wildest years, I had a passion for fighting another man’s war that continues to this day,” Childers writes in his new book Another Man’s War: The True Story of One Man’s Battle to Save Children in the Sudan. “I loved fighting then. And I still love fighting now. The difference is today I’m fighting for the children and families God sent me to protect.”

I, as a Christian, am weary of people saying they are fighting "God’s battle." And the more I find out about God the more I think the “violence will only understand violence” is just a bunch of self-centered nonsense that people use to justify their own need to carry an AK-47 and play Rambo in the jungle. My God is a god of love and quiet action - more Mother Teresa less crazy man who is only making things worse. 

Then there is Mia Farrow who went on a hunger strike to show her solidarity with the people of Darfur (see #2). After 12 days her doctors said it wasn’t safe for her to continue so she passed the responsibility to Richard Branson, who is quickly becoming one of my least favorite people because of the way he gimmicks advocacy and uses being trendy and hip to act like he cares (sort of like these guys). But as Wronging Rights put it, “Response from Darfur: "Sh*t, we can do that? I'ma get a sandwich. Eritrea, you're up!"”

I started this post last year, sorry for the dated materials. A post by Texas in Africa brought it all back 

"There's a big difference:
  • between saving someone and empowering her.
  • between aiding someone and enabling him.
  • between creating dependency and establishing ownership.

It's that simple. But making it happen is oh, so complicated." (via

I got into a (infuriating!) conversation a few years ago with a couple friends about advocacy. I hate (HATE!) organizations that use marketing to turn people into causes or tag lines - that take someone's life and reduce it down to an issue or an easily solvable problem that we in American can "fix." That is #3 - keep the humanity and dignity in the people you are serving. You are serving them, and the best service starts from a root of love, so why would you reduce someone you love to a commodity? Is that love or respect? No, its selfish. 

Reducing kids to a cup of coffee is not okay. Reducing a girl who has been trafficked into a cliche isn't either. 

My friend said you have to get above the noise and get people's attention. I said you need to treat everyone with respect and dignity and that the ends do not justify the means. 

Girls being trafficked and prostituted in Cambodia aren't mine to save. They aren't. The need help, sure. And someone to raise money, okay. They need access to social services, medical help, job training, a safe place to stay and counseling. But none of those things require me to "save her!" 

Texas in Africa wrote this too about why we feel we can "save" Africa in-particular, but I think it applies globally as well.  And, again, it all goes back to #1 - we have to be sure that our efforts to do good don't become all about us and end up doing more harm than good.