As a part of this month’s chapter challenges, I was asked to write opinion pieces on environmental advocacy issues. When I read this request, I have to admit I cringed.
I am not an op-ed writer, a scientist, or a researcher. I have never studied ecology issues, botany, climate change, sea –level rise, or any topics related to the environment. There are a lot of people out there advocating about things that they just don’t know that much about and I vowed when starting this blog that I was not going to become one of them. This blog was created for the purpose of sharing and questioning my personal beliefs rather than advocating or convincing others to believe or adopt my beliefs.
With that said, it does not mean I do not have opinions to share and that I don’t care about environmental issues. I have very strong opinions about the environment, the work that I do and advocacy in general. I just prefer to share them in dialogues or in informal blog posts rather than in op-ed letters. More importantly, I believe that anyone who advocates their opinions in public should have a solid knowledge of the topic they’re discussing or equal personal experience to base their ideas on. I admittedly do not possess the knowledge on either topic of “water quality in the Chesapeake Bay” or “natural gas extraction”. So, sorry to say, I will not be fulfilling this particular “Living Chapters” task in the way that it was suggested.
I will however share some of my opinions on advocacy with you. I believe in advocacy. I think it works when there is complete dedication, knowledge and passion behind it. Advocating is very much like campaigning – using all your efforts and networks to help others understand why you believe what you believe. Often it comes off negative, saying that the person or groups that you are trying to reach, are in the wrong. Can you tell me how you feel when someone says that your heartfelt belief about something is wrong? In my opinion, it is not a good way to try to get anyone to come around to understanding your way of looking at things. (think about the political campaigns in the past 10 years, did any of those candidates reach you with any of their campaign strategies?)
In my opinion, the key to good advocacy work is engaging people with the topics in which you are advocating. Connect with your target audience and engage them with the advocacy issue(s) in a personal way. Find out what your audience cares about and why they care before telling them what they should believe.
Advocate by asking.
So if I had to advocate for anything? I would advocate listening. I believe listening, followed with dialogue are the two crucial elements in moving toward collective change and problem solving of any kind.
Throughout my entire career, my work has often been confused with direct advocacy work because of the nature of the topics I have focused on and the populations that I have worked with. Topics have included: education and youth, social justice, homelessness, eminent domain, drug addiction, diversity, and the environment. The focus and goal of my work has been to encourage people within the communities I work in to use their own voices and engage with the issues that are important and relevant to them. The key has always been finding out what is important to them.
I find that I am actually pretty good at doing this. It may seem like a weakness to some people, but I believe that one of my biggest talents is my ability to “not advocate” or share my individual voice or strong opinion on issues. In other words… I am a good listener.
This trait alone has enabled me to be welcomed into a variety of organizations, groups, cultures and communities. Being open neutral and welcoming to any and all perspectives when encountering those with different ideas and opinions than my own, has provided me with numerous learning opportunities.
I cannot tell you how many times I have gained trust, built a relationship and gotten further into dialogue with someone by simply asking them to share their opinions before sharing my own. If you are genuinely interested in hearing and learning about someone else they will genuinely express themselves, open up to you and become more willing to listen and engage honestly.
My background in practicing this skill is what most likely landed me my current job at the Maryland Humanities Council. I was hired on to develop one, of their many, dialogue programs Practicing Democracy. This program uses the humanities (film, speakers, literature, and media) to bring Marylanders together for civic dialogue around polarizing community issues. The main challenge in developing this program is to create a place for ALL opinions and voices to be heard and shared in neutral and safe spaces. Another challenge is engaging those diverse voices in the dialogue who have not previously been involved. How do you get people with opposing opinions to really listen to one another? And if they do come together can they find any common ground?
Well, the jury is still out on both of these questions as we are still experimenting in the ongoing evolution of the program. But in the three years doing these dialogue experiments, I have learned this: The desire for dialogue and thee need for a neutral convener is present. In each of our programs, we have been successful in bringing diverse voices to the table and we have been successful in highlighting and bringing new awareness to the chosen community dialogue topics. How did we do this? We asked for opinions and we asked for personal stories. To succeed in our goals of bringing diverse voices and perspectives together, we needed to leave advocating for or against issues out of the picture entirely. Instead we focused on community engagement, listening to what people cared about and inviting as many people as possible into the discussion no matter what their opinion was.
So yes, I have heard a lot of opinions in my work and have diligently kept my own mouth shut in order to do so. (Although sometimes not an easy task) Through this process I have learned to accept that everyone has their own truth. Some truths are backed by facts or numbers (science) some by personal life or work experience, some are based in faith and some are based in nothing I can understand or agree with. What I do understand though is that if you tell someone their truth is wrong and your truth is right before listening to them, a dialogue is not possible. Without dialogue a compromise is not possible, and without compromise collective change is less likely. And as far as the advocating for the environment – I believe we can all make individual choices and changes. This will help on a small-scale and at a slow pace. But if we want to see monumental progress we need to figure out how to work together and change collectively. And in my humble opinion, if we are going to start working together we have to start listening to one another first.
Just finding this blog today? Read more about the Living Chapters project here.