The power of advocacy

Advocacy can be empowering, and can also be a long and difficult road, marked by challenge, isolation and opposition. Insight editor Kellee Nolan asked Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights CEO Joumanah El Matrah about her views on the power of advocacy, and what it takes to persist in the pursuit of a fair and just society.

How does advocacy empower people?

I think one of the major reasons advocacy matters, both structurally and as an experience, is that it allows the individual to speak to the system. It is really invaluable.

I think power tries, not to ‘quash’ the individual, but, if you like to ‘atomise’ the individual, and make it just about the individual, and just about their experience. When, really, individual experience almost always says something really important about society as a whole. Most injustice is invisible to the mainstream.

So where do you think the ‘power’ in society lies?

There is a traditional understanding that there are core structures in society where power is held. So we’ve got government, we’ve got media, people with money; they’re the traditional holders of power. Advocacy always needs to focus on those things, but it is also important at the individual level. People need to find their voices as individuals, and in our society, it’s really important that we also speak as groups.

These days I’m focused not just on the experience of Muslim women. I see my greater goal as being about improving the status of minority groups in general, otherwise it doesn’t work in the longer term. Our aim is to produce a better society. I think minority groups sometimes atomise their own experience, and focus on equality for that group alone. And I can completely understand that, but actually what you need is a broader vision for a society, in which no social category is grounds for exclusion.

At the same time, if you don’t work with the individual, what you eventually lose is advocacy from the ground up. That’s where it comes from. Without that, what you get is people wanting to take care of ‘those poor disadvantaged people’. And that always gets you, I think, into a dangerous domain, where strategies designed to help people actually take away their power, give them things they don’t want, render their experience worthless and their needs invisible, and generally add to the depletion of power that person might have had. So without personal experience, listening to how people want to proceed, what their experience is and how they want things to change, everything I think, gets lost.

And I do think in first world countries, we’re moving away from that grassroots approach, which I think is going to be the death of activism and meaningful advocacy.

How do you think we are moving away from the grassroots approach?

One of the main ways this is occurring is by governments no longer having much of an interest in grassroots organisations and movements, or in funding groups to do their own work. Instead, they’re becoming far more interested in ‘streamlining’ and ‘efficiency’, which they see as only being possible through the creation of large mainstream entities that service everybody. What this actually means is that you have welfare corporations that deal with service delivery, rather than a welfare system that’s in part a social movement, and in part a service provider.

I’m not against the service delivery model. I think it definitely has a place, but it can’t be the only approach. It takes the oxygen out of self-empowerment, agency over issues, it makes it very difficult to identify both the problems that people have in a meaningful way, and the appropriate solutions.

We need everyone, many people and groups, to be involved. I think if you’re trying to deal with complex social issues, like racism, settling into a new country, violence against women, these are very, very complex social problems. They need time to work out. People will have different solutions, and these have to be tried out. And I understand that some of that may look like it’s chaotic, but there is, if you like, a method to the madness. You do arrive at where you need to arrive, and you do get progress around how social problems might be solved.

What do people need to find within themselves to become advocates?

To become advocates, I think people need a sort of levelheadedness around how long it takes for things to change, how much resistance there can be and what it feels like to repeatedly fail. And that, in fact, you may not see the change you’re seeking in your lifetime, but that your contribution nonetheless matters. That you are picking up the baton from someone before you and, ideally, you have a good enough baton to pass on to someone else.

I think they’re the things you have to find in yourself to begin with, because otherwise you may end up bitter, angry and deflated. There’s a lot of grief to be faced in watching, repeatedly, people and governments refusing to do what you believe is the right thing. And the terrible reasons people will find for that. “It costs too much,” or, “it has no value for anybody but your group”; I’ve had that one quite a few times. Or that you’re not a sufficient voting bloc, that you’re on the fringes of society, that people can’t really relate to your experience.

There’s a lot of grief in that, to watch people do that. So I think 90 per cent of being a successful advocate is really being able to deal with, and being ok with, just how hard it is. It can be incredibly disheartening. But it’s not to say that you’re not achieving, you’re always gaining achievements, you’re just maybe not recognising it. Just the fact that you are even at a table may not feel like an achievement, especially if people are not listening to you, but it is. You may walk away and feel like you’ve done nothing, but that’s still more than what would have happened 10 years ago perhaps. So that sense of failure isn’t necessarily connected to reality, but you still have to deal with those feelings.

Domestic violence is one of those issues where nothing was done for a really, really long time. I’ve been working on domestic violence, and other forms of violence, for about 15-20 years. And I remember ministers seeing me coming and just turning around and walking the other way. Although that situation has come to change now.

So it’s really dealing with those things. But I think the other thing you need to be a really good advocate is to find people with similar experiences, and organisations with a similar cause, and to be able to work collaboratively, even if you don’t agree 100 per cent. It is utterly crucial. And a capacity to listen to others is crucial. I’ve seen lots of people who are really good at bringing attention to the issue, but it doesn’t go anywhere because they can’t work with other people.

And it’s also crucial because part of the way power works in atomising individuals, is that it isolates you. And isolation is one way in which your power is taken from you. Making you feel you are quite alone. And so you achieve less.

How do people with power isolate advocates?

They can isolate you by making sure you don’t succeed, responding to your concerns as though they are not real issues, that they’re just issues you see and that it is something very particular about you. And there are a lot of subtle techniques around not listening to you. I’m sure a lot of advocates have had this experience, where you’ll go to a meeting and those who need to make decisions will just pretend you don’t exist. And that’s very isolating.

You need to recognise those strategies are used on everybody. It’s not personal. That your ‘failure’ is not unique to you. That this is how power works. And probably all those strategies have been tried out on many people before you and have proved themselves successful, which is why they’re being used on you again.

Is it passion for the outcomes you’re working towards that keeps you advocating in the face of challenges, isolation and opposition?

I guess, to keep going on as an advocate, my thing is to realise that it isn’t about me really. And I guess that I now know enough about how power works for me not to take it personally. But that’s why it’s so important to have this view that you are working for a better society in general, not for you specifically.

I’ve seen what society looks like when you’re on the outside. I know even in terms of my own experience coming out to Australia, and not only in those glimpses where people have been quite racist because they’ve worked out that I’m Muslim. But I’ve also worked for a long time with homeless men, with survivors of sexual violence and with women who are escaping violence. It is just unacceptable that we allow people to be treated in that way, and I don’t want to live in a society that treats people like that. And I’m not unique in this view.

At the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights, our focus is still on Muslim women because that’s our area of expertise. But from that we have also built alliances with other minority groups and try to assist them where possible. We’ve started to work with gay and lesbian Muslims. We support other efforts to work with refugees and asylum seekers.

We’re also increasingly using language and developing programs about empowerment in general. We do a lot of human rights education and we do a lot of empowerment work with women. We don’t just focus on their human rights, or their leadership, we focus on how they might contribute to society in general. We talk about the fundamental idea of human rights for everybody. And when we’re doing leadership programs, we talk about leadership for everybody.

We work with any community group that wants to work with us, so long as their goal is also the pursuit of justice.

Joumanah El Matrah is Chief Executive Officer at the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights. © Victorian Council of Social Service, 2016

Power to Persuade