This piece is part of the Times’ ongoing series on women in Arkansas politics called “That’s What Girls Do.”
Growing up, I always thought advocacy and service work consisted of a group of women who worked at nonprofits, volunteered at shelters and pushed for change at the grassroots level. I say women because like most people I assigned genders to certain roles based on what I have been exposed to, and usually it’s women who do this work. As I became older and started getting involved in community service, I observed that advocacy work operates differently across multiple planes, including corporate offices, courtrooms, the halls of government, happy hours and private dinners. The work is done by people across various occupations, socioeconomic level and races, often by people who are advocating for causes that directly affect them or someone they love. Still, I primarily see women doing this work.
Any type of advocacy is only as strong as the chorus of voices who care enough to speak up and urge change on an issue, and it is built on the hours of work that lots of people put in to aid the mission. I have outlined a few areas that I hope will help those interested into getting into advocacy or for those who are already doing the work.
Examine your “why.” One of the questions I am most frequently asked is how I got involved with the organizations for which I advocate. I think it is important that when telling our stories we consciously put the focus on the cause we are promoting or the people that got us involved. This way, we keep the organization or the issue at the forefront of the conversation rather than centering ourselves. Advocacy is service. Your own personal experiences and motivations that inspire you to get into advocacy work will lead you to a particular issue or organization to serve. Beyond that, you will need to examine whether you are a good fit for the cause, the level of interest you have, and the level of commitment you can contribute. But in all these decisions, try to remember why you got involved in the first place.
My “why” is what keeps me going on those hard days. Much of my advocacy work involves helping those impacted by domestic violence, and my “why” comes from caring about people in my life who have experienced this issue. My friend Britney was abused by her boyfriend for many years, and we did not know. Over approximately three days, at 12 weeks pregnant, Britney and two other women were murdered by her boyfriend in a murder-suicide.
While I know that I personally could not have prevented these events, my grief inspired me to try to help. I now work with victims and survivors of domestic violence — going to hospitals and court hearings with them as an advocate, and providing transport services. I currently volunteer as a secretary of the Peacekeepers for Women & Children First. Women & Children First is a shelter that assists women, men, transgender people and children by providing crisis intervention, safe shelter, social and legal advocacy and support services. My primary role as a Peacekeeper is to assist with shelter events for the guest of the shelter, fundraise and provide domestic violence awareness. Every day that I do this work, I draw on my “why” to drive me forward. For me, it was the tragic loss of a friend. Your “why” will be different, but just as important to finding advocacy work that is fulfilling and sustainable.
Know your limits. You are human. Know how much time, finances and emotional capacity you can realistically contribute. Outside of my place of employment, where I advocate for students with disabilities and manage fair and thorough evaluation of sex discrimination and misconduct allegations, I am careful about setting boundaries and managing expectations. I am not expected to be at every event, meeting or fundraiser for any organization I work with. Sometimes I only have time for what I call drop-ins at the shelter. I drop needed items off for an event, and then I leave. And that’s OK. The organization needs those plates and cups to serve people, just as they need bodies to do the serving, and I have made peace with the fact that I can’t do everything. Some organizations require dues or membership. If you are unable to pay dues, see if there are other ways that you contribute financially or through work. In the past, I have provided college readiness workshops for high school students at Delta Presents Outreach Foundation, which is affiliated with the Little Rock Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
Knowing your limits isn’t just about your time or finances; you must also learn when you need an emotional break. The problem that you are working to alleviate did not start overnight, and probably is not going to go away tomorrow, regardless of how much of yourself you give. It’s OK to take a break and recharge so that you are better able to handle the work. And you should also examine which types of advocacy work you are best equipped to handle. I am occasionally called to assist with situations involving physically and sexually abused children. I never turn down the request for help, but I know that this is not work that I can handle doing on a consistent basis. This is someone else’s “why,” and it helps no one for me to get burnt out handling advocacy issues that aren’t a good fit for me. I can still contribute in other ways.
There are levels to this. Advocacy work is not monolithic. People are needed to answer phones, raise money, donate money, wrap Christmas gifts at a shelter, lobby politically, build playgrounds, renovate houses, send emails, make phone calls and many other things. The only time one set of efforts is more valuable is when there is an immediate need that must be urgently met. If you cannot physically be present for an organization, your donation can make the same impact. If you do not have the financial means to contribute, your skill set can be useful. Do you know how to use social media? Then you can contribute by sharing your organization’s needs, helping recruit volunteers, and help spread important information. Can your company become a corporate sponsor for an event or donate toward a goal? Ask the leadership at your company if they can assist. Even if you can’t personally contribute much money or time, you can recruit others to do so. If you are well known in your community, use your voice. Sometimes advocacy means highlighting important issues, supporting political candidates, holding people accountable and calling out biases. There is more than one way to do this work and almost every organization would welcome whatever level of help you can give.
Check your privilege. Everyone has privilege; it is not exclusive to a certain race, gender or socioeconomic class. My Aunt Marie says, “Even the dead have the privilege of peace.” Remember: advocacy is about the people that you serve. Your voice should be their voice magnified. Their issues should become important to you, but it is important to remember people are not an “issue.” The group of people you serve is made up of full and complex human beings, so be mindful not to perpetuate negative stereotypes through your work. If you are part of the majority, do not take over or become the face of an existing group where a person in a minority has created a space.
Remember to be genuine in everything that you do. Trust me, people can tell. There are inevitably big egos and self-centered people in every organization, and they make the work more difficult for everyone. Don’t be that person. It is never productive to go into a group assuming you can fix everything or meet all their needs, and it is arrogance to assume that you know what is best for them. Those who you serve may not make the best decisions — or what you perceive as the best decisions — and they may not utilize every resource that is offered. That can can be challenging to witness, and it is honestly one of the areas where I struggle. But in order to be true allies in this work, we have to keep in mind that all of the people we are advocating alongside are operating within their abilities and life experiences. Our job is to help, not judge.
Serving our community is one of the most rewarding things that any of us can do. The organizations that I have worked with are some of the biggest contributors to my personal growth. I have learned that this work is not one-sided; sometimes you give and sometimes you get. There will be moments where you laugh with someone during their darkest hours. You will be surprised to see a different viewpoint on an issue you thought you knew well, and that growth will make you a better advocate. If you put yourself into advocacy work for the right reasons, focused on your “why” and not our ego, you will be privileged to learn the opinions and experiences of people in your community who are all too often silenced or discriminated against. You will have the opportunity to impact people’s lives in a real and meaningful way, but it will likely be you who is most deeply affected.
Andrea Neal is the Title IX/ADA Coordinator at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Prior to her career at UAMS, she was the ADA Coordinator at Arkansas Baptist College, and she is the co-chair for the Racial and Ethnic Diversity and Disability Special Interest Group for the Association on Higher Education and Disability. Andrea’s community service and advocacy work includes serving as the Secretary of the PeaceKeepers, where she assists with fundraising and support for Women & Children First, one of the oldest domestic violence shelters in the state of Arkansas. As founder of the Buchanan Foundation, Andrea overseas programming of post-secondary options for middle and high school students in the Little Rock area, and for the past several years, she has volunteered with Real Images, a women’s empowerment organization, and Timmons Art Foundation, an organization that provides summer and after school art enrichment for youth.