Daily reports of hate crimes, violence, and discriminatory acts emerging from unjust policies proposed by the new Republican administration disturb and frighten many of us. With this current political climate, civic responsibility, advocacy and social accountability are are receiving renewed attention. Preparing and educating students to be social change agents and to teaching them how to respond to injustices in their community and more broadly is critical for their emotional well-being as well as providing a counter-narrative in this current climate. As more individuals express interest in fighting inequities facing targeted and vulnerable communities, teachers, counselors, and other educators must learn to support, teach and promote advocacy skills in their students.
There are many ways to be an advocate and it would be difficult to capture all possible definitions of a term that is often overused and misused. Most frequently, I see an advocate—especially among educators—simplistically described as a “helper” which limits the potential for seeing advocacy on multiple levels of change. Moreover, the idea of a “helper” creates a power dynamic that may inadvertently oppress and victimize, and not empower, the “helpee.” Rather, I believe it is important to understand and facilitate advocacy across various structures that contribute to inequitable conditions. This includes, but it is not bound to understanding, analyzing, and intervening across familial, social, educational, community, cultural, political, and historical systems.
In my early work as a counselor, I used to think that caring and wanting to support others were enough to be an effective advocate. But over time, and across different cultural, educational, and political contexts, I learned that there are many skills that are needed to be an effective advocate. Below, I share a few key ones: Flexibility, Critical Analysis and Collaboration.
Teaching youth to be cognitively flexible is critical because when you are advocating for change, individuals encounter many different people and perspectives. Often , change won’t happen if you appear too rigid or stubborn in your views. Hence, I believe we need to teach students to work with different types of people and situations—even when they must confront different belief systems and political ideologies. This includes teaching youth to see multiple perspectives, understanding when to compromise, and being open-minded.
It is also very important for youth to learn how to critically analyze inequitable conditions. This entails specifically teaching students how to evaluate and realistically assess different situations and emerging injustices across multiple systems and layers. Analytic skills can be learned at the forefront of an issue (observing and interacting with people or at events) as well as behind the scenes doing historical research or policy analysis. Students must learn to be active listeners, ask probing questions, and piece together information from different sources. They also need to investigate the multiple layers of an issue through analysis. For example, when understanding injustices raised by new policies impacting undocumented students, it may be helpful to hear from undocumented students, community advocates, as well as individuals who may have inaccurate and negative perceptions of undocumented immigrants.
In schools, students are primarily tested and graded independently. Certainly, there are group projects and exercises, but students are not always taught how to be effective collaborators. As youth learn to be effective advocates, they must understand how to build and develop meaningful partnerships. This entails sharing power, ideas, biases, and vision. Creating partnerships also involves being able to identify and foster the unique strengths of collaborators.
Since the results of the presidential election in November, we have seen courageous acts of advocacy among our youth as they navigate and confront unjust practices and policies. We need to channel this positive energy among youth and intentionally and specifically support their development and leaders and advocates. This can begin at home with parents, guardians, siblings, and other family members but can teaching advocacy must also be supported and fostered in educational and community settings. Learning about the unfairness in the world can be difficult for youth with mixed feelings and reactions. As we support youth advocates, we must also remind them (and ourselves) to practice self-care so they can continue to be strong in this collective fight for equity.
Christine Yeh is a Professor at the University of San Francisco and Co-Director of the Center for Research, Artistic, and Scholarly Excellence. She works in solidarity with historically targeted communities to address and fight bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and other forms of hate and bigotry.