On Being an Advocate: The Power of your Personal Story

Think of an issue you’re passionate about. If I asked you to tell me who the decision makers are, what would you say?

You probably identified an elected official as the decision maker, right? Perhaps, your State Representatives or State Senator, the Governor, or your Town or City Council or Select Board.

None of these answers are wrong, but don’t discount yourself. As a voter, a constituent, and an advocate, you have more power than you realize. Your personal story is powerful.

A scene from the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast‘s advocacy training in partnership with New Futures. Photo by Laura Harper Lake at the Regional Economic Development Center.

I recently had an opportunity to sit in on an advocacy training led by New Futures, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates, educates, and collaborates to improve the health and wellness of New Hampshire residents through policy change. While New Futures’ work is focused on health-outcomes, they offer advocacy trainings across the state because the skills of advocacy are transferable to whatever issue is most important to you. I wanted to share some of what I learned and encourage you to harness the power of your personal story.

First, what is advocacy? Here are just a few examples of advocacy: engage your local leaders by making a phone call, sending an email, or inviting them for a face-to-face conversation; submit a “letter to the editor” to your local paper; or use the power of social media to raise awareness and support.

ad.vo.cate (verb): publicly support or
recommend a particular cause or policy

The NH House of Representatives is one of the largest governmental bodies in the English-speaking world. Many argue 400 State Representatives is too many, but, as an optimist, I prefer to see it as 400 opportunities to engage a decision maker! Keep in mind that, with a few exceptions, elected positions in NH aren’t full-time. That means when you phone your Representative or City Councilor, you are probably calling their home or personal cell phone. 

The most important thing to remember is that decision makers are people. They probably drink coffee, and they’ll probably have a coffee with you — all you need to do is ask!

A scene from the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast‘s advocacy training in partnership with New Futures. Photo by Laura Harper Lake at the Regional Economic Development Center.

If you asked me to define advocacy, the image that jumps to my mind is someone testifying before a local board or at the State House at a public hearing. If you’ve never done it before, the idea may make you feel uncomfortable. You are not alone — I was terrified my first time!

If you’ve never testified before and you’re thinking about making the leap, go with someone you know! Bringing a friend will make you both feel more comfortable. Here are some other tips for testifying at a public hearing:

  1. Be brief (stick to your key points);
  2. Be respectful (yelling at the decision makers is not an effective way to inspire change);
  3. Be personal (reflect on your personal experience or the experience of your friends and neighbors);
  4. It is OK to be nervous and it is even OK to say that you are nervous.

A scene from the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast‘s advocacy training in partnership with New Futures. Photo by Laura Harper Lake at the Regional Economic Development Center.

Why is this important?

Last spring, a study was published by researchers at the Boston University Initiative on Cities. Researchers found that people who oppose multi-family housing development tend to speak at public hearings more often than those who support it. Those of us who work in housing laughed and thought, “well, we could have told you that.” But — it prompted me to ask some important questions. Why aren’t supporters speaking at public hearings? What can we do about it?

Housing affordability is my issue and there are certainly folks who oppose the policies and projects I advocate for. What is your issue? I guarantee you will face opposition, too. The truth is we can rarely persuade opponents to join our side, but we can outnumber them. I am probably not going to convince the not-in-my-backyard folks to support an affordable housing development, but there is strength in numbers and there is power in the personal stories of people who are affected by the state’s housing crisis. 

For more, check out this piece by Strong Towns on Getting a Response from Local Leaders and sign up for a New Futures advocacy training!

What does advocacy mean to you? What are the barriers that prevent you from being an advocate?

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