The earliest memory I have of advocating for someone is an event that happened when I was in the fourth grade. The intensity of this memory tells me that this type of activity was new to me in its form -- I took an action that terrified me on behalf of another -- and in its consequences, both at the time and decades later. True to my shy ten-year-old self, very fearful of authority figures and consistently concerned with getting in trouble, this act was a covert one.
My best friend Kelly had been born with a disability, one that was phyically obvious but in no visible way affected her involvement in every single one of our classroom (and other) activities. We never, ever talked about it. There were no questions regarding how it felt to live with this, no opening up about discomfort or pain. We acted as if it were not there.
I obviously thought about it, though, because I felt some deep need to take care of her that went well beyond my compulsive desire to help each of my friends.
One day during our reading group, our teacher spoke very curtly to Kelly. This was not unusual; this particular teacher often utilized short, clipped language to communicate displeasure with us. For some reason, the fact that she used it with Kelly infuriated me. (I have often wondered whether this was due to Kelly’s disability or to the fact that she was my best friend). The next day, arriving at school very early with my mom, who taught there, I snuck into my classroom before our teacher arrived. Furtively glancing down the silent hallway to ensure no one would witness my act, I grabbed a small piece of paper from my front jeans pocket and quickly placed it on her desk. It said two words:
I scurried back to my mother’s classroom and began a 24-hour period of intensely waiting. I watched for some evidence that my directive had been received and would be obeyed. There were no changes in my teacher’s behavior. I felt defeated. My attempt to transform someone else’s behavior on behalf of my friend had failed.
The next morning, though, as I was absorbed in coloring a large Snoopy poster in my mom’s classroom while waiting for school to begin, I heard my name being gently called from the hallway. I glanced up to see my teacher standing there. “Amy, would you come with me, please?” My hand began to shake as I placed the crayon down and stood to follow her.
Once we were seated in her classroom, my teacher opened her hand to reveal my note. “Did you write this?” she asked. I nodded as tears filled my eyes -- and then hers. She asked why I had done it, and I attempted to explain. I have no memory of the words that were spoken after she asked the question. I know I did not get in trouble. I may have noticed a change in her behavior after that conversation, but that is not what remains in my consciousness.
What abides in my awareness is what was absent throughout my act and its repuercussions -- my friend.
Kelly never asked me to take action on her behalf. Indeed, she never expressed any feeling at all about our teacher’s way of speaking to her. It is likely that she would have been made uncomfortable, perhaps even embarrassed, by my note.
What I did not know then but realize now is that Kelly was not a subject to me that day. She was an object, someone -- maybe even something -- on which to focus my outrage.
And this happens all the time in advocacy.
I have certainly replicated this kind of behavior countless times since my fourth grade entry into the world of advocacy. I have fiercely protected the rights of others, working tirelessly on their behalf all the while forgetting to actually see them. In my attempts to ensure they no longer experience whatever pain, injustice, or cruelty I am advocating against, I sometimes have failed to actually sit with them as they respond to that pain, injustice, or cruelty.
Years ago, someone committed a unjustifiable transgression against me. As people became aware of this action, many of them advocated for me by protesting it, either with their voices or with their finances. Their rage initially felt protective of me and comforted me. However, over time, I realized that I had become invisible in their advocacy. Like my support of Kelly and so many others, their advocacy had turned me into an object. I was something around which to rally rather than someone to companion.
In addition to social justice situations, I see this happening in the world of healthcare all the time. Those of us with serious illnesses often have to rely on others to speak up for us -- to remind nurses that our pain medications are due, to visit offices to fill out paperwork while we lie in hospital beds, even sometimes to influence medical professionals to pay attention to us and treat us like people rather than illnesses.
And, in the midst of all that advocating, we often begin to feel objectified by those who are advocating for us. Our care becomes a list of duties to fulfill or problems to solve and sometimes we even perceive ourselves to be lists of duties and problems.
Companionship and advocacy are not the same thing. And we need both in order to support one another. One of my greatest blessings in life stems from the multitude of opportunities I have to serve others as their advocate -- and to be on the receiving end of advocacy as well. And I have learned that it is vital that I perform these actions in ways that do not objectify those for whom I am advocating.
This is not easy. Sometimes one individual is able to navigate this tricky landscape by becoming both companion and advocate at the same time, in the same situation. Sometimes, though, we have to divide those duties amongst a group of people, making sure that the energy of advocacy is contained and curated separately from the loving, witness place of companioning. There is no formula that will always work. What helps is for us to continually ask ourselves, “Am I really seeing this person? Am I spending time witnessing their experience in addition to rallying against it?”
Decades after leaving fourth grade, the memory of my entry into advocacy work returned. At a writing retreat in the high desert of New Mexico, I met a new friend; as we exchanged the usual “getting to know you” information, we realized that she had taught in that same elementary school. Later in the week, stimulated by a particular writing prompt, I shared the story with my friend. She laughed and let me know that my teacher likely did need to receive that message; her method of communicating with students was abrasive and often unkind.
My inner fourth grader beamed with pride; I had perhaps taught the teacher something.
That feeling of satisfaction quickly shattered when I realized that I had not seen Kelly or heard anyone mention her name since fourth grade. She would never know about the action I took “on her behalf”. Was it, then, really on her behalf? That feeling of pride has become my guide. When it arises, I realize that my advocacy has more to do with me than with whomever I think I am supporting. So I take off my SuperAdvocate cape in exchange for the nudity of companionship. Then I can return to the place where I am able to lovingly witness this person experiencing this situation in this moment.