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Advocacy Learning Community: Takeaways from Year One

We launched the Advocacy Learning Community (ALC) in 2020-2022 when the world was on fire. We held virtual conversations with advocates, managers and directors to shape the learning community. We also spoke with survivors from various member programs to hear about their experiences accessing services and support. From these conversations it was clear advocates and directors alike wanted a space for people working at our programs to connect and reflect deeply that was not a traditional training format yet would still be a place to learn and be challenged.

This was a new way to connect and went beyond previous ways we had connected as colleagues.

ALC member

We met over four sessions together with self-study sessions in between and welcomed WSCADV faculty Nan Stoops, Deadria Boyland and Heather Wehr, as well as guest faculty Alisa Bierria.

I realized that the crises of the client situations that I encounter every day, the crises that our agency has experienced (lots of turnover and quick changes within programs), and the crises going on in the world have been compounding and sticking with me. Just naming this is grounding and helpful.

ALC member

Naming the storm and finding our herd: Living through COVID and the reawakening of social movements

In our first session, Nan Stoops introduced the concept of a buffalo herd moving through a storm as we took stock of what we have gone through making sense of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent isolation across our country and the world. Advocates shared their suffering and poignant reflections as they named the individual and collective storms they endured over the past two years—while living through a time of not only a pandemic and isolation, but also of protest, racial reckoning, and a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of these storms and their impacts continue to emerge.

Buffalos weather storms not on their own, but with the support of their herds. ALC members found support and comfort in each other and left with new members in their herd. Finding our herds meant connecting with people who would help sustain both advocacy work and hope for moving forward through the storm.

Vulnerability was clear- our personal storms were there with us.

ALC member

Re-framing crisis work

Advocates considered the question, “What could our advocacy look like if we didn’t approach everything as a potential crisis?” The result was a deep and fruitful reflection on: what and who defines a crisis; what shifts can be made to deescalate feelings of crisis in ourselves and among staff; how to help survivors identify ways to manage ongoing trauma symptoms.

Participants agreed when we view all domestic violence advocacy as crisis work, we miss the opportunity to support survivors with strategies to navigate the daily challenges of living with and healing from trauma. Even shifting something as small as removing the word “crisis” in a program name can remind us of the rich and complicated advocacy opportunities that exist when working with survivors. For example, some programs shared that their 24-hour line did not need to be named a “crisis line” because that was not an accurate description of what they were able to provide. For many, just naming the way that crisis is so tied to the advocacy we do was grounding and helpful. From this grounded place, we discussed what advocacy could look like and participants shared that it would include space for creativity, to act from an abundance mindset and slow down to do more mutual problem solving.

Advocacy as a product is “anti-relational”

Since the 1990s, advocacy services have become increasingly professionalized and sometimes viewed through the for-profit model of survivors as customers and services as products. While funding for advocacy programs increased, so did the pressure to prove our value and document evidence our work. The continuing impacts of COVID exacerbated advocates exhaustion, staff turn-over, a lack of open communication between staff and management, and funder expectations of services. These additional pressures and requirements take away time from building deep relationships with survivors and meeting their complex advocacy needs. Advocates explored the way that advocacy is “anti-relational” when advocates are expected to serve high numbers of survivors which made ALC participants reflect that advocacy services sometimes felt superficial and not responsive to the complicated needs that survivors have.

The breakout room felt like a sacred space within the larger group.

ALC member

For example, ALC members discussed how policies and procedures can focus more on liability and reporting requirements. This impedes listening to the survivor deeply, with curiosity, time, and spaciousness. Reducing paperwork, reexamining policies and procedures with the purpose of creating more space and time for survivor-driven advocacy and relationship building. Advocates wondered, “how can we balance sustainability and connection?” Their drive was to support survivors holistically and change the relationship between advocate and survivor to be primarily centered on care, healing, and self-determination.

ALC connection is joyful and builds confidence to try new things

The ALC opened possibility for creative and mutual problem solving.

ALC member

ALC members got a “boost” from being together and sharing with each other. The sharing felt like a release valve and fostered hope as attendees experienced unity with new advocate connections.

This came as a relief to many because the heaviness, grief and fatigue of the past two years of the pandemic has not let up and programs are struggling. Members felt gratified that they were not alone in their feelings of uncertainty. Together they felt prepared to move forward through the storm and lean on each other as they continue to explore evolving advocacy strategies.

What’s next for the ALC?

ALC members said, “we want to do our work differently.” We asked ourselves, “what should we keep doing?” and “what should we stop doing?” Throughout the ALC, advocates emphasized that survivors are experiencing threats to their safety and autonomy within their relationships and in the world around them.

Building on the connection and momentum from the first year, we will welcome new participants and continue exploring various questions including: 

  • What are survivors telling us they need now and how does this change advocacy?
  • What are ways to elevate survivor leadership, involvement and wisdom in our programs?
  • What principles are guiding our work as domestic violence organizations?
  • What can we learn from other types of community organizing and advocacy as we move forward?
  • How do we make the conditions in our communities more survivable and vibrant?

Domestic violence advocacy services are linked to our understanding that ending gender-based violence means survivors need us to both support them in navigating their relationships, as well as their experiences of State punishment like incarceration, removal of children and the resulting destruction of families and communities. Everyone should be free to make decisions about their body and their family, and experience sexuality without violence, coercion, and external control. All of this violence limits vibrant communities from thriving. We want survivors to have more choices and live and love freely without fear.