My career trajectory, like that of many others, went from a particular focus on distance education to a more holistic view of education as a whole. The opportunity to work with other organizations as a consultant and as a member of an accreditation commission broadened my understanding of the challenges facing institutions and the manner in which they attempted to solve them.
As I developed this broader perspective and took on increasing responsibility, I began to feel more acutely what is often referred to as the “culture of advocacy.” What do I mean by a “culture of advocacy? I’ll define it as the current tendency to organize around a single, narrow set of issues (sometimes legitimate…sometimes not) without particular reference to or deep consideration of the issues or problems facing other groups. In other words, advocacy is the tendency to believe that solving my problem is the solution.
But, isn’t there something wrong? Surely the world isn’t the way it should be? We do all have problems, right? Anyone who has talked to me for any length of time realizes that I do believe the world is not what it is supposed to be. A major part of the Christian worldview is the belief that all of creation has been impacted by humanity’s refusal to submit to God’s authority. So, if there are really problems, is the culture of advocacy really such a bad thing? My short answer…yes, it’s a really bad thing.
As we advocate for one issue or problem, we have a tendency to lose sight of complexity…we miss the manner in which various issues and problems (note the plural) interact and reinforce one another. Even if we resolve our problem or some portion of it, we may well find that we have not addressed the governing dynamics of the issue…we haven’t actually solved the problem or created real transformation. Instead, we have only alleviated a small sliver of the issue and our own personal tension. We make ourselves feel better, get complacent, and leave others who are still struggling with a not-right-world behind to fend for themselves.
As opposed to advocacy, what might it look like if we stopped picking sides and recognized that we are in this fight together? What if we actually assumed that most, if not all, of those we meet have problems? Not the same problems we have, but problems in need of solutions. What if, instead of solving our problem and making ourselves more comfortable, we took a broader view and sought out solutions with others?
In his book on social capital theory entitled Brokerage and Closure, Ronald Burt discusses the value of bridging the gaps within an organization. He argues that men and women who are able to engage with and understand the challenges and potential solutions of other groups develop unique and valuable vantage points. He notes, “…people who live at the intersection of social worlds are at a higher risk of having good ideas.”
Advocacy, in the way I’m using the term, doesn’t lend itself to living “at the intersection of social worlds.” It doesn’t give people an opportunity to be “at a higher risk of having good ideas.” Advocates put matters up for pseudo-debate, choosing one side and doggedly defending it without really considering other arguments or thinking about how the solution they want will impact others. Its the old monologue versus dialogue distinction…”I need you to hear me and address my issue, but I have no particular need to hear you or address yours.” Rather than seeking to understand the perspectives and problems of others, these pseudo-debaters take a stand and argue that their perspective is best (even when it may only be best for them). My suggestion is that we seek to confront the complex ways in which the world is not as it should be in a more collaborative fashion using the perspectives of others who see the world differently to help us develop a more complete picture of the world as it is.
I do not suggest here that we give up on the issues and problems for which we have a passion or are uniquely gifted and situated to understand. Rather, we must recognize that sometimes solving our problem isn’t the same as being part of the solution. Finding the patience to understand the perspectives of others, seeing how our problem intersects with theirs, and considering new ways of moving ahead together will be far more valuable than solving “my problem, right now.”