Becoming a Better Advocate: Moving Past “Getting It Right”

Becoming a Better Advocate: Moving Past “Getting It Right”
By Shannon Lee (she/her), Executive Director, Leadership Columbus

Back in early May, my 50% LGBTQ+ staff came to me and said, “We’ve discussed this and decided we don’t want the emotional labor of creating the June/Pride Month blog post and so we’ve nominated you to write it.”

My reaction? An enthusiastic, “Ok!”

Fast forward to late May. I had nothing but a blank screen in Microsoft Word. Day after day, I moved the self-imposed deadline from Tuesday, then to Thursday, then to…I don’t know…next week sometime. I never lost sight of this task I agreed to, but I was certainly procrastinating its completion. And now with the deadline looming, my chosen (albeit shifting) target became more definite. We post around the middle of the month, and I needed time to write, edit, and send to the staff for final review.

I was running out of time.

One thing I’ve learned about procrastination is that I usually dawdle because I am avoiding discomfort. Deal with the discomfort and the put-it-off-til-tomorrow magically evaporates.

So, what was making me so uncomfy?

My exploration starts as it usually does with questions. Why am I uncomfortable? What am I afraid of? What am I avoiding and why? The answers came slowly but surely and I realized I was holding onto a need to ‘get it right’ combined with a fear of doing harm and saying something ill-informed.

I believe leaders have a great responsibility to first do no harm, kind of like doctors. There’s a greater weight in our words and actions when we are in positions of power and influence. Because of this weight, leaders can do a lot more harm even if unintentionally. So, I put a lot of pressure on myself to not create more harm, especially towards a community who is experiencing so much harm from people in power. The fearmongering, legislation, and intentional disinformation largely perpetrated by those who have the power, knowledge, and ability to use their positions to bring healing and yet have chosen another path.

However, in my effort to do no harm I realized I was frozen with fear and the subtle yet powerful need to achieve perfection (something I work on constantly). My procrastination was good ole fashioned fear of getting it wrong.

Specifically, my concern was how to know when I should speak up and advocate and when I should be quiet, so as not to stifle or speak over historically marginalized voices.  I went to the staff at a recent staff meeting and told them how I was feeling and before I could even fully explain, they exclaimed, “That’s the blog post!” And here we are.

For me, the solution lies in one of my values: growth and development. I’ve identified why I was putting this off and now I’m motivated to write. But how can I further my unlearning around needing to be right? I need to learn the difference between advocate and savior and because I know that learning happens as a process, I needed to understand how anyone (including myself) can develop in this space. How can we move from a lack of awareness to advocacy?

There are really four stages and I’d like to identify and define them, and then give short examples of how to move to the next stage.

Stage 1: Unaware

When you are unaware you have little to no knowledge or interest in learning about the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, you are indifferent or even resistant to learning. This leads to easily believing misconceptions about privilege, equity, and inclusion. Typically, when you are unaware, your unconscious biases are hidden from view because you believe one’s perspectives should be private. You take little to no risk at this stage. Please know, your lack of interest and level of resistance does show but in ways you may not be aware of yet. And most importantly, this apathy creates harm.

To move to the next stage, it’s important to intentionally challenge your long-held beliefs. This self-confrontation helps bring your unconscious commitments and biases to the surface so you can evaluate them. As you become more open to learning, empathy forms as your eyes are opened to the harm that has and continues to occur towards the LGBTQ+ community. You begin to see where your actions don’t align with your intentions. Intentions are nice but they are only useful if they inform and align with your actions.

Stage 2: Aware

Once you move to the second stage which is awareness, you have some knowledge and a growing concern about the LGBTQ+ community. You are making a concerted effort to educate yourself and are willing to learn from different perspectives than in your previous in state. You step out of your echo chamber and seek new information. This keeps your perspective private, but your empathy and concern are growing.

To continue developing, you need to deepen your contact with folks in the LGBTQ+ community and take action to support greater equity for them in your spheres of influence. This also means you’ll need to deepen your understanding of how your biases have impacted others.

Stage 3: Active

In the Active stage, knowledge is growing, and you are learning about ways to further address inequities in the LGBTQ+ community in contextualized ways.  You’ll begin to figure out how to act in ways that don’t do harm but uplift. You will make mistakes at this stage because now your perspective is made more public through your actions. There is some personal risk here as you speak out. There may be those in your circle who are still unaware and are critical of you. This is not a reason to stop or to be afraid but rather work to accept as a part of becoming an advocate.

As you move towards advocacy, you will need to proactively mitigate biases and question your privilege. You’ll see how that privilege allowed you to hold certain beliefs before. You may experience guilt – please know, feeling guilty at this stage is normal, however, expressing that guilt to historically marginalized folks is not helpful.  Your guilt is a good sign that your empathy is growing, and I would encourage you to work towards transforming that guilt to compassion which is more of an active response. Also, in many ways, focusing on your guilt is centering your own experience and one of the primary goals of being more equitable and inclusive is centering the experiences of others. A journal is your friend in these instances.  Additionally, find other allies who share your concerns for the inequities in the LGBTQ+ community and continue to explore actions that are in alignment with your intentions.

Stage 4: Advocate

The key differentiator here is you have extensive knowledge and practice consistent activism about matters within the LGBTQ+ community. You’ve committed to and learned techniques to address inequities in your spheres of influence. You will begin to find ways to expand that influence in broader ways. For some that may be policymaking, community activism, or even philanthropy.

If you identify as being an advocate now, this doesn’t mean your work is done. You must continually challenge your own biases and assumptions about others. You will actively find ways to amplify LGBTQ+ voices and adjust your actions intentionally to align with your values around inclusion.

Here are some specific actions you can take as an advocate:

1. Challenge Indifference

  • Acknowledge the efforts, skills, and abilities of LGBTQ+ folks on your teams.
  • Invite others into the learning process so they too can become an advocate. (Ask me about our DEI minute in staff meetings!)

2. Provide Visibility

  • Ensure LGBTQ+ folks have opportunities to present, influence, and lead at your organization/on your teams.
  • Listen to their feedback and suggestions for a more equitable workplace and allow others to see their input being implemented.

3. Create Safe(r) Spaces

  • Don’t assume someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation. This can happen easily in conversations when we use gender conforming terms.
  • Make the use of pronouns the standard and use them yourself. Also, understand that one’s use of pronouns may evolve and change over time.
  • Immediately deal with harassment and bullying. Zero tolerance.

So back to my discomfort. Once I started to apply these concepts to my uneasiness, I evaluated my progress in these stages. First, progress isn’t linear, and it is often repeated. What I mean is, I believe when we work on these things, we may be an advocate around specific topics and yet require more growth in others. Like all learning, we repeat these steps again and again as new information is uncovered. As we go deep within and challenge our unconscious biases, another process is set in motion to uncover, discover, and discard.

For the most part, I am currently vacillating between Active and Advocate on most inclusion issues I’ve uncovered in myself. But there are still so many more and I am committed to doing the work. I share this to encourage others to make that commitment too. Our friends, family, and neighbors are being treated unjustly by those in power and they need our solidarity and personal commitments to inclusion work.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post! I’ve adapted the information on the stages of development from Blanchard’s program, Courageous Inclusion. I’ll be conducting a free “Taste of Courageous Inclusion” virtually on August 15. If you want to sign up, you can do so here!