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Bringing Advocacy Home from the Annual Convention

Gregory Burbidge

What I was really planning on doing at the conference this year was coming and learn what trusted friends and advisers are doing all across the country. We spend so much time being part of a small pool of people doing the work we do in our communities that this is a rare chance to take a break from that isolation. I feel like I come to conference to learn advocacy, and instead I build relationships and discover a library of incredible research.

If I didn’t come home with an advocacy guide, it would be my secret. But as I thumb through my notes this year, it turns out I learned a lot about advocacy this year that I am going to go and share in Atlanta this month.

At the end of the month, I will talk to a small group of emerging leaders in Atlanta about advocacy. A colleague has added to his personal work plan this year the goal of meeting all the elected officials that represent him and I could talk about that. It would certainly be a good start for most people. At the conference though, I added some tools to pass along to the group.

All things obvious. All things you already probably know. None of the subtlety of conference for me, thank you.

Once is not enough…

The first unfortunate bit of news is one meeting won’t be enough. I think my colleagues’ efforts to meet each of their elected officials is absolutely heroic. I won’t manage to match this feat. But Bob Lynch, in his remarks, let us know that it is time to become a trusted adviser instead of a last minute lobbyist. I haven’t taken the time to think about how trusted advisers are developed.

My own colleagues that I would consider trusted advisers are people who I have had lunch with many times—people with whom I talk to about many things. Most are people not in my field but when something comes across my desk that relates to what they do, however remotely, I call them first. We become those advisers by being there. You can only have a voice by always being at the table, and not every lunch conversation should be about you. You need to show up, and when you do you need speak but also listen.

Hearing aids…

One of the presenters at the Emerging Leaders Preconference talked about going into a hostile meeting, and as they were getting push back, their response was to repeat the same information, but louder. And louder. And louder again. The problem wasn’t that the city councilors couldn’t hear the person, they just didn’t agree. And instead of changing tact, they thought sheer volume would win the day. Walking out, they realized they had not taken the time to listen to what was being said.

I am going to spend time encouraging my young advocate partners to be intentional about listening. I am terrible at listening, so it took me two years to catch on to that. When my legislator tells me they don’t want to fund the arts, my response can’t be to yell “fund them!” in their office. Why don’t they want to fund the arts? Are there other priorities in my community that I need to be paying attention to? How can I make what I do relevant to those priorities? Often the people we meet are going to have a very different set of priorities and points of view, and I need to not only present my view, but pay very close attention to theirs.

The community firing squad…

When I advocate with my friends, I am going to make sure we are working as a community, as a team. Artists often work in isolation for so long that when we finally need to come together to do good work we form our firing squad in a circle instead of a line. I have heard this same expression in three different communities now. People who thrive on creativity and individuality often have a harder time thriving in a team, but advocacy is a team effort, so I am going to spend some time this month trying to figure out a way my own little group can work on that better.

Passion is not enough…

Passion for what we do will not be enough. Last year at the Convention someone stood up and said they were tired of economic impact and the arts should be able to stand on their own. In listening to voices in my community, many people are not there yet. If I listen, the voice I hear is saying “jobs matter to me.” I hear a loud voice saying “our schools system is failing.” Many voices in Atlanta, and I agree, say “transportation reform is critical to any movement forward.”

Intrinsic impact of the arts will not likely speak to those needs. But with the latest economic prosperity report coming out, knowing the number of jobs created and supported will speak to that. Knowing how many catering positions alone the large institutions in my community support will speak to that. Knowing the number of bus driver positions supported will speak to that. Public art and transportation will be a complimentary conversation. New reports in schools finding success with arts and whole school change may be an entry point to a conversation not about arts, but about success and community.

Moving forward…

Passion is important, but this year we will advocate with passion informed by how what we do speaks to the concerns other people have. But I know I only made it to some sessions. I am very curious what other people will do to be community partners as advocates this year.

What community issues do you hear about, and how will you enter a meaningful conversation about addressing those issues whether or not the arts are a solution?

While I try to become a trusted voice to others, I will need to have as many trusted voices informing what I do as I can.

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