An Advocacy Primer: Tips From an Accidental Advocate

I am something of an accidental advocate. I spent most of my adult life disengaged from anything that seemed like politics. I could list the reasons, but you probably already know them – quite possibly, you already share them. But in 2004, when Barack Obama made his famous convention speech, I said to myself, if that guy runs, I’m in.

Long story short, I started by collecting signatures to get him on the ballot in New York State in October 2007, and ended up in charge of a 2,000-person volunteer corps that traveled back and forth to Northeast Philadelphia, helped Obama win the state of Pennsylvania. I remain engaged and involved to this day. In the process, I began to understand how to place myself in the wider world of advocating for the issues I believe in, within electoral politics as well as outside of it.

At its core, arts advocacy is about creating a better environment in which to make our work.At its core, arts advocacy is about creating a better environment in which to make our work. We need resources – money, space, time – and we need audiences. The more our community, including our elected representatives, understands and values what we do, the easier it will be for us to make and present our work.

Many of us don’t see ourselves as joiners, and therefore think we can’t be advocates. This couldn’t be less true. Our very individuality is our greatest strength, helping us imagine creative and unusual advocacy strategies. Others of us feel overwhelmed by the work of creating dances or running companies, and don’t think we have energy to do advocacy. But advocacy, creatively done, can feed our work rather than sapping our strength.

The goal-driven approach: There is a message you want to get out, a piece of legislation you want to affect, an action you want people to take. The goal determines the strategy. In 2008, Dance/USA took up the gauntlet when arts funding was cut from the economic stimulus package. Dance/USA staff and members created a list of reasons the arts were good for economic development, and circulated it widely. The goal was to restore arts funding to the stimulus package, the message was that the arts are an economic engine, and the action was to circulate a document as widely as possible. And arts advocates prevailed! Arts funding was restored in the final stimulus package.

The personal approach: What kind of action feels creative and regenerative to you? What kind of action would feed your work? What would you be good at, and/or what do you want to learn to be good at? From there, you can determine what message is best served by that kind of action. Peter DiMuro of Dance/Metro DC was inspired by public performance, so he put together a large-scale participatory public dance. That action served a visibility message, which he used both to reveal his community’s numbers and to publicize an ambitious presenting season.

All effective advocacy contains a clear and specific message — advocacy is at its core about communication. Simply getting the message out can be the advocacy, or it can be coupled with a call to action. If you want people to take action, you need to be organized and prepared. Here are some different kinds of messages that can be effective:

  • We’re Here: This is a simple message of presence. If we’re invisible, resources will not be allocated to us.
  • Economic Impact: The arts are an unacknowledged and under-reported economic engine. We drive local businesses, provide jobs, bolster the tax base, and increase property values.
  • Educational Impact: Our world requires complex problem-solving and the ability to think abstractly. The arts play an essential role in developing those skills. Studies prove that children learn better when arts education is part of the picture.
  • Community Impact: The arts help communities come together. We enable people to empathize with the experiences of others very different from themselves. We provide a way for people to channel emotions and behavior that could otherwise be destructive. We make it possible for everyone to hear voices that are otherwise silenced.
  • Cultural Impact: The arts are a good unto themselves. A world without art is a world not worth fighting for, not worth living in.

What follows is a list of model ideas for arts advocacy actions. Choose an action that excites you, bend and shape it according to your creative vision, and imagine the message it best conveys. Or, shape your message and find an action that supports it.

  • Visibility: Most people have no idea how many artists live and work in their communities, how much work is being made, or how many people participate in that work. Creating visibility for our presence and its impact on our communities is an important form of advocacy.
  • Leave a mark: Start a bumper sticker or button campaign
  • Empower with technology: Coordinate your community’s Facebook status on a certain day; spearhead a Twitter campaign; create a compelling video and circulate it; ask supporters to include a message and/or link in their email signature. Create a texting campaign.
  • Make an impression: Organize everyone in your community to wear the same color for a day, or take some particular action like moving in unison on a series of street corners.
  • Create a mystery: Pepper your community with directions to a mysterious website or phone number and a good reason to go there. Create a lamppost flyer campaign with tear-offs, leave postcards on the subway, chalk it on the sidewalk.
  • Conversations: All of us converse with friends, colleagues and strangers every day. An individual conversation can be a powerful form of advocacy.
  • Coming out campaign: How many of your neighbors, or the people whose businesses you patronize know you’re an artist? Does the owner of that pizza place know that your income from the arts drives his business? Come out as an artist to ten people a week.
  • Conversation campaign: You’d be surprised at how many opportunities there are in everyday conversation to insert your message, whatever it may be. Choose a circle of people  — perhaps your board — and commit as a group to having three, five, ten of those conversations a week.
  • Go door to door: Take a page from Greenpeace and PIRG, who create highly effective grassroots campaigns, and go door to door to spread your message. In larger cities, public transit stations and busy street corners can be more effective.
  • Show your neighbors a good time: Performance in public spaces is done for all kinds of reasons, and is often intended as interventionist and challenging. But public performance can be purely pleasurable — a moment of unexpected delight in the workday. You’ve probably seen the “Sound of Music” flash mob in the Belgian train station, but watch it again just for the joy of it. Creating a spectacle is a great way to get a lot of people’s attention, as well as attracting excellent media coverage. You can use your spectacle to get the word out about an issue or action, or you can do it for just for the fun of it. If there’s a way for passersby to participate, so much the better!
  • Just do it: It’s always important to engage with your elected officials. They hear from big corporations and wealthy donors all the time — but they often don’t hear from individual artists. Dance/USA, as a founding member of the Performing Arts Alliance, offers a number of opportunities to participate in organized advocacy efforts and offers –great resources for engaging with your elected officials  and learning about legislation affecting the arts. Check out this link.

You’ve done it — you got the attention of a large group of people. You want them to know that the arts are important to early childhood education. And so … what? What do you want? More money in the town budget? Approval for a space to be allocated for cultural use? Arts planning included in community redevelopment? Removal of some barrier to participation? Or simply for the status quo to be maintained on some issue?

Don’t discount this last one — we often take for granted what we already have until it is threatened. Better to make people aware of its benefit before it’s threatened, rather than play catch-up when arts funding lands on the chopping block.

Jen Abrams is a choreographer, arts administrator, and 11-year member of WOW Café Theater, a collectively run all-women and -trans theater space in New York. Her work has been produced at LaMama, Dixon Place, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, DancenOw, and HERE. She is the former managing director of Risa Jaroslow & Dancers, Poetry in the Branches coordinator at Poets House, and administrative manager of Guild Complex. She is currently devoted to launching OurGoods, an online barter network for artists. OurGoods offers an environment in which artists can get their work done regardless of the economic climate. We posit an alternative to the competitive funding model — on OurGoods, the more resources each artist gets, the more resources are available for all participants.

Return to From the Green Room throughout this week for more tips and advice on advocacy from Jen Abrams.


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