on Advocacy

In Jamaica, we have a lot of people with opinions. Having a loud mouth and strong convictions is instruction Number 3 in ‘How to be Jamaican’ (Number 2 is ‘always ask for curry goat gravy’). It’s no surprise then that we have so many organizations arguing publicly for a wide range of causes and policies.

We were practically born and raised to be advocates. Ask any frustrated community who block road and bun tire to protest bad road conditions. Look at any line of people waiting impatiently to access a service – somebody is going to start advocating for more staff and decreased waiting time (albeit in more colourful language).

Even though most Jamaicans advocate from cradle to grave, Advocacy with a capital A is often described in cultured tones, refined and pedestalized into colonial approval, consisting mainly of papers, workshops and civilized protest. Grassroots movements get lopped off at the tip: keep the pretty flower, leave the dirty roots behind.

Because most groups that Advocate are based in the Kingston and St. Andrew area, their Advocacy is limited to scavenging for policy change. But if civil society organizations incorporated grassroots strategies and engaged the wider Jamaican community, their advocacy (with a common a) would have more lasting impact.

Yes, this is another rant on decentralizing our socio-cultural landscape. Buckle up, kids.

Kingston/St. Andrew is home to only 25% of Jamaicans, but they have 100% of the headquarters for civil society organizations. Whether it’s environmental protection, social justice or human rights everyone is based in Kingston. Meetings, workshops and policy discussions happen mostly in Kingston. Organized protests happen in Kingston, letters to the editor are written to the Jamaica Gleaner (you guessed it, a Kingston-based national newspaper), and social media campaigns mainly reach urban demographics.

You might argue that these organizations are concerned with creating policy change and Kingston is where policies are created so that’s where they have to be. Yes, but policy change isn’t the only avenue for activism. And can policy change be sustainable without significant efforts at the local and individual levels?

No, no it can’t.

The problem with top down change is the same problem with trickle down economics. The benefits are rarely if ever felt by the people at the bottom of the ladder. Trickle down social justice might look pretty on paper, because we have all the right policies, but it won’t change the day to day realities of the average Jamaican because our realities are largely a consequence of our mindset.

For example, suppose Parliament actually decides to decriminalize abortion. Does that mean girls in rural communities will no longer face barriers like social stigma and cultural beliefs that encourage early and frequent child-bearing? No, those barriers will remain unless someone inside that community is advocating for a different way of doing things. I already said Jamaicans are born advocates, you just need to wind us up and point us in the right direction.

So it’s all well and good to rock the boat on a national level, but it has to be matched by an equally fervent (and I would argue stronger) campaign to effect behaviour change at the level of individuals and communities.

Too see this in action, look at our politicians. MPs excel at leveraging community advocacy into political power. They don’t campaign on policy (which they probably think flies over the head of their constituents), instead they campaign on personality. Their election hinges on whether or not the people believe in them, not their ideas. All that matters is that their voters believe they’re a man or woman of the people and then they can get into Parliament where they have the power to affect policy.

And if our politicians are out here getting elected in rural Portland because they can drop it low like Pamputtae and step into Gordon House the next day (get you a girl who does both) then our civil society organizations really have to step up their game.

Policy advocacy goes hand in hand with behaviour change advocacy. It’s not either/or. The civil society organizations that are doing the most in Kingston need to start doing the most in other parishes as well. This doesn’t mean new organizations, just a shift in the way things are done. Instead of locking up all that experience and expertise in Kingston, why not share it with the communities they advocate for?

Roll into Clarendon and Westmoreland with some of those lofty ideas. Expand your reach to St. James or St. Mary and get some fresh perspectives. Build momentum across the country with deliberate efforts, not just a symposium every couple of years because funding agencies mandate it.

Sustainable change can’t happen with an approach that’s strictly top down or bottom up. It’s top down and bottom up efforts that meet in the middle. Is it extra work? Will there be some uncomfortable conversations? Does it mean leaving behind the air-conditioned comfort of city life for that extra work and those tough conversations? Yes, yes and yes. But sustainable change is really the only change worth advocating for.

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Further reading: Jamaica Observer Letter of the Day: The Undoing of Civil Society in Jamaica

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