Be an advocate for someone you care about and stand in the line of fire for what you believe in.
I was in an airport the other day and saw a World Wildlife Fund ad that had a picture of a tiger and said something like “give a voice to those who can’t speak.” I love big cats so this image stuck with me and kept me thinking for a while.
Eventually, I started wondering where else this applies. Children don’t have a voice, which is why they need parents and guardians and community members to stick up for them. Then, when these children become mature and weathered enough to stick up for themselves, their need for guardianship fades. Later, as these adults get old and lose their mental and physical health, it sometimes makes sense for guardians and advocates to step back in to help voice the needs of the disabled.
Sometimes advocates are perfect strangers. I remember a day when I was seven or eight years old and my mom and I were about to leave the house. Across the street, a van pulled up and a clearly frustrated mother stepped out, walked around to the other side of the van, yanked her little girl (maybe three or four years old) out of the seat, and pushed her to the sidewalk. Her mother then slammed the passenger side door, stormed back around to the driver’s side door, and was about to get back into her seat to drive away and abandon her daughter at the side of the road. But before she could, my mom turned to me and with a protective fury I’ve never seen anywhere else, she growled “get in the car and hide.” She then proceeded to charge across the busy street in front of our house and force the abusive parent out of the car, waving her hands and chewing out the violator, nearly making a citizen’s arrest before the corrected violator scooped her child back into the passenger seat and kept driving, shaken to the bone. I don’t recall what happened after that (I’m guessing my mom reported the lady’s license plate), but that vignette runs through my head on repeat whenever I think of public situations where nobody stands up for what’s right. A world where people avoid conversation by pretending to text each other might do well to have a little bit more (nonviolent) vigilante justice.
Sometimes advocacy is institutionalized. Two years ago, we had delivered proven value for enough students at Moneythink that we decided to make it our full-time jobs and institutionalize it in communities nationwide. Many of the students we work with come from challenging family circumstances where they don’t have many role models at home, so our mentors become a pillar and a guidepost in their life. And in almost all cases, our students don’t have anyone helping them create their resumes to get jobs or show them how to navigate critical financial decisions they’re having to make in neighborhoods riddled with predatory lenders. If our volunteers can advocate effectively for our students and teach our students to advocate for themselves, then we’ve done our job.
I sometimes encounter folks who dismiss the role of advocates: “I got to where I got in life all by myself and never needed an advocate — I fought the system and became who I became because I worked at it, so why should my hard-earned taxpayer dollars go to folks who are too lazy to get off their butts and be resourceful?” Look, I like Ayn Rand as much as the next person, but nobody get where they get on their own. Often times the best advocates are silent guardians (think of the Dark Knight). And even if you really did make it in a vacuum without anybody defending your rights when you were small and vulnerable, certainly your parents didn’t, or your parents’ parents’ didn’t. People sticking up for each other is how we progress.
Entrepreneurs and corporates and politicians can be advocates at a high level by instituting policies, launching products, and running programs that help those who could use a hand. But how much more effective folks at the highest levels could be in ensuring the effectiveness of their programs if they stayed in touch with the underserved by continuing to be an advocate for one or two kids or elderly every week, being there as a tutor, a mentor, or just a kind visitor. I sometimes wonder if the 2007 economic collapse would have been as bad if every portfolio manager and derivatives trader on Wall Street was a regular volunteer in underserved schools and low-income housing projects.
That tiger whose pelt is being poached as a rug deserves a voice, and the World Wildlife Fund is helping it stay protected. But at one point in your life you deserved a voice too, and someone stood up for you. Maybe it was your dad who told your teacher to stop treating you like you’re an idiot; maybe it was your teacher who told your mom to believe in your creativity; maybe it was your friend who told a bully to back down when you got made fun of for being chubby or having buck teeth. Don’t let that ethic die. Be an advocate for someone you care about and stand in the line of fire for what you believe in.