I just returned from APA's 2008 Education Leadership Conference, which culminated in groups of psychologists advocating for the field on Capitol Hill. We requested support for the Mental Health Improvement on Campus Act (S. 3311) and worked to persuade lawmakers to include this act along with the Campus Suicide Prevention Program in the next SAMSHA reauthorization. The experience reinforced my understanding of how important advocacy is to psychology.
I was introduced to the concept of advocacy rather late in life, though previous experiences would have marked me as an advocate at a young age. Given my background working with marginalized groups, I came to understand advocacy as the process of working on behalf of people whose voices have been historically silenced. It was not until later that I developed a wider understanding and appreciation for the role of advocacy. As David Cohen wrote in "Advocacy for Social Justice" (Kumarian Press, 2001), advocacy is "the pursuit of influencing outcomes—including public policy and resource allocation decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions—that directly affect people's lives."
How can we as graduate students learn about and incorporate advocacy into our academic, clinical and research training? In talking about advocacy with other students, I've found it helpful to discuss some of my own experiences.
Advocacy has served as a key component in my research and clinical work. Through different experiences, both at the community and legislative level, and through readings in advocacy literature, three things stick out to me as important pieces to being an advocate: passion, perspective and persistence. The first of these, passion, has enhanced my work but presented challenges as well.
Passion serves as the fuel for my advocacy efforts. It is what helps sustain me through the grueling process of assisting in getting legislation passed and working with adversarial organizations and people. Passion also helps me keep the big picture in mind when fighting these daily battles. But while passion fuels work, it has also had some negative consequences. Sometimes becoming too involved in an issue prevents us from seeing others' perspectives. Also, it may lead others to label us as one-sided and to dismiss our ideas—preventing us from being able to engage others in the process.
A wonderful mentor of mine once warned me that it was important to express my passions in a measured way so that my message would not get lost in the delivery. I was puzzled by this at first, assuming that the more excited I was, the more I would be able to motivate others toward change. But I understood her meaning when people were sometimes turned off by my presentation. I have since learned to gauge my audience better, still allowing my energy and passion around an issue to come through, but in a way that doesn't alienate my listeners.
As graduate students, we have a responsibility to our field to become the advocates needed to advance our profession. Our efforts can take many forms, including involvement within APAGS, APA divisions, APA governance groups and state psychological associations. We can also take advantage of advocacy opportunities by working within communities and in our clinical and scientific work. I encourage all students who wish to learn more about advocacy and what they can do to visit the APAGS Web site.
By Konjit V. Page
Cohen, D., de la Vega, R & Watson, G. (2001). Advocacy for social justice: A global action and reflection guide. Sterling, VA, Kumarian Press.
Eriksen, K. (1997). Making an impact: A handbook on counselor advocacy. Washington, DC, Accelerated Development.
Jansson, B.S. (2007). Becoming an effective policy advocate: From policy practice to social justice. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.
Toporek, R.L., Gerstein, L.H., Fouad, N.A., Roysicar, G. & Israel, T. (2006). Handbook for social justice in counseling psychology: Leadership, vision and action. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.