“I never thought of our activities as advocacy; there’s no word for it in German.”
Turning an intuitive, sometimes spontaneous practice into a more deliberate process became the overriding theme at a recent gathering of human rights activists from around Europe. Sponsored by the Open Society Foundations, the workshop hosted participants from Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Marseille, Paris, Hamburg, Berlin, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Brussels. A range of interests and issues were represented including refugee women’s rights, combating racism and Islamophobia, and representing Roma as well as African diaspora.
Passionate and committed, all had one goal in common; to better understand and apply advocacy in their work to combat injustice. A mouthful even in English, activists all came with different understandings of what advocacy meant to them. “Advocacy was a way of reaching out, communicating” one activist from London shared, “but I hadn’t properly thought about policy makers.” “We weren’t thinking about it systematically” another activist from Berlin reflected, “advocacy was trial and error.”
Far from receiving hard and fast rules for advocacy, activists had the opportunity to apply models and structures to their own particular challenges. At times, these challenges were similar to those of activists in other cities. The intention was to consider the broadest range of options and learn to tailor the best formula for different situations. So what does this look like in reality?
Practically, it means translating seemingly insurmountable challenges—shifting perceptions on refugees for example—into tangible objectives. It means knowing your audience and working with them, particularly those who disagree with you. It means mapping the obstacles to the change you are proposing and working to pre-empt them. It means making the most of the leverage you have to tip the process in your favor. It means choosing the right tools to reach the right people in every stage of the process. “I see now that our work doesn’t end with reporting” one civil society activist from Rotterdam reflected, “we would like to prevent such problems in the first place. We must ensure all stakeholders take an active part.”
The recent United Kingdom Integration Strategy became a test case for one group during the summit to apply these advocacy insights. Long overdue, the strategy was quietly released by the Department for Community and Local Government at the end of February. At only 28 pages the strategy paper supports the importance of effective integration but falls down on how the Government is going to do this. The group felt that the spectrum of UK civil society bodies and their issues were inadequately represented in the final paper. Participants set about planning how they might present a concerted response to the integration strategy as well as working on ways to implement it in its current form.
As with any good summit, there was as much activity in the fringes as during formal sessions. Exchange of ideas, lessons learned and effective techniques ran throughout the day. “Even if someone has failed you still learn something,” suggested an activist from Paris. Advocates discussed the solidarity they were able to draw from each other and their growing European network. “Without Europe, we wouldn’t have these discussions about discrimination or racism. Europe has got these debates into German society” concluded one German activist. “Having this network in Europe gives us gravitas, momentum; it gives campaigners support and credibility” echoed another.
Though a German word for advocacy continued to prove elusive—as is the case in many other European languages—participants left the summit with the groundwork made for more strategic outreach in the future. The mix of tangible and less tangible effects of the three-day summit was best summed up by a human rights activist from Stockholm: “Coming here reminded me planning is crucial and of course, we mustn’t lost hope that change is achievable.”