This article is part of a series.
In the previous parts of this series, we discussed the different ways that we can both acknowledge and affirm the experiences of marginalized people. While both ideas remind us how to better listen and comprehend challenging parts of their lives, sometimes the hardest part is figuring out what to actually do with the stories that you hear.
From stories about state-sanctioned injustice to stories of folks feeling like they are simply not valued —knowing that there is much to be done to make the world better for marginalized people can be a lot to process. If you’ve made it to this point in the series, it means that you are here to learn how to engage this work and that in itself is a step toward progress.
The thing that we must remember in all of this that being an advocate means taking action. It means looking for all the ways oppression silences or erases marginalized people and intervening to stop the damage before it’s too late. It requires you to pause, pay attention, and design a recourse that helps those who are impacted to not only feel seen, but heard and supported.
Being an advocate for marginalized people is not something that you wake up knowing how to do. You have to continually practice it, being ready to make mistakes and accept feedback on how to improve with each attempt.
This requires that you fully understand that part of your work as an advocate begins with you getting comfortable with knowing that you will probably always be uncomfortable. This means taking the information that you have heard and figuring out where you can use your privilege to make a difference.
Advocacy takes time to process. It also sometimes takes strategy and it requires a plan.
Remember: you must be willing to have marginalized voices in on that strategy and plan as well. The greatest thing that anyone can do when stepping up to be an advocate for marginalized people is giving them space and a voice in said change.
Another common thing that people miss in this work is reminding themselves that sometimes it is okay for you to step back. Now, this doesn’t mean that you don’t do anything. It simply means that you are okay with the notion of “step up-step back.” Part of being an advocate is knowing when you are taking up too much space and when space needs to be occupied by those who aren’t given the opportunity regularly.
This can sometimes be a slippery slope because you may not know when or how to do this. But, if you build quality relationships with those that you are hoping to advocate for – you will find that they will help lead you in the decisions and actions that you take to better help them.
In all, being an advocate requires you to make sure that you are willing to step up and stay put when things begin to get rough (because they will). Being an advocate means challenging a system of power – a system that you may often benefit from. It’s knowing in your heart of hearts that you are willing and ready to not only be in the trenches with marginalized people, but that you are also ready to be on the outs, too.
Keep in mind that all is not lost in being an advocate. One of the best things is knowing the impact that you will have on the lives of those you go up for, too. It’s a marginalized person knowing that you stepped up to give them an opportunity to be seen and heard in a world that often ignores our experiences.
It’s also about being able to say that you understand the struggle, but more importantly – that you want to do something about ending it.
Dr. Jonathan P. Higgins is an educator, speaker, freelance journalist, thought leader and critic who examines the intersections of identity, gender, race and media. Named Business Equality Magazine’s “Top 40 LGBTQ People Under 40”, their work has been featured on sites like NBC News, VICE, MTV News, Essence, Out Magazine, DailyXtra and more. They hold a Doctorate in Leadership for Educational Justice and write regularly about the liberation of queer people of color.