A Conversation on Public Health Advocacy with Sarah de Guia

Advocacy, Part 2

December 1, 2020

The year 2020 has shaped up to be one of immense activism. From climate strikes to global protests for racial justice, the call for positive and sustainable community change has never been stronger. Unfortunately, with a global pandemic in the mix, bringing voices together to call attention to social issues has resulted in some unforeseen difficulties for advocates this year. The shift to a virtual working environment and limited in-person convenings has led to a steep learning curve for individuals working to shape policy and connect community voices with policymaking offices. 

According to ChangeLab Solutions CEO Sarah de Guia, addressing these challenges requires advocacy organizations to reevaluate what has worked for them in the past and develop innovative strategies to push for policy change. For many, social media and other forms of digital communication have become key to navigating a virtual landscape. While there are engagement and accessibility issues tied to virtual convenings, the pandemic has provided an immense opportunity to leverage technology in unimagined ways.

“There have been some very creative methods,” de Guia said. “People have tried to engage advocacy on social media through Twitter briefings, livestreams on Facebook, and Tik Tok. Others are holding Zoom calls with policymakers or engaging in conversations over the phone.”

Advocacy may look different during the global pandemic, however, the need for communicating with and getting community members involved is still absolutely necessary during this time of crisis. When it comes to addressing COVID-19, having local residents advocate for changes to reduce health inequity will be pivotal in shaping local, state and federal health policy and improving overall health outcomes. 

“You need the engagement of the community,” de Guia continued. “This can be done through advocacy organizations, but it’s even better when you have individuals themselves who really understand and come from communities that are being impacted. Community members are the experts. They know where the problems are and the solutions, but they may not have the knowledge of the policy process or [they may come up against] legal barriers.” 

Because communities offer unique perspectives, it is also important to involve diverse stakeholders in advancing advocacy efforts. Coalition-building is a way to co-create collaborative solutions that help address community needs. De Guia emphasized that an important consideration for those managing different stakeholders with conflicting needs is to remind groups that they are not competing for resources, but instead working toward a similar goal. One strategy to help accomplish this: host conversations about local data.

“Identifying and using data to understand where the highest level of disparities or inequities are is important when working with various stakeholders and juggling competing priorities,” she said. “Data can help a group of advocates identify what outcomes you want to see as a collective and what complementary frameworks stakeholders can use to address and impact those particular outcomes.” 

While these are all important considerations, de Guia noted that advocacy can still be a complicated process. Her advice for Challenge project teams as they continue advocating for changes to food and health care policies: 

  • Engage different stakeholders and build relationships. 
  • Build in opportunities to enhance people’s capacity and skills through education.
  • Be upfront about decision-making (who is making the decisions and how they are being made).
  • Remember that success in advocacy is not measured by the passage of a bill, budget item, policy, etc. Look at how relationship-building is happening among different stakeholders, what you’ve learned along the way, and questions you wouldn’t have been able to answer if you hadn’t started a conversation in the first place.
  • Be patient.

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