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Profiles in Advocacy

Grace Damio
Director of Maternal and Child Health and Nutrition at the Hispanic Health Council, a community clinic in Hartford, Connecticut

How did you come to advocacy? Describe your inspiration, the first problem or issue you advocated on

The spirit of advocacy was instilled in me by my sister, who was the first person to educate me about the disproportionate power that corporations play in decision making in our society and how profit making as an underlying goal for society affects social well being. As a young teenager, and a vegetarian, this translated itself into distributing flyers on saving whales through boycotting Japanese goods - limited efforts, but my first ones. In college, I became very interested in nutrition/health as community development and human rights issues, and in Central America and the role the U.S. government was playing there. This led me to graduate field work and later a consultant position in Nicaragua, at a time that: 1) dozens of countries including many in Western Europe were helping the Sandinista model of participatory democracy to achieve its goal of meeting the basic needs of the great majority of the population after 50 years of brutal dictatorship and extreme poverty; and 2) the U.S. government was trying to destroy this model through an economic blockade and an illegal undeclared proxy war fought by the dictatorship's former national guards based outside the country. This experience crystallized my worldview, and inspired me tremendously. The Nicaraguan people, who had suffered tremendously and continued to suffer 50,000 deaths, many more injured and incredible economic devastation that was being imposed on them, continued to protect themselves and build their vision with spirit, generosity and selflessness, like I had never before witnessed. Later I spent several years doing solidarity work both inside and outside Nicaragua, including leading three tours there and doing dozens of slide show presentations here. As one of 100,000 U.S. citizens who visited Nicaragua during that time and probably were responsible for preventing a direct invasion by the U.S., I learned some of the huge challenges confronted on a worldwide level by those attempting to "change the world".

How do you feel that you've been most effective?

I've been most effective by:

  1. taking a position and acting only after receiving input from others, either group perspective, technical expertise or advocacy expertise
  2. using communication methods that whenever possible include rather than alienate those who are sought as advocacy partners and those who are the targets of the advocacy
  3. building credibility by speaking with facts
  4. acting in coalition, and
  5. when possible, acting in creative ways that draw people's attention and participation and/or doing concrete projects that give people a role to play and have outcomes that people can identify with and feel proud of.

What advice would you give to new advocates? How can they be most effective? What lessons have you learned?

Same as above. I think that the more people get involved in advocacy, the more they learn the reality of policy making in this country and the easier it is to become cynical, jaded and disheartened. It's extremely important to: 1) not expect to be able to do more than one person can do, but at the same time; 2) not underestimate the value of each person's action; and 3) not to become overwhelmed by how difficult it all seems. In this country, advocacy is not part of the culture, as people are buffered from existing problems and the reasons behind them. Advocates often feel like the odd misfits. Therefore, folks working to make change need to rejuvenate themselves as often as possible with support from others, inspiration from those that have been successful against tough odds and nurturing.

Why is it important for consumers to advocate for systems change as well as for themselves and their families?

The climate of our country during these last few decades, and throughout our history, has emphasized the individual, and that the success or failure of individuals is due to their own effort and ability, or lack thereof. Our society doesn't put out the message that most people do the best they can, given what they've been handed, that social conditions in many ways dictate the general success or failure of groups, or that people have the right to social conditions that facilitate success rather than ones that make it as difficult as possible to succeed. Therefore, advocacy efforts are usually focused around charity, helping/ "fixing" individuals, but not around improving the conditions that created the circumstances in which they find themselves. However, unless this is done, their problems will continue, and others will be created. In my view, it is more ethical and respectful of the inherent dignity of all people, more effective, efficient, and more cost saving in the long run, to create systems change that is preventive.

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