Advocacy and Advocates: Definitions and Ethical Dimensions

By Cohen, Elias S. | Generations, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Advocacy and Advocates: Definitions and Ethical Dimensions


Cohen, Elias S., Generations


From jawboning to community organizing to lobbying to legal proceedings.

To be an advocate and to engage in advocacy is to adopt a stance, advance a cause, and attempt to produce a result in behalf of an interest of a person, group, or cause.

The wellspring of advocacy in the human services is the age-old biblical admonition of our collective responsibility for those who are elderly, disabled, widowed, orphaned, poor, and those who cannot care for themselves and have no one to care for them.

Advocates achieve legitimacy for their position from a variety of sources. Some advocates are invested with legal status from conferred rights, powers, and duties, while others are constrained or empowered by moral rights, duties, and obligations. Some advocates are legitimized by their "clients" (those for whom they advocate), while others simply declare their own legitimacy.

Advocacy in behalf of older people, the field of aging, and those matters that concern today's and tomorrow's elders comports with the following general observations. Some special considerations concerning old age are noted in the discussion as they are relevant.

The techniques of advocacy cut a wide swath. Modes include jawboning, demagoguery, rhetoric, mass communication, and traditional public relations; political organizing, community organizing, Internet and mass-mail broadsides; legislative lobbying; publication in mass media, trade, and scholarly materials; formal legal proceedings, formal representation of individuals and groups, and formal surrogate decision-making.

There are virtually no limits to the breadth or narrowness of the cause in time, space, or intended effect. Some advocates represent causes that would reform basic institutions and programs of government, family or economic relationships, and fundamental rights of individuals and legal entities. Others seek to protect or secure a single narrow benefit or right for just one individual in truly unique circumstances.

Thus, advocacy presents a complexity of issues in terms of the substance of die cause, the party or parties represented, the techniques engaged in, the legitimacy of the representation, and die legal and moral constraints of the particular advocacy processes.

WHO ARE THE ADVOCATES?

Advocates may be friends or family members of the beneficiary, attorneys for the individual, public interest lawyers, government attorneys, representatives of organized groups, for-profit and nonprofit organizations, trade associations, professional associations, labor unions, social workers in public and nonpublic agencies, legislators at all levels of government, other public employees, as well as journalists and educators.

Some of the better-recognized efforts pursuing public policy and legislation in behalf of the elderly have been mass organizations. Some have disappeared from the scene, others have grown; some have diminished in their public presence, others have become entrepreneurial and seem to have changed their focus. The Townsend Movement for old-age pensions of the 1930s, the McClain Citizens Committee for Old Age Pensions, National Retired Teachers Association, and AARP of the 1950s, and the Gray Panthers of the 1970s indicate the variety of organizations and fates. Of course, presentation of the history of advocacy in behalf of older people is beyond the scope of this essay, but understanding the history is indeed important to our understanding of the role and effectiveness of such mass movements (Pratt, 1995).

What is critical to our understanding of advocacy, self-advocacy aside, is an appreciation that advocacy involves one party seeking to represent the interests of another. This basic fact suggests that one must be alert to the possibility that the interests of the advocate and the beneficiary may not always be congruent.

Second, while the idea of one party expending energy, time, and money on behalf of another suggests beneficent motives, the outcomes of advocacy may not always be beneficent. …

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