Advocacy as an Evolutionary Process

Author: Karen Copeland

I read this post the other day: Pushing Back by Josh Stumpenhorst

In it, he writes:  “Yes, there’s a way to push back professionally and in a civic manner and I realize not everyone pushes back in this manner. Sometimes the push back comes in the form of ranting, raving and the occasion swearing.”

I think this statement is critical. For many parents, this may be their first time ever pushing back and they might have no idea how to do it in a way that is going to be heard. There are opportunities to guide and empower parents to learn how to advocate. It can be as simple as saying “I can see you are really [frustrated, upset] about this, and I would really like to understand. Perhaps we can grab a coffee and you can share your story with me”. By doing this, you are creating the condition for the parent to be heard, but also showing that you value what they have to say.

When I first started speaking up for my son, I didn’t know how, and I sure didn’t do it in the best possible way. My son and myself were both impacted by this and it took a long time to recover from this. But I found some champions within the system who believed in me, who showed they respected what I had to say – even if I didn’t say it in the best possible way – and who worked with me, instead of viewing me as a threat. This made a huge difference in my trajectory as an advocate for my child.

There is a great quote from Winston Churchill that I reference quite regularly.


Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. It takes courage to put yourself in a position to hear a parent’s concerns, but please know that often, there are very few people in our lives who ARE willing to listen.

We don’t always know the jargon of the systems, we don’t even necessarily know how to navigate these systems or even what our rights are as parents. This is where increased awareness and education is critical.

This ties in with a post I had written previously but had not yet published. I will share it with you here.

I invite you to imagine a time when you have been very, VERY angry about something that has happened to you or one of your family members. Feel that anger in your body, perhaps the knot in your stomach, the hotness on your face. You may feel confused, you may feel like your brain is not allowing you to think of potential solutions, it is stuck. Now, imagine you have been called in to a meeting where anywhere between 2 and 6 people who hold power over you and the situation by virtue of their position begin discussing the situation that has caused your anger. They discuss the situation in detail from their perspective, and you can feel the anger taking hold. You feel cornered. Now they want you to respond. How much does your anger influence your response?

Parents are often given the advice to set aside their emotions before they go into meetings about their child. We are encouraged to keep emotion out of the conversation. How realistic is this expectation?

I recall speaking with an administrator about this very topic. Her words have stuck with me. She said “If a parent is coming to me and is angry, then it means something is going on that is really important to the parent. It is my responsibility to listen and hear between the lines to understand.”

I want to be clear. I am not advocating for parents to go into meetings with intense emotion, however I also believe it is harmful to suggest that the only way to be heard is for parents to speak with minimal emotion. If anything, if a parent is feeling such intense emotion, then a meeting with a number of people is probably best postponed. Instead, what if the intense emotion is recognized as important and a cue that further exploration is required. What if we provide the conditions for the parent to share their concerns, without judgement? How can we create the conditions for a parent to get to the place where they CAN communicate their concerns in a way that they will be heard?

I shared these thoughts with a good friend. I wanted to hear her perspective. She had this to say:

“Sure, there are times as a parent where I was able to set aside my emotions before the meeting.  But other times, it was impossible. Maybe instead of setting aside our emotions, us parents and admin need to work together to find support for parents during difficult meetings where emotions are high. It comes back to the need to build strong relationships in our schools so that when we find ourselves so emotionally charged, we know we will find some degree of support from school staff.  It comes down to respect.  We can take part in a school meeting and have our emotions, too, but we need to remember that if we want respect, we need to treat staff with respect.  So it’s okay to have emotion… fact, I believe emotion is what drives change.  It’s in how we deal with the emotion…..don’t park it, just find ways to support parents.” 

Bringing concerns forward is hard work. So is being open to hearing these concerns. However, if we don’t truly understand what the concerns are, how can we possibly think we can address these? Change doesn’t happen when people are comfortable. Similarly, change will not happen if one or all parties do not feel understood or heard. Is emotion considered to be a catalyst for change? or a detriment to the process?

How can we influence the trajectory of a parent as an advocate? What if we view advocacy as an evolutionary process and support parents to discover more effective ways to push back?

One comment

  1. I love this well-written post. I truly believe that the key to successful advocacy is us parents teaching each other what advocacy looks like – nobody teaches us this! Peer support is SO valuable that way – we can learn from each other what to expect in school meetings, how to prepare, and not to be surprised by the strong emotions that go along with it. How I wish all schools would ‘allow’ families with kids with differences to come together to support one another. I know this has happened with an Inclusion Group at our school, and it has been SO valuable to know I’m not alone, and to learn from other parents who are on a similar journey.

    Liked by 1 person

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