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Effective Advocacy: Cultivate Relational Literacy

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One of our most important advocacy skills is our ability to cultivate meaningful relationships with other people.

While we’re formally schooled in math and language arts, we often aren’t taught how to communicate respectfully and effectively with others.

A common approach to advocating change is to try to shame others into shifting their attitudes and behaviors or into taking a certain kind of action. But, as Brené Brown says, “We can’t use shame as a social justice tool because shame kills empathy and empathy is the foundation of love and justice.”

As Brown’s research has shown, when people are called out on their behavior, they’re likely to respond with aggression, with avoidance, or with approval seeking, none of which lead to lasting positive change.

And as Melanie Joy points out, “When we shame others to try to get them to do something positive, we usually create the opposite outcome.”


Take note iconWhile trying to shame individuals can often backfire, it can be effective to use public pressure tactics to influence entities such as corporations and governments that rely on their reputations and public images.

For example, the movie Blackfish has decreased SeaWorld’s ticket sales, has forced them to change some of their policies, and has led to legislative changes.


Melanie Joy has written about relational literacy, which she defines as “the understanding of and ability to practice healthy ways of relating.”

According to Joy:

Healthy ways of relating include:

  • Practicing empathy
  • Establishing boundaries
  • Developing a healthy process for how to communicate
  • Honoring the dignity of others
  • Maintaining integrity
  • Actively listening
  • Striving to achieve mutual understanding

Unhealthy ways of relating include:

  • Exhibiting contempt
  • Trying to shame or blame
  • Dishonoring dignity
  • Trying to prove yourself right or the other person wrong

Building connection and personal relationships (often called relational activism) can be a powerful form of social change.

Effective systems-change advocacy requires us to develop our relational literacy skills so that we can engage in productive conversations with allies, detractors, decision makers, and the public.


Take note iconThere is a common tenet that anger has no place in effective advocacy. People who express their anger are often shamed. However, anger is an expression of injustice, and sometimes the shaming of anger can reflect sexism, racism, or xenophobia. Anger has an appropriate place, especially among marginalized populations who have long histories of being oppressed, abused, and exploited.



Getting Relationships Right by Melanie Joy


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