If you think of advocacy as a proxy for caring about people enough to speak up for and with them, you might think it’s a good thing for a community like Pasadena that is experiencing stressors like a desperate affordable housing shortage and legitimate public safety concerns (among others) to promote advocacy.
In my role as Executive Director of Leadership Pasadena (an organization founded with collaboration to solve issues of social justice as its mission), it is my job to contribute to building resilience and equity in the community; to find the people doing the work in their neighborhoods, families, and places of business that positively impacts the community — and recruit them to join a cohort of other community members leading in their own spheres of influence. Many work in leading nonprofits or city departments, championing programs that improve the lives of the residents here. Some choose to do their good work closer to home. Some just moved here. Some have lived here all their lives and don’t know the boundaries of the seven districts.
We don’t compare their value as community members or leaders.
Instead, we ask them to learn a little at a time, together. We up their collective knowledge about as many topics as possible in six months, by convening discussions with guests who have different perspectives on issues, taking field trips, and taking on a community impact group project. We look at local history and draw throughlines to current events. We teach about local art and innovation as much as economics and education. And we ask them to get to know their own strengths as leaders and humans.
Because here’s what I’ve learned in my time studying communication and human development: It’s impossible to learn new things without having new insights. By sitting in a room with people whose job titles and personal histories are diverse and unique, our cohort samples a cross-section of Pasadena’s range of lived experiences. They make their own discoveries — guided by our stimulus, but internalized through their own lens.
The conversion of self-to-others is not a templated process. People have to opt in. If we ask people to label themselves as advocates too soon, we shortchange the power of learning to care about someone (or something) new to you, first.
But if we look at advocacy as the inevitable byproduct of learning more about critical issues that affect people you know, we can convert everyone in the community to some degree of advocacy — if we connect them to each other first, then show them the next step.
The pathway for each person looks different.
If you are already far down the road to advocacy, pointing you to cross-sector collaboration potential might be the next step; or encouraging you to explore commission or board service for a more direct impact. If you are baby-stepping back into community discussions after throwing yourself wholly into advancing your career or raising your family, you might need a primer on who is doing what in the region so you can choose where to spend some of your precious new free time. If you are retired or suddenly find yourself with an empty nest and fewer extracurriculars, there are networks which can offer you camaraderie while championing a cause. And if you are eyeing leadership roles that shape communities and organizations, perhaps you could benefit from some coaching or mentorship.
I hope we, as community resources to these future advocates, think about how we can reduce the barrier for someone looking to take the next right step for themself before we ask them to take on our agenda. I hope we pause to think about what we too have left to learn from someone else. I, for one, would like to see what a community of self-described advocates can do together.
Kaya Plansker is the Executive Director of community leadership development organization, Leadership Pasadena, a Community Council member with the Junior League of Pasadena, a graduate of the Human Development masters program at Pacific Oaks College, and a Board member of the civic engagement group, Civitas.
Got something to say, email Managing Editor André Coleman, at andrec@pasadenanowmagazine.