“I am not a teacher, but an awakener” – Robert Frost
I have had some excellent mentors throughout my lifetime. One of the most influential was a gentleman I met at age 13 Keith Werry. He was 20 years my senior and became my first and most influential mentor. Keith introduced me and so many of my generational peers to wheelchair sports. I was fortunate enough to have had a fifty year friendship with Keith and was honoured to do the eulogy at his funereal. He will always be missed.
In Vancouver I was exposed to the influence of many pioneers of the disabled movement. Keith had been living in Vancouver at the time of his accident and part of his rehab was to be very active with the wheelchair sports community. When I headed for Vancouver he connected me with some of his contacts, an action I will never regret. As a teenager struggling to be “normal” having mentors like Doug Mowat, Stan Stronge and Doug Wilson was invaluable in my early development.
Considering I was 16, active as hell in the midst of the Vancouver 60’s movement I shutter to think where I could have been without the influence of these mentors in my life. I was all ideology and exuberant youth who believed a good time was the right LSD and a night-time of coffee houses while lamenting the loss of Lenny Bruce.
My wheelchair sports mentors helped provide a balance between my brashness while helping develop some social conscience. Looking back and seeing the effect I cannot understate the importance of mentors. They are the historians and pioneers that laid the groundwork of so many of the right we enjoy today. Those rights didn’t always exist and to this day I never take them for granted. These mentors not only taught me their history but they helped mold me as part of the history that we have today.
These same mentors helped lay the groundwork in me for my part as an activists and an advocate. They also taught me the difference between the two terms. In today’s world those terms appear to have become almost interchangeable but they shouldn’t be. This is where the importance of words and semantics come into play. Simply put an activist tends to stand up for an idea while an advocate stands up for a person or collective.
I was taught that as an activist I should be aware of any issue that may affect an entire community. It is a collective effort. For example, as an activist I could join Jane Fonda and others at Standing Rock to take a stand. That is what activists do. Activists are the public relation managers of community issues that nobody else really wants to tackle.
By definition an activist is a person who campaigns for some kind of social change. When you participate in a march protesting the closing of a neighbourhood library, you’re an activist. Someone who’s actively involved in a protest or a political or social cause can be called an activist. Activists work together and they tend to be passionate about their work. That passion is one of the things that separates an activist from an advocate.
The advocates role is to be logical and organized. It means studying the policy that is in the way of what your client has been denied. It means knowing the history behind the “intent” of a policy and not just the policy standard. If a standard is that rigid that it is totally devoid of options or exceptions then you are no longer living in an open democracy. My role as an advocate, if it appears like you will never reach a 100% solution, is to at least reach the best possible compromise and your client needs to understand that.
As the advocate you need to keep in mind. That compromise you arrive at is setting the groundwork for the next go round. I have been at this for a good 45 years and you come to recognize you are fighting the same battles again and again. Access is a prime example. Know your history of the system so that “compromise” you made earlier has now raise the bar for the next step. Understand “access”…or we will still be arguing this when you’re my age.
I have seen access being fought for in every generation since the 60’s (and I’m sure it went back further). As an advocate it is important to understand what frame of reference the person discussing access is coming from. Many of my mobility impaired peers would see access as a ramp or bigger toilet (simplified but it works). I have been an advocate to many families who had been denied access to a service, like speech therapy for their child (just an example). That’s access by attitude (the tools are certainly there but usually the budget is lacking). Many of my sensory impaired friends would see access as in technology, using a computer. After all, you can put a ramp on a library, doesn’t mean it is accessible to all. So as a good advocate always clarify the purpose to the lowest possible denominator.
Having been exposed to some of the extraordinary mentor’s in my development has been a gift. Besides process they gave me a history well worth protecting. They taught me to watch for the most innocuous events as a way to diminish loss. The hard truth is summed up in that old saying “for every two feet you gain, you lose one”. For every right we have won in the past forty years governments or corporations have created new policies or regulations that effectively erode part of that gain.