Advocates in Public Service Settings: Voices From the Field

  • Margaret R. Rogers, University of Rhode Island
  • Marisa E. Marraccini, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Elisabeth C. O’Bryon, Family Engagement Lab, Oakland, California
  • Jennifer A. Dupont-Frechette, Delta Consultants, Providence, Rhode Island
  • Anna G. Lubiner, University of Rhode Island

Numerous conceptual pieces addressing the importance of advocacy within psychology have been published over the last 20 years. Most recently, that chorus of voices has increasingly focused on the needs of historically marginalized populations (Burney et al., 2009; Garrison, DeLeon, & Smedley, 2017; Nadal, 2017). Despite this attention, a dearth of research has explored the experiences of seasoned advocates who work with such populations. The present investigation drew from an interdisciplinary group of award-winning advocates to reveal how they define and conceptualize advocacy; the motivators and barriers they’ve experienced; and their recommendations about how to support newcomers to advocacy. Through semistructured face-to-face interviews that were content analyzed qualitatively, the 14 advocates describe important lessons about advocacy work. Participants’ desires to become an advocate were fueled mostly by personal interests and early formative experiences. They found collaborations and building networks (i.e., building relationships with people on all sides of an issue) to be their chief advocacy strategies, and stressed the importance of interpersonal and communication skills (e.g., taking initiative, making connections with those in power) in their skill repertoire. The main barriers encountered included psychological resistance (i.e., intentional blindness toward hidden populations), funding constraints, and various other negative obstacles. Although most found creating a work-life balance elusive, they were energized by mentoring advocacy newcomers, by successes achieved in legislative/policy/program advances, and by creating systems that provide needed services. They shared wisdom about a host of issues for a new generation of advocates.

As individual and community needs become more diverse, psychologists are faced with the increasingly complex task of advocating effectively for improved conditions for individuals, organizations, and society (Melton, 2018). Given the range of settings in which psychologists are employed and their varied roles within those settings, advocacy takes many forms, and is delivered in different dosages and contexts, using a variety of methods

This article was published Online First May 23, 2019. Margaret R. Rogers, Department of Psychology, University of Rhode Island; Marisa E. Marraccini, School of Education, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Elisabeth C. O’Bryon, Family Engagement Lab, Oakland, California; Jennifer A. Dupont-Frechette, Delta Consultants, Providence, Rhode Island; Anna G. Lubiner, Department of Psychology, University of Rhode Island. We would like to extend a warm thank-you to our participating advocates for their time, enthusiasm, and openness in sharing of themselves and their stories so that we can all learn from their experiences as advocates. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Margaret R. Rogers, Department of Psychology, University of Rhode Island, Chafee Hall, 142 Flagg Road, Kingston, RI 02881. E-mail: mrogers@uri.edu

(DeLeon, Loftis, Ball, & Sullivan, 2006). The breadth of advocacy efforts is wide, focusing on direct and individual support, public policy decisions, advances in human welfare services, public health, systems of care, training and education, consultation, research, and funding (American Psychological Association, 2017). Despite the growing and critical need for wide-ranging advocacy within the psychological community (Fox, 2008; Heinowitz et al., 2012; Lating, Barnett, & Horowitz, 2009), the extant literature available to guide psychologists to serve as effective advocates is limited. Even less is known about the knowledge and skills needed to advocate effectively on behalf of marginalized and underserved populations, despite this being one of psychologists’ key professional responsibilities (Nadal, 2017). The focus on advocacy aimed at marginalized and underserved populations is especially important in addressing systemic factors and societal inequities that limit people’s voices, opportunities, and impact. Advocacy that has a social justice mission has added layers of complexity because it combines individual and systemic advocacy and often requires that the psychologist be skilled in both. Indeed, the American Psychological Association clearly articulates this professional responsibility in its 2017 Multicultural Guidelines:

An Ecological Approach to Context, Identity, and Intersectionality, as it provides parameters for multiculturally competent services and highlights the importance of advocacy on behalf of persons from disadvantaged and discriminated populations. To improve psychologists’ ability to advocate effectively on behalf of underserved populations, it is critical to know and understand how effective advocacy in this area is defined and conceptualized; the motivators and barriers experienced by effective advocates; and key insights from successful advocates on how to support future advocates committed to promoting positive outcomes for marginalized populations. An examination of the existing research in these areas yields gaps in our knowledge base. Defining and Conceptualizing Effective Advocacy Although historically advocacy has been a ubiquitous feature within the field of psychology (Nadal, 2017), it is conceived of and applied in many different ways (Lating et al., 2009). To ground ourselves in a common definition that facilitates an understanding of advocacy on behalf of marginalized groups, we share Trusty and Brown’s (2005) summary of multiple descriptions of advocacy as “identifying unmet needs and taking actions to change the circumstances that contribute to the problem or inequity” (p. 259). While this definition sheds light on the process and goal, additional research is needed to understand how and under what circumstances psychologists can advocate effectively on behalf of underserved populations. An understanding of the specific definitions, skills, resources, and strategies used by effective, experienced advocates in different settings can provide an invaluable guide for psychologists who seek to be successful advocates. As aptly noted by Cohen, Lee, and McIlwraith (2012), the knowledge and skills needed to advocate effectively can be taught and it is a critical responsibility that psychologists learn them.

Key Motivators and Barriers While essential for a comprehensive understanding of effective advocacy, the research literature provides limited insight regarding the factors that serve to activate and obstruct those who advocate on behalf of the underserved. Instead, research has examined advocacy-related motivators and barriers more broadly and, in some cases, examined advocacy aimed at advancing a professional group rather than advocacy to address clients’ needs (e.g., Myers & Sweeney, 2004). In other cases, research has looked at barriers to advocacy encountered by a largely preservice sample rather than by experienced advocates (e.g., Heinowitz et al., 2012). Most recently Kozan and Blustein (2018) provided key insights into 11 licensed counseling psychologists’ attempts to engage in social justice-focused advocacy following their graduation from programs that specifically prepared them to engage in such advocacy. Social justice advocacy training supports psychologists’ ability to effectively address the social contexts that contribute to an individual’s marginalization (Mallinckrodt, Miles, & Levy, 2014). Kozan and Blustein (2018) found that the psychologists’ efforts at advocacy on behalf of clients were often stymied by systemic barriers, including working in settings that do not espouse and share justice-oriented values and priorities. The psychologists also found themselves hampered by a larger structural problem—that of working within a field that focuses almost exclusively on helping individuals to improve intrapsychically without regard for the very real systemic contributions to people’s problems. Kozan and Blustein (2018) argue that this later issue is a problem endemic to the structure of our nation’s mental health care system. These findings are important because they begin to explore the barriers psychologists face when advocating for underserved clients. However, what is still needed is a more complete picture of the full range of barriers and obstacles encountered by advocates for the underserved to fully understand the challenges they confront and grapple with.

Other research has focused on strategies advocates and the organizations that they work for have used when advocating. Mason (2015) surveyed 259 leaders of nonprofit organizations in California to study the relationship between the leaders’ political ideologies and the advocacy tactics used by their organizations to influence legislation. The leaders averaged about six years as advocates. The findings suggested that the more conservative the leaders, the more likely their organizations were to use a wide array of strategies including face-to-face lobbying, petition drives, boycotts, sit-ins, and media campaigns. In another study exploring advocacy strategies, Gee, McGarty, and Banfield (2015) interviewed nine advocates from two organizations representing the mentally ill in Australia. The advocates – relatively new to advocacy with an average of about four years’ experience—described the importance of building partnerships, establishing strong relationships between their constituents and themselves, and finding ways to influence the mental health system (e.g., lobbying) (Gee et al., 2015). These findings help us to understand the types of strategies that early career advocates employ. What we do not yet know are the motivators, strategies, and barriers experienced by seasoned experts – that is, those with extensive and wellestablished careers – whose work focuses on a diverse array of marginalized populations, and how their experiences can inform and guide psychologists who advocate.

A study by Goodman, Wilson, Helms, Greenstein, and Medzhitova (2018) of recent graduates of a masters-level mental health counseling program provides unique insights specifically related to working with and advocating on behalf of underserved groups. Each of the advocates were within two and a half years of completing their advocacy practicum. Interviews revealed that as advocates’ relationships with individuals from marginalized communities deepened, so did their experience of strong emotions—both pleasant and unpleasant (i.e., feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, angry, moved, and inspired). The positive feelings often countered the more disheartening ones, by highlighting the value of the work, deepening advocates’ commitment, and increasing their confidence as advocates (Goodman et al., 2018). The opportunity to learn about the experiences of leading advocates working on behalf of marginalized and underserved populations can shed additional, necessary light on the important skills, strategies and resources employed, and the barriers psychologists may face when advocating in this space.


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