Advocacy 101: How to make sure your advocacy is intersectional of different voices

2 November 2021

We’ve all heard the advice to ‘look around the table and see who is not present’. It’s a question that asks us to reflect on how representative we are of diverse experiences, and challenges potential unconscious bias. While this is good advice and should be something we actively reflect on, it can take a little more effort to recognise intersectional deficits in policy and advocacy.

Recently, the national discussion on addressing violence against women saw Aboriginal Elders and leaders call for a stand-alone National Plan to address violence against Aboriginal women and their children. This separate plan would allow for a deeper exploration and response measures that recognise the complex nature of violence against First Nations women and how it intertwines with factors that are not commonly understood among the broader population, such as connection to Country, kinship customs, and cultural expectations and tribal law. In doing so, a separate action plan would also stop presenting violence against Aboriginal women and children as merely an addition to the plan.

“We have always experienced being an afterthought, add on or linked-in measure. We have got to stop that practice.” — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commission June Oscar, during the 2021 National Summit on Women’s Safety.

We have also been reminded of how proposals to criminalise coercive control have the potential to detrimentally impact Aboriginal women who are victims of violence. Chiefly, this is because Aboriginal women are already overpoliced as a collective and their reports of violence and abuse are often not believed, which can result in mis-identification of First Nations women as perpetrators. Therefore, coercive control reforms which grant more power to the police to label behaviours as part of a coercive control pattern are likely to result in more Aboriginal women being interrogated and imprisoned than protected.

While intersectional approaches to advocacy can assist us in addressing the unique experiences of Aboriginal women with institutional racism and the realities of being a policy afterthought, there is a broad suite of ways our policy ideas and campaigns can have unintended consequences on specific demographics.

More obscure policy and campaign agendas that fail the intersectionality test are sometimes those aimed at taxing perceived bad habits, such as ‘fat taxes’. While putting a tax on buying unhealthy food may seem an obvious choice to curb obesity as well as broader health costs, the unfortunate reality is that taxes like these often punish those who are least likely to be able to absorb even a small penalty: families in poverty, or people with low literacy and living skills like preparing and cooking fresh food, that many others may take for granted. Similarly, for those living in remote or regional communities where access to fresh food can be prohibitively expensive, there is arguably more value in advocating for more affordable options than penalising the choices many make when they are left with little other alternatives.

The most effective way to overcome these deficits in policy and campaign design is to engage with lived experience: meet with those affected, organise consultations and focus groups and offer the opportunity for meaningful engagement. While you may have the qualifications or campaign experience to develop your own advocacy agenda, without the intimate knowledge of lived experience you may find your well-crafted plan contains glaring omissions that would be easily discernible to some of your audience. This shouldn’t become a tick-box exercise in having diverse voices at the table who can often become overwhelmed or a tokenistic signal for all things diverse, but rather a meaningful attempt to hear from those who are likely to be most impacted by a given policy. So run surveys, conduct focus groups, and meet with community peaks to ensure your talk about intersectionality becomes reality.

Want to know more? Find out some ways you can put intersectionality into practice at work.

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