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Advocacy is for every day, not just for campaigns

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Martel Menz is a well known Australian advocate for quality early childhood education and recognition of educators. While Martel is a leader in the AEU, she penned this article for Amplify! describing her approach to ‘everyday’ activism and how making small differences every day can make a big difference when the major issues roll around.

We’d love you to compare how you feel right now with how you feel after reading this article. Right now, how do you feel about your role as an advocate for early childhood education? Knowledgable or a bit lost? Confident or not sure what you can contribute? Can you make room for your own personal form of advocacy in your everyday world?

Share your before-and-after feelings in the comments.

If I may borrow some creative license, I propose that the professional is political.

“Surely they won’t cut the funding?  It can’t happen… we’ll be right.”  This was a conversation I heard too many times as the early childhood sector fought (again) to protect funding for Universal Access to preschool.

Each time I listened, incredulous, wondering the same thing, “But how will it be okay?  On what basis can we make that assessment?  Are the funding fairies going to wave their magic wands?”

This type of thinking is not only naïve, it’s dangerous.  It positions our sector and profession as a passive recipient.  Things get “done” to us.  Educators are sidelined and their expertise devalued.  Those higher up the food chain offer reassurance, “Don’t worry, we’re advocating on your behalf.  The Manager has raised the issue with the other very important people.”  Politics is played out in boardrooms, behind closed door, removed from the everyday experiences of early childhood professionals within their education settings.  The power of the profession is diminished, and by not getting actively involved we are playing into their hands.

“The personal is political” was a phrase associated with second wave feminism of the 1960’s and 70’s.  It described the political action of consciousness-raising, of women coming together as collectives and giving voice to the challenges they faced.  If I may borrow some creative license, I propose that the professional is political.  As early childhood professionals you are engaging in politics everyday whether you realise it or not.  The act of teaching is inherently political.  The decisions you make about the curriculum, the way you engage with children, families and communities, the decisions about how to spend money and resources, where you invest your time and energy.

I believe there is a void we need to fill and the time is now.

But what about more overt, strategic forms of political activity and action?  I believe there is a void we need to fill and the time is now.  I say this because in my role as a union leader I’ve planned and implemented enough campaigns to see a missing piece in the activist puzzle: what we do in the space between campaigns is critically important.

Collective activism by its nature has an ebb and a flow.  It involves climbing mountainous peaks to fight for what we need: more funding, better policy, greater status and recognition.  We carefully plan our journey, we gather the people and the resources we need for success, and we climb that mountain as a collective, escalating our actions and political pressure along the way.  We reach the summit, we celebrate our wins and we reflect on how we could advance our position next time.  We then head down into the gully for some rest and respite, to replenish for the next battle ahead.  But what if we spent this time also engaging in some simple activist work, maintenance work if you like?  How could that better position us for the next campaign to ensure the profession and our sector is in the strongest place possible?  And what are the possibilities if more people joined us on our activist travels?

I have some ideas about how we could best invest our time and energy and encourage others to get involved.

I felt nervous and shy and totally out of my depth.

Building and nurturing our relationships.

Activist work is most powerful as a collective.  We have strength and power in numbers.  We only need to look at previous campaigns and social justice movements to realise this.

Do you belong to a network, association, union, or all three?  Find your people, those who will inspire you, challenge and stretch your thinking, and have your back.  How can they support and join you in your activist work?  What do they need to also step up and act?  Can you share the load of the heavy lifting in a campaign?  Can you delegate tasks and rely on others for support?

You can start small.

Invite a colleague to a meeting.  Help organise a meeting.  Share information with colleagues, families and community.  Get active on social media, but ensure this also translates to your face-to-face work.

Getting started can sometimes feel difficult.  I remember when a colleague first invited me to a union meeting as an observer.  I felt nervous and shy and totally out of my depth.  But soon I realised I was in the company of like-minded friends who could teach me a great deal and that as a graduate teacher I had an important contribution to make.  Making connections within the activist community will possibly be one of the most rewarding experiences you can have.

Only you can tell your story about your work.

Engage with Politicians

If I estimated how many early childhood professionals have engaged directly with a Member of Parliament, it would be a very small number.  I’m talking about a direct interaction, a conversation, a visit to their electorate office or hosting them at your centre.  This is the single act that could make the biggest difference to outcomes for our sector.

Educators should not rely on the sector leaders to do this work.  Politicians need to hear from you.   In large part, politicians don’t come from the education profession.  When we expect them to value our work, to invest in better wages and conditions, to implement better policy, how can they do that unless they appreciate what you do?

Only you can tell your story about your work.  You are the expert.  Educate them about your work.  Don’t grumble, “They don’t care” unless you have made an endeavour to scaffold their learning.  Imagine the impact of this if the profession engaged with their politicians: Federal, State/Territory, and Local, in vast numbers?  This is how we make our political representatives accountable.  By developing these strong relationships we’re in a good position to lobby them for the things that matter.

Consider all the opportunities to engage with your local politicians and don’t just contact them when you want something.  Invite them to speak at your Annual General Meeting or a committee meeting, ask them to open a new building or part of your playground, ask them to spend an hour or two in the program.  Then when we are in campaign mode, the relationship is established.

we can’t agitate for change if we don’t know our stuff well enough

Identify your knowledge gaps and fill them

Activist work can sometimes feel overwhelming and easier to leave up to the “experts” and the leaders.  Here’s the thing: you are all experts, you are doing the hard work every day.  You don’t have to be across every issue, but do your homework on the issues you’re campaigning for.

If you don’t understand how funding works, find out.  Same goes for your knowledge of the laws that govern your practice and how they are made and amended, how your pay and conditions are negotiated and set, the role of professional teacher standards, curriculum and assessment issues, social justice issues, how policy is made… the list goes on.

Do your reading and research and use your networks to skill up on the areas that have political underpinnings.  You will quickly realise these “bigger picture” issues are inherently interwoven with your everyday practice.  Ask lots of questions, do lots of listening, be open and flexible to new thinking and learning.  Also skill up on your communication and negotiation skills so that you can make a convincing and evidenced argument, to diplomatically debate opposing ideas, and reach an outcome that is acceptable to all parties.  We can’t agitate for change if we don’t know our stuff well enough and how to achieve it.

When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” (Audre Lord, 1997)

Care for self and others.

Activism is playing the long game.  It’s a journey of endless frustrations, but you’ll make it a more sustainable endeavour if you accept this is as par for the course and find ways to look after yourself.

Self-care in itself is a political act.  One of my favourite quotes I keep coming back to is from Audre Lorde (1988), feminist and civil rights activist: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, self-care is getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, making time for yourself, unplugging from the world.  This will help make an activist life a sustainable and enjoyable one.  You’ll approach the frustrations and the setbacks with a more positive outlook.  Caring for yourself will ensure you have the patience, tenacity, courage, and optimism required for activist work.

Many activists I know will dip in and out of activism.  As life and time permits they come back to the cause, bringing others along, and doing whatever they can to make a contribution.  It’s okay to take a break when you need to replenish.  Just let someone know that you’re taking a break, that you still want to remain connected and will be back on board when you can.  Strong relationships with other activists and activist organisations will nurture you.  Prop each other up, offer encouragement, share stories and enjoy the work.  Most importantly have fun and celebrate all of the little and big wins along the way.

Self-care also means protecting yourself when your activism is questioned or threatened.  Others may find your activism challenging in some way, they may try to shut it down, or suggest that it’s not lawful.  This connects back to my advice on knowing your “stuff.”  There are industrial protections and laws that allow employees to engage in advocacy and activism and it’s important to understand how this works.  When I run a campaign we educate members on these rights and actively support and represent union members if adverse action is imminent or taken.  Again to quote Audre Lorde (1997), “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” (1997)

I believe choosing to be an activist early childhood professional is one of the most courageous and rewarding things you can do.  You are not only having an impact on the children, families and communities that you are directly working with, you are contributing to a better, more just society.  What a legacy to leave!
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Martel Menz

Martel is the Vice President, Early Childhood of the Australian Education Union's Victoria Branch.Growing up with teachers in the family, Martel was drawn to early childhood teaching from an early age. In Year 10 she did a high school work placement with her old kindergarten teacher, and was hooked. She continues to be inspired by the pivotal role early childhood teachers play in shaping a child’s life, and the important relationships they build with families and the community.

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