Kat Gruschow, Policy Fellow

My roommate and I have a lot in common. We had the same eighth-grade French teacher. We accidentally wear matching outfits. Our dogs are best friends.

Recently we discovered yet another similarity. Despite both of us having completed multiple run and multi-sport races–and actively training for upcoming ones–we feel deeply uncomfortable labeling ourselves as “runners” or “athletes.” We refuse when other people try to assure us that we are runners, given how much time we spend running.

What is it that intimidates both of us about the term “runner” or “athlete”? 

They just sound so… professional. An athlete is someone who lives and breathes training, who has a coach, who is perfect at every component of their race. Athletes know what they’re doing. We don’t. We just like running, biking, and swimming. It feels like there is a vast gulf between what we do and what they do. 

Before my time at CCHI, I felt a similar apprehension towards “advocate.” An analogous sense of professionalism–of all that one must be to truly be an advocate–colored my view of the term and my belief that I could ever be one. Advocates have perfectly written speeches and confront elected officials and speak in front of rallies with hundreds or thousands of people. They know what they’re doing. 

And those folks are advocates. But speaking publicly and organizing rallies are not the only mediums of advocacy.

Advocacy simply means promoting the interests of someone or a group–including yourself. Self-advocacy is speaking up for your needs and wants. This can be asserting your rights in tense situations, but it is also actually expressing your opinion when the group decides where to eat. We use self-advocacy skills every day. 

Even systems-level advocacy–striving to change policies and laws–which sounds hefty and intimidating isn’t when you remove the veneer of professionalism and “advocate” as a one-size-fits-all identity. 

For example, the public aspect I previously linked to being an “advocate”–the need to speak persuasively to large crowds–scared me the most. I don’t foresee myself ever relishing that role. But supporting people in finding their voice and pushing them to speak up is advocacy. Talking to your friends, family, and the grocery store clerk about an issue or a bill is advocacy. Convincing those on the fence to vote is advocacy. These more “behind the scenes” interpersonal interactions–the supporter role–has always been a position that I find myself stepping into. 

Both visible and less visible facets of advocacy are essential to the sustained pursuit of a better, more just world. And they’re interrelated. Advocates leading rallies and speaking passionately rely on the organizing and research of advocates behind the scenes. 

Just because there are professional athletes does not mean that all of us who like to run and train are not “athletes.” We do it! We go out and run! We complete races! No pace or number of medals makes someone an athlete. The discomfort in calling ourselves one is mental.

The same stands for being an advocate. There are “professional” advocates. Lobbyists are paid to advocate for different groups’ rights and desires. But just because lobbyists exist doesn’t mean that anyone who furthers their or their community’s interests is not an advocate. If you press for change in any way, you are an advocate.

Fear of not being “enough” to qualify as an athlete, an advocate, or any other identity keeps many of us from entering into community with others with the same mission.

For years I refused to join a run or cycling club. Those people who had organized runs and workouts, they were athletes. But since I was not, I couldn’t join. The fear of not being enough kept me from finding community in something I love–and kept me from like-minded individuals’ collective wisdom, resources, and energy.

Similarly, we dampen the strength of our collective voice when we refrain from joining communities of advocates because we don’t see the work we do as enough to identify with the term or feel we deserve to be in that space. The perceived professionalism of “advocate” keeps those with lived experience from seeing that expertise as valuable. Fear of embracing the term can keep us from collective wisdom, resources, and energy which we need in the fight against the status quo.

This year, I strive to release my aversion to identifying with both identities–athlete and advocate–to invite more community strength into my life. Last weekend, I attended my first group training since high school, and it reshaped my idea of what training can mean to me. With the legislative session in full swing, I invite others who feel similarly about their relationship to “advocate” to consider why we often feel our efforts aren’t enough and the collective strength our fear is inhibiting us from accessing.

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