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Drop the Mic. What can we learn from arts advocacy?

Monday, May 16, 2016
Guest Writers
Government Relations
Tara Mazurk

Articulating a policy ask might feel like those first overwhelming moments in front of a blank canvas. First, you need a surge of inspiration and only then, can you begin to sketch out an idea, erase and sketch again, refine and reframe. The long hours spent in these creative moments, as in policy advocacy, can result in something new and exhilarating. When you’ve created your work, have shared it well, had the right supports behind you and gave it time to resonate with your audience - you’re on your way to a policy win.

At the Canadian Arts Coalition, we’ve created a community of artists, arts managers, and arts supporters to advocate to the federal government around key issues facing the sector - increases to arts council finding, digital access for Canadian content, and bringing Canada’s artists to the world stage, are a few of our policy asks. Here are a few things that we’ve learned through advocating to MPs, and we hope can help your advocacy group make its mark:

Find inspiration

That surge of inspiration we mentioned? If you are involved in a cause you care about, you’re already there. Advocacy is about passion. When you reach out to MPs, it’s an opportunity to connect at an individual level and allow that connection to ripple throughout government. Consider the stories and lived experiences you can share about the issue, and be open to sharing how it impacts your community members, your family, your kids, and your neighbours. 

Artists are masters at observation and communication. In their work, they sometimes borrow ideas and nod to the greats that came before them. Do the same among advocacy groups and learn from what others are doing. Instead of just looking at what came before, recognize the great work that is happening right now. Build relationships with groups who inspire you, share best practices, and find aligned and intersecting issues that you can band together on.

Create the strongest cast and crew

The diversity of your advocates matter. Multiple, yet aligned, perspectives on an issue provides a meaningful experience to advocates and also can help reframe conversations based on the priorities of different MPs. Diversity requires ongoing self-reflection among the organizing team. Does your coalition reflect who you’re advocating for?  

Bring your communities together, nation-wide. Most advocacy efforts require frequency and volume in messaging.  Draw on your network and the tools of social media to harness the people who care about your issue across provinces and municipalities. For the 2015 federal election, we made it easy to engage with #ArtsVote by equipping our advocates with a Social Media Primer. And, when we needed to reach MPs for policy asks? #Arts308 supported advocates by sharing how to find MPs and reach them on Twitter.

The last piece of creating a strong team? Look out for each other. The Canadian Arts Coalition is volunteer-run, as are many other advocacy groups. Whether you’re a grassroots group or a charity or nonprofit of any size, compassion burnout is a real risk. Policy change happens in incremental steps over a long period of time, and can include working sessions in the evenings, on weekends, in board rooms, and in coffee shops. Respect each other’s schedules and wellbeing, and you’ll be a stronger and motivated team as a result.

Know your script, but don’t be afraid to go off-book

Ever heard the phrase, ‘art is subjective’? Well, it’s a little more complex (see our next point below). Great creators root their thinking in thorough research and a strong understanding of their discipline. Start to develop your script by researching the various arguments on your issue, gathering statistics and facts, and educate yourself on how government functions. This, paired with your inspirational stories that we discussed earlier, gets you closer to your advocacy masterpiece.

Government documents, and the language that accompanies them, are one of your strongest resources. Read mandate letters, familiarize yourself with the communications of various departments, and bridge this language with the language of your advocacy issue. You’ll quickly find that there are terms and phrases that unite your thinking with all parties in government. But a word of caution - do not falter and do not pander! Hold strong in your creativity, integrity, and core messaging.

In order to reach MPs, your message has to be clear and concise. You won’t get to communicate everything that you want to say. However, when the MP asks questions or challenges your position, this provides you with an opportunity to go off-script. Great improvisers take years to perfect their ability to act on-the-fly, and often with information and ideas in their back pocket. With preparation and rehearsal, you’ll know when to pull out the right stories, facts, and arguments at the right time, and provide your MP with a new way of perceiving the issue in a way that meets their curiosities and concerns.

Leave them with a memory

Let’s go back to understanding the nuances of ‘art is subjective.’ You can’t just create the work, hang it on a wall, and expect that the work is complete. In fact, the audience’s perception of the work, including how their memories, knowledge and sensory experiences inform the work, is an important contributor to the artwork’s longevity. With advocacy, how do you let your passion for an issue resonate with MPs? Like artists, creativity is sparked by a curiosity of the world. Ask MPs questions about their community, their projects, and their passions. This, paired with research about your MP beforehand, will give you a much fuller understanding of who they are and what they truly care about.

All federal politics is local. Your local MP might take numerous meetings, but they will remember their neighbours. Take the opportunity to demonstrate your issue first-hand, and showcase how it directly affects your community. Invite them to a community event, to your office, or give them an opportunity to meet one of your clients/members (Note: familiarize yourself with CRA rules that apply for political activities). If an MP knows the organizations and individuals that are making a difference in their riding, it can go a long way in standing out and being memorable. At the Canadian Arts Coalition, we provide MPs a print-out of the Canadian Council for the Arts grant recipients by riding, and we are hardly surprised to hear that MPs have already taken their children to the local theatre or have stumbled upon a local arts festival in their neighbourhood park.

To be memorable, be grateful and open to the ideas of others. Thank the MPs, their assistants, and understand that there are many priorities on the minds of politicians and government staff. Create, relate, and leave an impression. 

About the Author

Tara MazurkTara Mazurk, Canadian Arts Coalition (CAC)

The CAC is a volunteer-led, collaborative non-partisan movement united in the belief that the future of our citizens, their towns and cities, and the nation itself depends on a rich, vibrant and diverse arts and heritage community. Tara has volunteered with the CAC for three years and has worked as an independent Curator, a consultant for Canadian Artists’ Representation Ontario, and is currently the Engagement Coordinator for the Ontario Nonprofit Network.

Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.

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