In my first job out of college, a supervisor mocked me for fighting for issues that I "could not comprehend" because they did not directly affect me. I had spent a year working on public education campaigns around racial profiling and gay equality, yet I was neither a person of color nor homosexual.
It's easy to say that she got it wrong; that everyone is entitled to fight for what they believe in whether they have been personally touched by an issue or not. Yet public affairs experts would argue that advocacy work is much more effective when there is a personal story attached to an issue. A first person account makes policy personal, and puts a face on issues that may otherwise be debated in the abstract.
But although it can be an effective strategy; it may not always be the right choice.
In the days following last month's shooting rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., Richard Martinez, the father of one of the shooting victims, lashed out in remarks at a press conference:
Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris's right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, 'Stop this madness!' Too many have died. We should say to ourselves, 'Not one more!'
It's hard to know how to balance allowing a survivor the space to grieve, and the urge to give him the microphone to air his views on larger social issues related to his very personal tragedy. And yet, as we have seen after similar events, emotional family members have pleaded, often through the media, for gun reform that might take steps to prevent similar tragedies from occurring. To no avail.
So then, how do those of us working to affect public policy support these individuals without doing them a disservice by putting their personal stories front and center in our advocacy efforts? Is it fair to push their narratives forward, when we know that despite the media attention, their pleas may be largely ignored? How do we empower them to speak from their vulnerability, without risking a process that may further traumatize them?
The short answer is: there are no short answers.
In Washington, D.C. as in state capitols across the country, personal stories make a difference. Whether advocates are survivors of sexual assault, terminal illness, or a broken education system, anecdotes and personal narratives trump lobbying strategies every time. And while each of these opportunities carry the risk that the effort may be for naught, it's an opportunity that these survivors have earned.
My view: let advocates speak, wherever the megaphone. Share the risks, and the value, that putting their personal story into the public can bring. Let them make their own decisions about jumping on the national stage, but be mindful that how they perform will affect the broader agenda as well.
The most effective way to affect public policy is to remind public officials that there are real people affected by their decisions. Balance the risks, and hope for the reward.