The Making of an Advocate

Margaret Brodkin
November 30, 2001

As the director of Coleman Advocates for Children in San Francisco, Margaret Brodkin took a leading role in passage of the city's ground-breaking "Children's Amendment." The amendment, first passed in 1991 and renewed in 2000, mandates funding for children's services each year in the city budget. It funds 180 programs, serving 80,000 children. Just as important, it has been replicated by many communities around the country.

She also pushed the city to adopt a comprehensive approach to youth development, including creation of a Youth Commission; and was a major force shaping San Francisco's child care agenda, which addresses the need for salary increases and stipends for workers, a fund for facilities improvements and city-funded subsidies for low-income workers not eligible for state or federal funds.

We asked Brodkin to try to explain the sources of her success, and her stamina, as an advocate for children.

In the 12 years between graduate school in social work and becoming the executive director of Coleman Advocates for Children, I had six jobs—many ending unhappily, and the last ending in my being fired. I was a productive, but "difficult" employee—constantly questioning my boss's judgment, trying to change agency policies, lacking appropriate "distance" from my clients, and on and on.

Disheartened and humiliated, I applied for a job I knew virtually nothing about, the director of a fledgling child advocacy organization deciding whether to close its doors or expand its mission. I have been here for 23 years, one of the longest tenures as a professional child advocate in the country. I finally found a role that depended on those very qualities that had gotten me into such hot water at the beginning of my career.

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    Being an advocate for something you believe in is exhilarating—there is no greater high than to be able to change a system for the better so that thousands of children will ultimately benefit. And what keeps me going is that Coleman Advocates for Children, the agency I direct, has been so effective and accomplished so much.

    But what many do not appreciate is that while being an advocate is deeply gratifying, it is also absolutely terrifying—AND it feels exactly the same after 23 years as it did the very first time I was called upon to raise my hand and question the proceedings that were underway at our local head-in-the-sand juvenile justice commission. As I have explained to the many wonderful staff who have come through Coleman over the years, there is no point in being an advocate unless you push the envelope, unless you demand that something be done differently—and that is ALWAYS painful. If it were easy, if other people were already doing it, then why would anyone need an advocate?

    So what does it look like when you take on the responsibility (whether as a job or as an unpaid citizen volunteer) of advocating—and yes, even advocating for something as seemingly non-controversial as children? People patronize you, ignore you, ridicule you, threaten you—;accuse you of selfish motives, bad judgment, ignorance, stupidity, emotional imbalance, etc. There are a million ways to protect the status quo and shut down the advocate, whether it is at a public hearing, a behind-closed-doors meeting with the person "in charge," or in a kiss-off letter.

    Everyone Loves Children, Right?
    Trying to get more money for children invariably unleashes the substantial political forces of fiscal conservatives. The business community, for instance, loves kids in theory, but is rarely supportive of increased government spending on anything for fear of higher taxes. Giving all children equal access to the city's finest schools sounds great, but it can inspire furious class divisions, including opposition from parents, which is always uncomfortable. The protectors of a punishment-oriented juvenile justice system are heavy-handed opponents—they seem to know more than most about strong-arming and threatening tactics. And sadly, I have learned not to be surprised when my opponents are sometimes children's service providers—turf protection is a powerful motivator in every field.

    Finding Satisfaction in Small Steps
    Advocacy is hard not just because of the overwhelming power of the status quo, but because advocacy is most often a gritty and messy activity. Things change one step at a time, and each step is wrenching. Of course, there are those moments when one gets to wax eloquent about the evils of child poverty or dramatically uncover abuses at the detention center that demand immediate correction, or successfully expose bureaucratic corruption that gets the right person fired for robbing children.

    But most of the time, advocacy is about taking the next small bureaucratic step on the long path to creating the policies and programs that truly help this country's families. And the guardians of the status quo are often people who truly believe that the changes you are proposing will do more harm than good. They are often even nice people. Sometimes new advocates get confused, and feel that unless the opponent appears to be the devil, the resistance to change must be justified.

    And to make matters even more difficult for the advocate, there is frankly rarely a time when the next step represents an absolute right. There is always some legitimacy in the message of the other side. One must learn to fight fiercely for small gains—even in the face of ambiguity.

    Painful Trade-Offs
    Will a charter amendment that guarantees funding for children tie the hands of lawmakers to do other good things? Will clinics in the high schools take space away from other educational needs? Will increasing the salaries of some child care workers create inequities in the field? Will banning advertising in the schools limit school revenues? Will providing children with a range of health insurance options (including private care) reduce utilization (and therefore revenue) at the county hospital? Will creating an office of children in city government add to the bureaucracy? Will having the city fund arts programs in the schools let the school district "off the hook"?

    Well, yes. BUT the benefits of these proposed policies outweigh the problems. So we go on—one small step at a time.

    There are many things that nurture me in the face of taking on yet one more battle—the support of colleagues and a growing network of child advocates, the satisfaction of having taken one more step, and the knowledge that anger and hostility is all just part of the process. But the single most nurturing part of the job comes from relating to the people we are serving—gaining energy from the passion and ideas of parents, children and youth, and community members on the front lines of issues.

    First, Listen
    People think of advocates as the voice of reform. Talking, writing, speaking are seen as the main activities. I have found, however, that my social work training and instincts are the perfect preparation for being a professional child advocate. Few people realize how much time I spend listening to the problems people are experiencing—that's where all the good ideas come from—understanding the details of what needs to happen, understanding what next steps will actually work, what people are ready for, what need is most urgently felt. And advocates are nothing but orators and pains in the butt if their advocacy does not include a specific agenda for making things better.

    So what I have learned from my 23 years as a child advocate?

    • The adage "No pain, no gain" applies to advocacy, every bit as much as body-building. We can go to meetings, write reports, put on glitzy PR campaigns—but unless a fairly high level of discomfort is being created, the status quo will prevail.
    • We will never be unequivocally right. If we wait until our position is unassailable, we will never move forward.
    • And perhaps most important—the best ammunition is created by the people on whose behalf we advocate.

    Brodkin's video on taking action, Speak Up, Speak Out, is available for $20 from Coleman Advocates. For more information, or to order a copy, send an e-mail to

    Margaret Brodkin is executive director of Coleman Advocates for Children in San Francisco, and has been since 1978. She has 34 years of experience in the social welfare field, and is the mother of two grown children.