Transformational leadership does not see results overnight. This may be one of the most frustrating aspects of any activism. How does one remain optimistically focused on a goal in the face of strongly rooted obstacles and unanticipated challenges?
In her books Helping Yourself Help Others and Helping Someone with Mental Illness, former first lady Rosalynn Carter reminds us that “making change is not easy. It is a struggle against intolerance, ignorance, entrenched interests, and inertia.”
Carter has spent 30 years taking “small steps” in the right direction on an issue many people dismiss from the public forum, despite its relevance to every community. Although she has witnessed progress in our mental health care, she also has experienced the surprises and setbacks that accompany work for cultural change. Thus Carter’s observations about mental health advocacy apply to other forms of advocacy, which means literally “to speak or work on behalf of another.”
Most people become advocates on issues that affect them personally, when they realize that they are not alone and that they can help others while helping themselves. Soon the advocate realizes, however, that it’s difficult to battle myths, misconceptions and stereotypes that stroke egos and stoke fear.
It can be additionally difficult to effect positive change if such entrenched roadblocks are guarded by pastors, politicians and other community leaders, as well as by various media and apathetic citizens.
Carter’s advice to those who would be transformational leaders: begin with the mirror. “Kindness, empathy and understanding must replace stigma in our hearts and minds,” she writes. “This means rethinking our own attitudes” and consciously altering them where needed. This includes our word choices, our descriptions of others, and our own ideas of what is humorous and what is not.
Secondly, we need to know our resources (human, financial and otherwise), how they flow and how we may need to redirect them in our communities to bring about change. A piece of practical advice from Carter: “Do your homework.”
Thirdly, we must understand that successful advocates do not merely communicate in one direction; rather, they “bridge gaps” of knowledge and understanding among professionals, policy makers, volunteers, the media and the general public. This road is tough with one group, and even tougher with several. It requires effort. It requires patience. It requires conviction to keep going.
For this reason, Carter urges advocates to “keep hope alive” by telling stories, by forming coalitions, by trying new tactics.
Carter demonstrated these methods when she and former first lady Betty Ford teamed up in 1994 to lobby congressional and other leaders to address mental health and addiction on par with other aspects of physical health. Both women had previously advocated passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, a cause that remains unsuccessful in spite of its support by such Christian women as Carter and Ford.
Carter leaves us with the challenge of deciding for whom we will advocate. For whom will we each work and speak and take a stand?
Carter tells of her visit with anthropologist Margaret Mead who believed that “our value as individuals, our success as a society, could be measured by the compassion we show for the vulnerable.”
Both Carter and Mead contend that “if we select for our first consideration the most vulnerable among us … then our whole culture is humanized.” Carter asks, “Can we measure up to Margaret Mead’s standards?”
Christians must take this question one step further and ask if we are measuring up to Jesus’ standards regarding “the least of these.”
Carol Ann Vaughn is director of the Christian Women’s Leadership Center at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
Order Rosalynn Carter’s books from Amazon!
Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life (with Jimmy Carter)
Assistant professor in the Howard College of Arts and Sciences at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. She studies social history at the intersection of religion, technology and culture, sex and gender, and holds a Ph. D. in history from Auburn University.