By Tess Riski, Project Assistant, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness
Up until recently, I had never considered myself to be an “advocate.” The term just didn’t seem to fit quite right. Being an advocate, I had thought to myself, was all about quantity, as if there is an advocacy checklist that looks something like this:
□ Attends multiple rallies each month;
□ Dedicates 40+ hours a week to saving the world;
□ Eats-drinks-breathes their chosen cause.
The more boxes you can tick off, I had thought to myself, the closer you are to being a bona-fide advocate. I didn’t tick many boxes, therefore I felt I simply did not meet the minimum qualifications.
It turns out that what I was feeling isn’t all that uncommon after all. Two psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, gave it a name in 1978: impostor syndrome. As the New York Times reported, they described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” People who experience impostor syndrome often “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds,” the Times said.
Due to pre-existing systemic issues like sexism and racism, impostor syndrome tends to disproportionately affect women and people of color. The ubiquity of impostor syndrome further exacerbates the marginalization of these groups in everyday society; the less qualified they consider themselves for positions, the less likely they are to apply to them and the more likely are to undersell themselves along the way.
Recently, impostor syndrome became problematic for me. But, unlike appearing where it usually does for most people who experience it – in academia and the workplace – for me, it infiltrated the advocacy world.
I’m a project assistant at the Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness – a project deeply committed to ending family homelessness through connecting the community with advocacy partners and opportunities to advocate across Western Washington. In early February, our project team was preparing to attend Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day (HHAD), which, as the name implies, is an inherently advocacy-oriented event.
Feeling a little phony
On Feb. 1, our team headed down to the state capitol in Olympia to participate in HHAD. During this event, which takes place for one day each year, Washington residents who care about housing affordability and ending homelessness descend upon the capitol in hordes to share stories with lawmakers and lobby for specific bills. The crux of the event is to end homelessness while making housing affordable and accessible to all. In anticipation of this exciting, meaningful day, my feelings of inadequacy began to rise.
During the 90-minute car ride from Seattle to Olympia, the little voice in the back of my head passed along a few snarky comments. “Everyone is going to see that you don’t know what you’re doing,” it sneered. “The moment they see you, they’ll know you’re a fraud.”
But I also felt a wave of excitement as I thought about the 545 handwritten letters our team was planning to deliver to Sen. Christine Rolfes, chair of the Senate Ways & Means Committee. We chose to deliver the letters to Rolfes because the committee she chairs is key to orchestrating housing policies in the state.
During the two weeks prior to HHAD, our team generated the nearly 600 letters from students, faculty, staff and administrators at Seattle U and Seattle Central. We even gathered letters from those who have experienced or are experiencing homelessness. Each letter was addressed directly to the senator, and each had a personalized message inscribed on it. Our two stacks stood at about 12 inches tall each. They were monumental and I was proud of our team’s work.
After arriving at the Capitol, we headed over to the United Churches of Olympia where the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance – who has hosted HHAD for the last 20-something years – congregated with attendees to start the day-long event. Carrying the two stacks in my arms (which were quite heavy, I might add) I began to feel my confidence bolster.
A rite of passage
Upon entering the church and being greeted by a swarm of people, I was bestowed with the staple HHAD accessory: a red scarf. I put mine on and glanced around at the hundreds of others buzzing nearby who were also sporting their red fleece. In this moment, I felt as if I was a part of a team and that I was in Olympia on a mission with 600+ others just like me. The voice in the back of my head that had been nagging me with feelings of inadequacy earlier hushed down significantly.
There was excitement in the air as the day began. Rep. Nicole Macri kicked off the event with an emotional, impactful speech directed at all HHAD attendees. Then our team of four split off to the 43rd Legislative District meeting in the Capitol building. Members of the district piled into the large conference room and shared emotional stories with Rep. Macri, Sen. Jamie Pedersen and House Speaker Frank Chopp, who all appeared supportive and understanding. In fact, they have all sponsored or co-sponsored important housing bills, and Rep. Chopp helped create the Housing Trust Fund.
After that, we headed to a social media workshop, attended a rally and ate lunch on the steps of the Senate building. As I ate my turkey sandwich, I began to glance around and observe my surroundings thoroughly for the first time that day. Immersed in a sea of red scarves, I started to feel as though I was a part of a movement. And not just a miniscule, replaceable part – an important one capable of igniting change.
Finally, after weeks of anticipation, it was time for our team’s big moment. After a brief run-through of our plan of action, we headed up to Senator Rolfes’ office for the 23rd District meeting. It was time to deliver our mountain of letters.
As we entered the meeting, led by Sen. Rolfes’ legislative aide, Linda Owens, a group of about a dozen advocates from Kitsap County observed our two stacks with amazement and awe.
“How about you present those as the grand finale?” one of the advocates asked us. This was a very kind gesture to which we had no objections. After this initial comment, I immediately felt welcomed into the setting. I was eager to see how the meeting would proceed, this one significantly smaller and more personal than the 43rd we had sat in on earlier that day.
I watched as, one-by-one, the advocates gave direct and explicit pitches on behalf of their county. They lobbied for specific bills and shared personal stories of family members and people they work with. For the most part, they advocated for HB2578 and SB5407, which are known as the Source of Income Discrimination bills. As well-seasoned as these advocates were, I realized that there is nothing particularly unique about this group of people; they are all just everyday people who – like me – are passionate about homelessness and housing and want to make a difference.
Becoming a “real advocate”
Finally, it was our turn to deliver our message. As we explained the purpose of our letters and the creative, community-oriented process that led up to their delivery, the group seem impressed and delighted. To them, we were a legitimate team capable of making change in the world. They took our presence at HHAD and our stack of letters seriously.
It looks like Sen. Rolfes did, too. She included our team in her constituent e-newsletter.
“Message Received” the headline of her newsletter read. “I thank Madison, Katie and Tess for the energy and passion they are dedicating to this issue,” Rolfes wrote in the newsletter. “I share their concern and will continue to search for ways the Legislature can best use our state resources for housing solutions in the Puget Sound.”
As we headed out of Olympia that day, I was awash with emotions: relief, fulfillment, excitement. I began to feel a bit silly for questioning myself earlier. Of course I, as a voter and Washington State resident, have the right to demand change from my lawmakers. Advocacy is not about “ticking boxes,” so to speak, until you’re qualified and deserving of your lawmakers’ attention; it’s about caring deeply for an issue and using your resources to make change – as small or big as that change may be. It is critical for people to use their privilege to advocate on behalf of those who cannot.
I learned these lessons after attending HHAD this year, which means I may not be alone in my advocacy-related impostor syndrome. Surely others feel the same way, especially if they’ve never participated in an advocacy-oriented event before.
If you’re one of those people who is experiencing symptoms of impostor syndrome in the advocacy world, it’s important to remember that everyone has to start somewhere; nobody is born an advocate. You are capable of bringing about change and having fun while doing so. Take it from me – a recovering advocacy impostor.
Finally, remember that your lawmakers want to hear from you. It is their job to listen to their constituents and craft policies around the needs and concerns brought forth to them. You are never a burden to your lawmaker for demanding they fulfill the duties they were elected into office to complete.
What You Can Do
Now, with that said, there’s no time like the present to get started. Here are some changes you can make today to help end homelessness in Washington State and ensure that housing is accessible to all:
- Think about how women and people of color might be left out of the advocacy conversation, and work to center them.
- Choose a bill that is meaningful to you. Track it all the way from the Senate committees to the House Floor to the Governor’s desk.
- Get on the list for advocacy action alerts from the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.
- Understand that it is your constitutional right to demand action from your lawmakers. You are not acting “entitled” by doing so because you are, in fact, entitled to your rights.
- Use your privilege to advocate on behalf of those who cannot. Show up and be present in place of those who are unable to.