On Behalf: Knowing the Voice of Advocacy
Nations Media is built around four core values: Advocacy, Beauty, Life-Risk, and Reformation. These values shape the skeleton of every story we tell, animating each with form and forward movement. In this series, four essays will consider each pillar through a narrative lens. (Read the first essay here.) In this second installment, Sarah Zimmerman explores the value of Advocacy.
“Your majesties, your highnesses.”
A young woman appears onstage. She is small in stature, teetering on the brink of adulthood, a towering five feet. A rosy headscarf recedes to reveal a streak of raven black hair. She places a hand over her heart, gazes out warmly into the crowd she addresses. She is composed, possessing that sacred and revered tenderness; equal parts resilient and robust. When she speaks, her English cracks with the resonance of another native tongue: “Some people call me the girl who was shot by the Taliban. And some, the girl who fought for her rights.” She is about to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Her name is Malala Yousafzai.
Malala Yousafzai secured the Nobel Peace Prize as a result of her advocacy, fighting on behalf of educational rights and the plight of the stifled female students of Pakistan. Yet advocacy did not merely stumble into Malala’s life, somehow landing in her lap after she took a bullet to the head on her way to school. Her family raised her to hear the voice of advocacy, to know the warmth in its tone and the consonance of its vision, to make out the dictation of freedom. It echoed throughout the halls of her home, a fixture in her childhood—as natural as the portraits of her brothers that hung from the walls or the laughter that erupted around the dinner table. Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, was an education activist himself. For decades before the attack on Malala, he advocated on behalf of his country’s students. Ziaddun’s voice fed the flames of conviction Malala had cultivated early on, gasoline on a fire she had felt stirring within her for years.
On the Nobel Peace Prize stage, Malala Yousafzai’s acceptance is filled with hopeful, raw emotion. She does not waver, yet the still waters of her face run deep, her passion amplified by her composure. As she nears the end of her speech, Malala lists off the girls in her community who dream of educational rights, her soft voice swelling:
“…I am not a lone voice, I am not a lone voice, I am many.
I am Malala, but I am also Shazia.
I am Kainat.
I am Kainat Soomro.
I am Mezon.
I am Amina.
I am those sixty-six million girls who are deprived of education. And today I am not raising my voice, it is the voice of those sixty-six million girls.”
The term advocacy or advocate is derived from Medieval Latin’s advocare or advocatia, meaning summon or call to one’s aid. The concept of advocacy is rooted in the origins of intercession, to stand in the gap publicly, speaking up on behalf of those who are not heard or deemed voiceless. Advocacy is about coming to the aid of another—to use the resources and platform at one’s disposal to amplify another voice. An advocate’s voice is not their own; it is a vessel used on behalf of others, so that the silenced might be heard at long last.
Malala’s closing statement renders me speechless. I am moved by the sheer force of sixty-six million voices grounded in one—of one voice standing for many. As I watch her acceptance, I conjure up the faces of the countless advocates before Malala, my thoughts dissolving with images of those who are marginalized or forgotten. It is in this moment that I am reminded that the individual voices of advocates like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa were not their own, but instead the united cries of those who demanded change, required justice. Their voices held generations, genders, cultures, religions, communities, entire races who had been stifled, dispensed, forgotten. It is then I am reminded that the voice of advocacy is the sound that fills our ears before chains break, clatter, and strike the floor.
An advocate’s voice is not their own; it is a vessel used on behalf of others, so that the silenced might be heard at long last.
Like many, Martin Luther King Jr. first shaped my standard for advocacy. The projector’s glow radiated in darkened classrooms throughout my education as my classmates and I watched his revered “I Have a Dream” speech. In it, King’s singular voice carries the weight and presence of millions. Over the years my rudimentary understanding of advocacy expanded under Gandhi, J.R. Jayewardene, Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel, Matthew Smith, and Liu Xiaobo. Advocacy wasn’t solely a he—it was also a she. Advocacy was Malala Yousafzai, Susan B. Anthony, Shirin Ebadi, Rosa Parks, Audrey Hepburn. Advocacy was found in youth just as much as in age. Advocacy was a community, vibrant and collective: from Germany’s college-aged White Rose resistance group to America’s robust civil rights movement.
The voice of advocacy is the sound that fills our ears before chains break, clatter, and strike the floor.
I started to find advocacy in the people close to me, the people I know and love. I watched my neighbors speak up on behalf of the marginalized, ignited by conviction; they became relentless in their commitment to intercede for those unable to be heard on their own. I found advocacy in every word of Jesus. I even found the capacity for advocacy, against all odds, in myself.
Nations Media believes advocacy is a pillar of Christianity, one of the most distinct features of Jesus, and a mark of those who follow Christ. Jesus is found advocating in all aspects of his life, from halting the casting of stones at the adulterous woman (John 8) to the end of his life on the cross. Even there, in his crucifixion, Jesus publicly receives and verbally redeems the thief who is crucified to his right. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43). Jesus advocates on behalf of the soldiers who torture and crucify him—“Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In his death as in his life, Jesus overflows with advocacy; everything he has is given to the aid of others. Jesus never ceases speaking up for the oppressed, lending his voice in areas of injustice, bursting with demand for social change and restoration. Jesus touched the lepers and protected the widows. Jesus Christ is fundamentally rampant with advocacy.
In his death as in his life, Jesus overflows with advocacy; everything he has is given to the aid of others.
The spirit of advocacy is a thread that runs throughout scripture, saturated with the revelation that interceding in places of injustice is a mark of a holy and restored people. The Old Testament is filled with stories of advocacy, from Moses interceding for his people before Pharaoh (Exodus 9) to Esther stepping into the presence of the king and asking for his sovereign protection over the Jews (Esther 8). In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is described as an Advocate, our advocate, the one who intercedes on our behalf in a realm just beyond reach. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26). Advocacy is a standard in the kingdom of God. As those whose spirits mingle with the Spirit of Christ, we are compelled to take on the Spirit’s characteristics—to become helpers and comforters to those in need.
A longtime reformer and friend of Nations, David Curry, defined advocacy through a lens of practicality by framing it this way: “[Advocacy is] fighting for others. Speaking up for others. Advocacy should never be done in isolation. When people are advocates and nothing else, it weakens our argument. …. I don’t think advocacy in and of itself is good; you need to get your hands in there and help, in some small, practical way.”
As Curry points out, advocacy is not speaking up merely for the sake of speaking up, although speaking up is the fundamental, initial step. The voice of advocacy comes with knowing the story, knowing the injustice, and knowing the people who ask for change to break forth into their lives. The only way to know advocacy is to listen to those that the world has dismissed. This honor, to listen and intercede, was never meant to reside on the shoulders of a select few—rather, advocacy is something that we are all innately summoned to and uniquely equipped for.
Nations Media advocates for reformers by telling the stories of hope and transformation taking root in overlooked places. Nations desires to celebrate God’s work in the world while honoring the sacred stories of those who have not yet been given a platform. Because advocates are stronger when united, Nations links arms with those who are subjected to and fighting against injustice, from Jacqueline Isaac and her alignment with genocide survivors in the Middle East, to J.T. Thomas and his commitment to civil righteousness, to Hugo and Eunice Moya and their ministry to immigrants on the border.
This honor, to listen and intercede, was never meant to reside on the shoulders of a select few—rather, advocacy is something that we are all innately summoned to and uniquely equipped for.
Advocates understand that where people are oppressed is the ground where the most holy and beautiful aspects of Jesus break through. Where there is injustice, there is space for advocacy. If you have a voice, use it; this is a call for us all, not merely Malala or Martin. It is only through listening to the oppressed and then raising our voices on their behalf that we will ever find justice, find land restored, find the dehumanized returned to their humanity, and find humankind brought back to itself. In doing so we take on the image of Christ, who first interceded for and daily advocates for us.
Sarah is a writer currently based in Madison, WI who desires to revisit and invest in areas where there is confusion or uncertainty. She hopes to use her words to bring about clarity and believes the intersection of simplicity and artistry is where our best work is found.