The Difference Between Activism and Advocacy

It's a painful confession: I am no longer an activist. I am an advocate.

I loved being an activist. I loved losing my voice at rallies and participating in sit-ins. But the problem with spending too much time in Washington, D.C. is that after years of rallying against the man, I found out I had to actually work with him.

There is an important role for those that express their First Amendment right to protest; to disrupt traffic and commerce; to line a building with picket signs. And I hope it never stops.

But there is also a role for the advocate willing to sit across the table from an object of a protest to build a road map for reform. These days, the most successful models demonstrate that you have to reform the system from within the system to change the system.

In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we in the government sat around conference room tables with oil executives who played an integral part in the regulatory reforms we implemented. Without them, we would have lacked the understanding of the full range of consequences of our work, and they would have - without question - been less committed to a public-private partnership and process, whose results have proven extremely successful despite prophecies of doom by elements in the industry.

Much has been said about the pressing need for reform in police departments across the country. Those reforms rely on engaged law enforcement professionals who are open to change and elected officials who will hold law enforcement agencies accountable. As important as street protests are in building the momentum for change, so too are the changes that will be made away from the television cameras between law enforcement agencies and their community partners.

It's hard for many to acknowledge this transition from activism to engagement as an advocate. Social media and cable television have become avenues where activists lambast those of us who work within the system, as if we've someone forgotten our roots. For me, it's an awkward window into tactics I may have been guilty of myself years ago.

I hope activists - whatever the cause - never give up. Whether it is police practices, reproductive choice, gun safety, or another issue that inspires someone's engagement, there is an important place for civil disobedience and disruption.

But activists do themselves a disservice if they alienate advocates who believe just as passionately as they do, but choose to go about implementing change in a different way.

There is still a role for the advocate who walks into the building while activists make their voice heard outside it.