Public awareness vs. advocacy -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Public awareness vs. advocacy

By Steve Little

When I was a kid, my father taught me that when you’re in a canoe traveling downstream and you come to a “Y” in the river, you can go either way. It doesn’t matter. One way might be more difficult; the other more scenic, but when you’re traveling downstream, the river will always come back to itself.

Traveling upstream is a different matter.

If you’re traveling upstream, paddling against the current, and you have two different directions to choose from, chances are good that those two diverging paths will take you to very different places.

I suppose that’s an illogical place to start an article about the differences between advocacy and public awareness. But that life-lesson from my childhood – bug-bitten and hoping my dad could guide us back home – helps me see the difference.

Habitat for Humanity was founded as a “downstream” organization. It doesn’t matter where we came from or what church we attend or what language we speak. Regardless of the paths we chose, we find ourselves living together in community with our neighbors. Some of those neighbors need a better place to live. To paraphrase our founder, if we can agree on a hammer and we can agree on a nail, we ought to be able to figure this mess out.

And we have. Hundreds of thousands of people live a better life because of our downstream efforts. But as our ministry grew, we recognized that what happens upstream has a great impact on our community. We’ve realized that if we can influence the currents – the systems – that bring poverty housing into our midst, we will change the situation much more efficiently than by our building efforts alone.

As we contemplate the different tributaries that flow together to form the world’s housing crisis, we quickly become overwhelmed.

Some of those upstream systems are easy to comprehend. Local zoning laws that dictate enormous and elaborate houses obviously limit affordable housing opportunities for lower-income families. (As a matter of fact, the exclusion of low-income families is frequently the reason those laws are developed in the first place.)

Other systems are more difficult to grasp – security of tenure issues in most of the southern hemisphere, for example. If an entire community could be evicted at any moment, it’s difficult for families there to justify investing their precious resources into improved housing.

The end result is a vicious cycle: A family in a shack won’t improve their housing for fear of losing the investment. But the lack of an adequate house increases the possibilities that the family will be forcibly removed from the land.

Many, many systems contribute to the situation. Some of them are so simple as to be overlooked. A hardware store won’t accept a credit card from a local bank – but that particular credit card is the only one available to local families desperate for construction supplies. Or possibly a neighborhood fruit vendor has the option of buying bananas from a corporation that offers its fieldworkers some sort of housing benefits.

Systems that maintain poverty’s status quo are all around us. Other articles in this publication will outline some of the ingenious ways that our colleagues have designed to influence the sources of the housing crisis. According to Habitat’s Government Relations and Advocacy Office, based in Washington: “Advocacy is changing systems, policies and attitudes to achieve decent housing for all. This includes actions that include a specific ‘ask.’ These ‘asks’ should promote practical housing policy solutions.”

Agreed. We need to encourage the public to support these activities, which have been designed to stem the flow of inadequate housing.

But if that’s all we’re asking the public to do, we are greatly remiss.

Habitat for Humanity has only just begun to map the complicated and convoluted currents that result in children growing up in shacks. As one, solitary organization, we will never be able to influence and control all of the necessary systems to eradicate the problem.

And so, in addition to asking the public to support our advocacy initiatives, we encourage the public to look at the issue from their own unique perspective. We want everyone who hears our message to ask their own questions and to change the systems that they have influence over.

That’s public awareness. Through our educational and communications initiatives, people are invited to deepen their understanding of the problem from a different point of view. We encourage them to dream – and to develop their own initiatives. We want them to begin their own long journey, and find their own tributaries.

But the first step is to let people know that the systems that produce inadequate housing aren’t necessarily half a world away. And to address those systems, you don’t necessarily need a law degree.

The first step is to persuade people to turn around and look upstream, and wonder what’s just around the bend.

Steve Little is director of public awareness for HFHI’s programs in Latin America and the Caribbean. He can be contacted at