How to Be an Effective Advocate

Insights from Elizabeth Smart, Dan Savage and more.

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Bryan Volta

Elizabeth Smart speaks at the Instigators talk at the Chicago Ideas Week, Chicago, Oct. 19, 2013.

When you’re fighting for a cause, how can you actually make an impact?

That’s the question several successful advocates—including Elizabeth Smart, of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, and Dan Savage, of the It Gets Better Project—discussed Saturday at Chicago Ideas Week, as part of a 90-minute program called Instigators: The Good Fight. Here’s the best of what they shared.

Immerse yourself.
It’s easy to spot a problem from afar. But to actually understand that problem well enough to take it on, it helps to live it—much as journalist Nellie Bly did in 1887, when she feigned insanity in order to get committed to an insane asylum, and expose its terrifying (and illegal) treatment of patients in the New York World. Amber Lyon, an Emmy award-winning investigative journalist, calls this method “submersion journalism,” and has used it to highlight a variety of issues (sometimes controversially, as when she reported from Bahrain). After the BP oil spill, for example, she went SCUBA diving—on camera for CNN—to showcase how pervasive the damage really was. Even though the water surface looked clear, she said, “there was still oil floating deeper in…I wanted to show people.”

Embrace technology.
When Dan Savage set out to combat the rise of gay teen suicides in 2010, he hit a massive roadblock: even if wanted to offer help, he couldn’t personally talk to the kids who needed it. “The queer kid I most needed to talk to”—the one isolated enough to consider suicide—”is the queer kid with a parent who would never allow them to speak to a gay adult, or go to a queer support group,” he said. But that realization was quickly followed by another: In the age of social media, “I was waiting for permission I no longer goddamn needed.” So Savage kickstarted a series of YouTube videos, in which out gay adults—and some straight celebrities—could explain how they overcame their own issues. Any struggling gay teen with a web hook-up could listen, and reach out for advice. “There was an upraised middle finger at the heart of the It Gets Better Project,” Savage said. “‘We’re going to talk to these queer kids whether [their parents] like it or not.'” Today, there are more than 150,000 “It Gets Better” videos from LGBT adults all over the world, and strong indications that the project has saved lives.

Leverage your experience.
After Elizabeth Smart was rescued from her nine-month kidnapping—during which she was physically and sexually abused at age 14—”it would have been so easy to stay in bed and not to…try to make a difference,” she said. “But how could I not?” As one of the world’s most famous victims of abuse, Smart said she felt a responsibility to speak out, raising awareness—and money—to prevent the same thing from happening to others. Now her foundation supports programs like radKIDS, which teaches kids how to react when faced with danger.