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Chat with Language Advocate: Rozeta Aleksov

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

Rozeta Aleksov has over twenty years of experience in non-profit leadership and community development. She is currently the community coordinator at the National-level Collaboration For Local Immigration Partnerships (LIP) where she collaborates with local LIPs across Canada to chart better outcomes for immigrants. Before this, Rozeta spent over a decade working with the national association of municipalities in Serbia, where she navigated complex systemic change towards more just services and people-centred policies. She was also active in the international community and collaborated with various European organizations and networks, leading strategic planning, facilitation, policy development and stakeholder engagement activities. In Toronto, she also contributed to the HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan. Rozeta holds a MA degree in Public Policy, Public Administration and Local Government from the University of Belgrade.

Rozeta, please tell us a bit about your work, and share your recipe for successful advocacy?

In the past, I did a lot of work back in Serbia. Here in Toronto, I've been with the Toronto LIP for less than 10 months. In Serbia, however, I worked for eleven years with the Association of Local Governments, so most of my experience has been gained overseas. I am noticing that it's, in fact, very relevant to the work I have been doing here. All issues are very similar because it boils down to working with people and for people, and people are more or less very similar in different countries, even if their systems and structures are seemingly different. For me, however, the main challenge of advocacy--because we are talking here about a long-term engagement--is that it becomes emotionally and mentally draining over time. We tend to engage with issues that are very close to our core identity so we end up becoming very tired when things move at a much slower pace than what we would like to see. Another thing is that advocacy is very unpredictable; a lot of players are out there in the field that we depend on. The first ingredient in advocacy is knowing, acknowledging and accepting that it's going to be personal as much as professional, as well as hard, slow, and tiring. As a result, we might get easily frustrated, if not resentful. We will certainly be disappointed at some point too but it is important to know that all of that's okay. So the first advocacy ingredient I can share that I believe you are familiar with already is acceptance of what is.

The second ingredient is the importance of formalizing your network. Because we want to tackle something big and embedded in culture and structures, we need to tackle it on a very high level, maybe at the national level, such that it would be a national policy. To do that, our actions need to appear as formal, organized and official to be perceived as “bigger” than we individually are. We need to invest time and thought into how to build this image and appearance of strength (almost a superpower) with the network remaining at the heart of our movement. But it is far from easy to establish a network. Although a network or coalition is less formal than an organization, it does require a certain level of formality to acquire a negotiating power. So finding the right balance between formality and flexibility to allow members to enter, exit and modify is difficult. It is an ongoing process with new questions showing up down the road.

I would say that it's also okay to acknowledge and accept the ambiguity of building a network. It is not easy and it won't be easy but what is needed, even with flexible structures and informal structures, is having small, dedicated, agile operational teams that are empowered to do this work. What often happens, however, is that the network occasionally becomes disappointed or resentful about the operational team because they feel that power is being taken away from them or that their agenda is hijacked. And, if that happens, it could lead to all kinds of difficult feelings and new tensions in the network. So it is necessary to address these questions and have conversations about how much power and responsibility will be given to the operational team because someone needs to do this work too. In other words, it is not enough to say, “oh, great, let's do this or that.” Oftentimes we don't specify who is going to do the work: to meet, to organize meetings, to apply for funding, to send invitations. All these things happen because of the work being done so discussion around power-sharing needs to start early in the process. In my experience, if there is a level of trust in leadership, the leadership will get support and freedom from the network quickly. With advocacy, in particular, things can be very unpredictable, like a sudden situation, a snap election, or a small window of opportunity that we can use for a short period only. If there is no trust and we need the entire network or coalition to decide on what to do or say then this opportunity will be gone. So someone needs to be empowered, to have the liberty of taking necessary steps on behalf of the entire group.

This is something that we struggle with a great deal. But how do you convince current or new members that joining the network creates value? How do you negotiate different goals and objectives?

For sure, this is another super important thing to consider. Networks and coalitions are vast, with many different organizations and also individuals with different backgrounds, approaches, and methodologies, who come together in pursuit of the same goal. And for sure, sometimes they feel that they don’t want to interact with organizations in the same network that they deeply disagree with. For example, one group thinks that the whole structure is wrong from the beginning and that it needs to be dismantled completely, while the other group sees the same issue as something to be changed within the system. So, there is, obviously, tension amongst different parts of the network. However, it is important to highlight that not only is it okay to have different takes about how to approach the issue, but it is also necessary if we want to make sure that all these different players are on board while understanding that they share common ground. In other words, we need to find out the minimum common goal we can all stand behind and what we can leave aside and safely let go of. That's one important question that we need to try to understand when we work with a network or a coalition and keep in mind constantly.

It also means a lot of honest conversations.

For sure. To start with, I strongly believe that all the parties in the network should be honest with how engaged they want to be from the very beginning. Initially, in meetings and workshops, people do get energized and motivated but then two weeks later, they're all swept up in their everyday work and no one wants to share or contribute. And it happens so often that it needs to be addressed on an ongoing basis. We need to provide different opportunities for participants in the network which, in itself, is a significant part of the work we do. You need descriptions of the roles, or committees, or task forces, and described levels of engagement.

When you invited me to speak here, I thought, “Oh, what do I say here, what kind of advocacy expertise do I have?” But it occurred to me that part of my expertise is surviving as an advocate for so many years. That helped my learnings about how to keep advocacy going. Yet, I have so much left to learn about how to engage people more actively. I feel, especially now--going back to being honest about our capacity--that people are burnt out and it is something that we hear consistently in every possible meeting, wherever we go. It seems that we are in this collective burnout situation; the whole sector is overburdened with a lot of formalities and procedures and not enough support for the work that needs to happen. Our sector is dealing with very complex social issues, and I think that coalitions and networks should find ways to support partners first before asking them to participate. The participation will follow support being received. In other words, if the network or coalition members have the perception of being supported by, for example, resources, opportunities, education and other incentives, their engagement and level of participation will increase proportionately to the perception of what has been received. In my previous work, we used a lot of incentives such as training opportunities, skill-building or capacity building, learning and information sharing. This worked for us very well. What it also means for network leadership is that they need to focus primarily on increasing funding, first and foremost, because one of the basic ways to reduce the emotional and mental burden on advocates is bigger funding. This, in turn, means hiring more people to help with work, especially if you are planning nationwide efforts. More support will also happen if coalition members speak for and about the network in the national arena and help with funding efforts that way.

This is a valid point that we also struggle with, as we do with how to communicate. What is your take on communication and how to make sure our messaging is appropriate and effective?

When you have a big goal that people can stand behind, like thinking about language as a human right in Canada, it is often discouraging because it's so big. Oftentimes people feel like, “oh, this will never happen”, or “I don't know, it's too complicated”. For those reasons, we must break the huge aspiration into much smaller steps and wins and create some smaller chunks of what can be accomplished. For example, we can translate this flyer into six different languages and have it on Facebook to be distributed through the network. You need something tangible and within reach so that people can take it on and have a feeling that they contributed. But even better, if you ask for one language and you receive six translations, it creates a lot of value because much more was received than we asked for. This will bring people on board. It's motivating and empowering for people to take on some kind of goal that is attainable and within their reach. And then, success builds success, one step after another. That's how big aspirations, big goals can work, and it is also how we can meet people where they are.

To always think about the bottom-up approach.

Certainly, The bottom-up approach, like storytelling and direct engagement, is powerful. However, we should not be neglecting the top-down perspective and talk about issues through the prism of policy and rights because, as a country, we are governed by our world agreements. For example, we have agreements with the UN and a responsibility to live by what we said we are going to do. To highlight what we are not doing as a country is a part of our work too. So working in parallel, combining the “top-down” pieces about policies and rights with a “bottom-up” approach, such as showing examples of people benefiting from language services positively impacting their ability to better navigate the system, we increase the value of our work. That's something that I've learned. I'm kind of a big picture thinker, and I often forget about storytelling and the importance of a personalized approach to the issue we want to resolve.

For LACC, I think that it could be useful to find some hub that can support your work so you can spend more time using your energy on individual “sit-downs”. Let's sit here and let’s talk about language justice. For example, I didn't know about the language advocacy campaign until recently. And now I do know. So one of the ways is exactly like this one - bringing people in one by one. Now that I know about you, I can do something about helping you from where I am, from my role. At a minimum, I can share some information with my networks, subscribe to your newsletter, attend your webinars, and expand from there. It is a long journey and I wish you the best of luck initially while the rest will be like all our work, taking one determined step at a time.

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