Katy Jensen/The Cornell Advocacy Project

The Cornell Advocacy Project held a virtual workshop to help foster advocacy skills among underrepresented students.

April 22, 2021

Building a Community of Advocates, One Workshop at a Time

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On Wednesday, the Cornell Advocacy Project delivered on its promise to bring advocacy to anybody with an internet connection through a virtual event that provided advocacy strategies to underrepresented students. 

“Breaking Down Barriers: A Workshop on Advocacy for Underrepresented Students” featured presentations from the event organizers and Jason Chang, grad aimed at providing students from marginalized backgrounds with the tools to support themselves. 

The event was organized by project members Amanda Ma ’23 and Rachel Christopherson ’22 in collaboration with the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives. It aimed to teach skills and open a dialogue on effectively speaking out for oneself.

Recognizing the struggles of social isolation, the Cornell Advocacy Project was started at the onset of the pandemic to provide an education in advocacy to anyone with internet access. Five members of Cornell’s Speech and Debate Society put the project together in order to share the skills they had learned in debate, such as public speaking and persuasion. 

Advocacy is a part of everyday life and cannot be classified merely as arguing or confrontation, Christopherson, the team’s director of projects, told the Sun. The group defines advocacy as using one’s voice to stand up for a cause and someone’s needs.  

“It’s listening to your friends and supporting them,” she said. “It’s knowing how to advocate for yourself in situations that are difficult, such as when you’re having to advocate to a professor about your grade.” 

Partnering with related initiatives such as Cornell Migrations and Partnership for the Public Good, it runs virtual workshops that reach people across the country to build communities dedicated to advocacy.

The idea for Wednesday’s workshop sprung from Ma seeing that many of her peers lacked the skills and confidence to speak up for themselves. 

“I’ve noticed that a lot of people have questions regarding how to advocate for themselves,” said Ma. “And I thought I could use the Advocacy Project as a way to tell them that advocating for yourself is totally something you could do.”

For this specific workshop, Ma and Christopherson targeted students who are from backgrounds that are underrepresented in higher education. They invited Chang to present his advocacy skills, which he stated were strengthened through his personal experiences as an openly gay Asian American student in higher education. 

As a graduate resident fellow on West Campus, Chang is invested in helping younger students, especially during the pandemic.

“I think the pandemic has been especially challenging for students over the past year,” Chang said. “I think everyone is struggling, but they’re also struggling with how to reach out to get help or accommodations.”

In the workshop, Chang stressed the importance of extending individual advocacy to help broader communities. 

“If everyone is stuck in their own silo,” Chang said. “Nothing will get accomplished — at least on the structural level.” 

After the presentation, workshop participants divided themselves into four different breakout rooms to discuss self worth, financial aid, mental health and the role of authority figures such as professors and other adults in their lives. 

Beyond workshops, the Project has designed a curriculum for ILR3300: Advocacy and Debate, a 70-person class offered during the spring 2021 semester. In the fall, they have planned a course on conflict mediation to be offered through the Cornell Labor Studies program at the ILR Institute.

“What we really want to do is not only build an advocacy community through workshops like this one and other programming,” Christopherson said, “But also as a more sustained thing, like teaching through this curriculum.”  

Vee Cipperman ’23 contributed reporting.