Advocacy has many meanings depending on its context, but generally, it’s the support and promotion of a cause. In the human rights world, advocates defend and educate on issues like reproductive rights, climate justice, universal healthcare, gender equality, and more. Advocates also help empower groups and individuals fighting for the right to have their voices heard. Professional advocacy careers can be found in victim advocacy, youth empowerment, mental healthcare, law, and research, but anyone can use their voice to support a cause they believe in. Many people have discussed advocacy and its significance in the world. Here are 12 powerful quotes on advocacy from activists, authors, political leaders, and others.
#1. “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” ― Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) was a Holocaust survivor, author, and activist. He is famous for his memoir Night, which details his experience in a concentration camp. The quote above -arguably his most famous – is from his Nobel Prize speech in 1986. It cuts to the core of advocacy’s purpose, which is to take a side and speak up. Advocacy can’t be neutral. Trying to be neutral takes the side of the oppressor and the tormentor.
#2. “To be an activist is to speak. To be an advocate is to listen. Society can’t move forward without both.” – Eva Marie Lewis
Eva Marie Lewis first entered the activism world after the murder of Trayvon Martin. She protested alongside her mother in Chicago and has been grassroots organizing ever since. In 2016, Lewis spoke at the United Nations twice. Her awards include the Princeton Prize in Race Relations (2017) and the Rising Star award from the DuSable Museum of African American History (2017). She’s currently the founder and executive director of Free Root Operation, a nonprofit formed in 2015 that – in the nonprofit’s words -strives to “intercept poverty induced gun violence.” In her quote, she highlights the difference between activism and advocacy and how important they both are. Without listening, no one can hope to be a good advocate or activist.
#3. “Advocacy is empathy, compassion and community at work.”- Janna Cachola
Cachola is a New Zealand actress, model, and singer. She also works as a thought leader and speaker. In this quote, she provides a multi-faceted definition of advocacy. It isn’t simply “speaking out” or “raising awareness;” it’s grounded in true care for the cause and people, as well as working within a community. Too many self-professed advocates neglect the community part of advocacy and focus on their own ideas and goals instead of those they’re trying to supposedly help. True advocacy is based on understanding and empowering others.
#4. “When the world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” – Malala Yousafzai
Known as Malala, this Pakistani advocate and activist is best known for promoting education, especially for girls. After surviving an assassination attempt by the Taliban, Malala became famous internationally and spoke to the United Nations. In 2014, the then-17 year-old co-won the Nobel Peace Prize with Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s rights activist from India. Malala has since graduated from the University of Oxford and continued her activism. Her speeches often center on speaking up for justice and progress, no matter who or where you are.
#5. “I’m convinced of this: Good done anywhere is good done everywhere. For a change, start by speaking to people rather than walking by them like they’re stones that don’t matter. As long as you’re breathing, it’s never too late to do some good.”- Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was an American poet, author, and activist. She published numerous works, including autobiographies, essays, poetry, plays, and more. Nicknamed the “people’s poet,” she remains one of the most famous writers in the world. She frequently wrote about discrimination, racism, and love. The quote above explores the origins of being a good advocate (and a good person in general), which is simply to treat others like they matter. According to Angelou, doing good in your everyday life is just as meaningful as doing it on a bigger scale.
#6. “I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them.” Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) was an American activist and abolitionist. Born enslaved, Tubman ran away, but returned to rescue around 70 other enslaved people as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and abolitionists. She was also a nurse, a women’s suffrage supporter, and a Union spy. She is one of the most famous American icons. In the quote above, Tubman speaks about enslaved people and her drive for justice no matter the cost. Advocates frequently take risks in their work; often, even their lives are endangered.
#7. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” – Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) was a famous American orator, writer, and abolitionist. Like Harriet Tubman, he escaped from slavery and helped lead the abolitionist movement. His 1945 autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was a huge bestseller and important text for abolitionists. After the Civil War ended slavery, Douglass advocated for rights such as the right to vote. His quote encapsulates why advocacy is so essential. The powerful never weaken themselves by choice. If no one takes a stand and demands change, nothing changes.
#8. “It can be difficult to speak truth to power. Circumstances, however, have made doing so increasingly necessary.” – Aberjhani
Aberjhani is an American poet, artist, historian, editor, and columnist. Born in Georgia, Aberjhani is known for writing on literature and politics, as well as being the co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. In 2007, he founded the Creative Thinkers International, an online community of artists, filmmakers, photographers, poets, and others supporting creative, nonviolent conflict resolutions following the conflicts after 9/11. The platform went offline in 2015. Aberjahni is also a member of PEN American Center and PEN International. As an artist, Aberjhani has never shied away from controversial and important issues. His quote explains that while it’s difficult, speaking truth to power is more necessary than ever.
#9. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true. – Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. He’s since become one of the most iconic – and quoted – social justice icons of all time. The quote above is from a sermon given in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Dr. King’s words were especially significant given it was the day after Bloody Sunday. On Bloody Sunday, state troopers attacked civil rights protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge. TV cameras managed to film the event, turning the local protest into national news. In his sermon, Dr. King challenges the listener to think about what’s at stake. Advocating for justice and truth means facing billy clubs, tear gas, and police dogs, but refusing to stand up is a different kind of death.
#10. “When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” – Bayard Rustin
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) was a Black leader for civil rights, nonviolence, socialism, and gay rights. He served as an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and as one of the main organizer of the March on Washington. In the 1980s, he became a more outspoken gay rights activist (he was gay himself). He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. His quote reveals the essence of protest and advocacy; it’s in the acts themselves that people become empowered. Even if a protest doesn’t produce the desired results, those advocating for change have still claimed something – their dignity. Read more quotes about dignity.
#11. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.” -John Lewis
John Lewis (1940-2020) was a civil rights activist and politician who led the march on Bloody Sunday. He served 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and always worked for justice and encouraged younger generations. This quote is part of a commencement speech given in May 2016 at Washington University. In the speech, Lewis describes his life in the Civil Rights Movement, including the challenges and violence he faced. He encouraged the graduates to not give up and to work for change in America and the world.
#12. “As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.” — Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was a South African anti-apartheid leader and the first Black president of South Africa. Throughout his life, he focused on ending institutionalized racism and encouraging racial reconciliation. He’s one of the world’s most famous social justice icons. In a speech from 2005 given in support of Africa Standing Tall Against Poverty, Nelson Mandela begins by pointing out that he “should not really be here” because he retired from public life. He then follows that sentence with the quote above. It represents what it means to be an advocate. It’s a role that continues as long as it’s needed. For advocates, true rest is challenging.