“What will happen to my child when I’m gone and not able to speak up for them?” “If there is no family willing or able to speak up for a person, then perhaps they could continue to have a voice through a Citizen Advocate”. This exchange of answer and question, which took place at a US-based conference on young people with Cerebral Palsy in 1966, can be regarded as the dawning of the present day advocacy movement.
Though the concept of advocacy seen as an official procedure is a relatively recent one, it has always existed under many different circumstances. Indeed, vulnerable people have constantly been marginalized not only in terms of the law, but also of health and social care. At the same time, there have always been individuals willing to speak up on behalf of the former to ensure that their rights are respected.
The origins of advocacy date back to ancient Rome and Greece, when well-established orators would perform as advocates or wrote orations specifically intended at pleading someone else’s cause. Personalities such as Cicero and Caesar were among the greatest Roman lawyers and advocates.
In modern history, the earliest advocacy groups originated in England during the mid-18th century, when political issues connected to representation arose simultaneously with socio-economic changes such as market capitalization and proletarianization. At that time, the first mass social movements for popular sovereignty gathered and developed around the figure of John Wilkes, whose policies were also promoted by the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights. Born in 1769, this activist group was the first instance of a social advocacy group organising public meetings, demonstrations and mass petitions marches. The group’s action took the form of extra-Parliamentary agitation aiming at consensual and constitutional arrangements, which were often achieved thanks to the group’s pervasive impact on everyday life.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the British abolitionist movement against slavery also came to light and obtained the banning of the slave trade in 1807. Social movements and associations in Britain continued to grow after the Napoleonic Wars, when the country entered a phase of social turmoil and Chartism, the first working-class mass movement in the world, was born.
Throughout the 19th century, a significant industrialization process took place in the United States and brought about a number of social side effects, such as increased crime and poverty and an economic division between the North and the South. It was in this context that the great reform movements originated. Among them, the movements supporting abolitionism, women’s rights and educational reforms were particularly relevant. The Christian revival that occurred with the Second Great Awakening had a considerable impact on these groups, insofar as preachers and religious institutions consistently encouraged believers to take an active role in tackling social problems.
While in the late 19th century the labour and the socialist movements led to the formation of communist and social-democratic parties and organisations, in the post-war years women’s, gay and civil rights alongside peace, anti-nuclear and environmental movements emerged. Starting from 1990s, the anti-globalization and the global citizenship movements appeared.