Let’s check our biases at the door & move beyond lived experience
Winston Allamby, a Community Partner with our multiple disadvantage programme Fulfilling Lives, and someone with lived experience, considers why it's so difficult for people with lived experience to move into senior leadership positions.
Lived experience is a term that is being used more and more in the third sector. It’s a term that stirs the emotions and can cause some to roll their eyes, while other eyes may be filled with excitement.
While people with lived experience are a wealth of information, those keen to play an active participatory role in improving the service and systems that helped or failed them can find they become weary through over-use. There is a never-ending cycle of giving information about their experiences, attending workshops and seminars and then being relegated to the side-lines until a report or article with some relevance is published.
People with lived experiences vary in their level of skills knowledge, passions and drive, and equally in how and where they want to make a difference, whether systemically or in the life of an individual or the community.
Very often, they can spend a long time in voluntary positions doing work equal to, or better than, the requirements of the paid position. However, they can still be overlooked or rejected when the very same position becomes available.
In a nutshell: you’re good enough to work as a volunteer, but not as a paid employee.
Despite what you might bring to the table, without getting on the employment ladder, you remain in the same position - removed from influencing.
However, for me, joining Fulfilling Lives Lambeth Southwark and Lewisham (FLLSL) as a volunteer was where things changed.
Awakening to my value
Due to my lived experience, I placed employment lower down my list of priorities. A lack of knowledge around the impact of my criminal record on gaining employment, mixed with a lack of self-belief held me back. I was very content to continue in a voluntary role until a new Head of Programme came in and opened my eyes to the value of the work I was doing.
She reviewed the whole programme, including the voluntary support work I had been providing to beneficiaries. At the end of the review, it was acknowledged that I had made significant impact with the beneficiaries and the action’s that followed showed I wasn’t being offered empty words and gestures.
Three new Community Partner roles were created to build relationships across the community, strengthen individual participation in co-production activities and support learning around system change, and I was employed in one of the positions. Furthermore, there was flexibility in the job offer in terms of working part time or full time, which was encouraging and supportive.
Settling into my role, which includes working with six colleagues, all with lived experience, has had its challenges.
We’re having some frank conversations in the workplace, such as: at what stage does our lived experience become a secondary or even non-mentionable element in our work and reference point for the team? I mean - if you’ve recruited a candidate with two years retail experience at Marks and Spencer would you insist on calling on their M&S experience every time you wanted to discuss retail?
Space to engage
Such conversations can only take place due to the flexibility of the Fulfilling Lives Programme; a programme that many organisations may not have. Frank discussion can only happen if employers are embedding genuine co-production, are committed to workforce development and include testing and learning, not only in areas relating to beneficiaries, but also to the programme’s employees.
Having the space to ask questions and challenge assumptions at work, although difficult and at times frustrating, has been encouraging.
Thanks to my position with Fulfilling Lives, which values testing and learning, my colleagues and I are undergoing bespoke training, including training on professionalism. This training is important for my personal development as, while a person with lived experience has skills, life experiences and may have formal qualifications, they might possibly lack professionalism.
The definition of professionalism I’m using here is: “competence or skill expected by a professional and a variety of personal qualities and behaviours that demonstrate commitment to effective performance in each job: commitment and confidence, responsibility and dependability, honesty and ethics, appearance and professional presence”.
But while professionalism could be a barrier to progression for some people with lived experience, I’m not so convinced it is the reason why a lot of us fail to progress.
Check your biases
Is it possible, instead, that the lack of movement of those with lived experience into senior management positions is not because of a lack of skills, knowledge, or assumed professionalism that comes with the territory, but because of the stigma attached to the term lived experience?
The term is so sweeping that the individual and their qualities can be overshadowed. It may be assumed that you are unqualified, limited in what you can achieve, or unable to be trusted to sit round the table. However, people are much more than just a period of their lives.
Meanwhile, while people with lived experience who have managed to reach the top levels of management might not have ‘concealed’ their lived experience, they may have understood that it was limiting rather than elevating them and so kept quiet about it.
Either way, I believe, we should all check our biases; particularly those of us who’ve been able to rise through the ranks because of our lived experience, who may now have the power to help someone else move a step closer to the glass ceiling.
Don’t you agree?