by | Jun 15, 2021

Power, lived experience and social change: the story so far

In this blog, Head of the Power Sharing Project Sarah Thomas reflects on the unexpected journey the project took and calls for a new conversation about power in civil society – one that will help people with personal experience of poverty and inequality harness their power to make change.

Eighteen months ago, we set out to understand how Londoners with lived experience of poverty and inequality can grow their influence. We could not have foreseen the journey this would be. 2020 was significant by any measure, not least in how it highlighted both the extent and consequences of inequality in society. The need to understand how those with experience of poverty and inequality are driving change and how this power can be grown has never been greater.

The lens of lived experience

The early phase of our inquiry strengthened our belief that, to make real progress towards ending poverty and inequality, we need the knowledge, insights and expertise of those with direct experience of these issues. But it also revealed how many people feel exploited, excluded or overlooked by the charities and other organisations that make up the formal social sector, despite the very best intentions of the professionals we spoke to.

We learnt from our conversations that our own language – ‘to grow the influence of people with lived experience’ – was part of the problem. It suggested ‘they’ are a homogeneous group, while positioning ‘us’ as the people with the expertise to ensure their growth. We risked imposing a misleading and divisive binary onto the people we spoke to. Many reported having both ‘lived’ and ‘learnt’ experience, and some did not like being labelled a ‘person with lived experience’ at all.

We needed a wider perspective, a lens that respected us all as complex human beings within the web of interactions that make up civil society and society as a whole. We landed on the lens of power, and formulated the question that would drive the first year of our inquiry: What would it look like if civil society in London was better at sharing power in pursuit of social change, and how would we get there?

Power sharing in civil society

We are champions of civil society’s reforming role. We hoped to shine a light on the diverse ways power in civil society is already being shared. We found so many examples of social change efforts with people with lived experience at the heart that, seen together, they pointed to an optimistic vision of an inclusive, equitable civil society.

There are brilliant examples of social sector organisations working alongside people with direct experience to solve issues together – sharing resources, amplifying voices, and lending their weight to disrupt the status quo. We set out with the conviction that most social sector professionals want to share their power, but don’t always know how to do it.

Once again, however, we hit the limits of our question. It was simply not true that people with lived experience of poverty and inequality are waiting for others to share power with them. People are growing their own power and empowering others, organising and influencing in a multitude of ways – in their communities and alongside social sector organisations. And yet, this was at odds with the testimony we had heard. These examples are the exception, and too many people do not find the social sector a welcoming or useful place through which to seek change.

We concluded that the solution doesn’t lie in another ‘how to’ guide or checklist. The problems that people are encountering are systemic. They won’t be resolved by tinkering with processes or tasking individuals with responsibility for ‘engagement’ unless we also look at the systems within which those solutions operate.

So we sought out conversations with individuals and organisations who have dedicated themselves to understanding power and social change (you can see some of their work on our pinboard). We embarked on an in-depth collaborative inquiry with our core learning group – itself a diverse group of change-makers with lived and learned experience from within and beyond the formal social sector, and we have turned the lens on ourselves. It has been an unexpected, but richly rewarding, learning journey. We are excited by what we have learned and keen to test our thinking.

Toward a new conversation about power

If we are serious about ‘empowering’ people with experience of poverty and inequality to make change, we need a much better understanding of how power operates within and between the people and organisations that make up civil society.

Power, as we have come to define it, is simply the ability to create or resist change. At the heart of all inequality – and all exclusion – lies an inequality of power. Power is woven through all our relationships, from the most intimate to the global, operating through our formal structures, our rules, policies and institutions, and through our informal social and cultural norms.

The way that power in civil society, and particularly in the formal social sector, excludes certain voices is systemic. There can be no one-size-fits all solution. We need an approach that builds a clearer understanding, determination and commitment from everyone – from engagement officers to fundraisers, from campaigners and activists to board members and CEOs.

We think that a new conversation about power – one that seeks a better understanding of what it is and how it works – could be key to transforming our awareness, cultures, policies and practices.

The truth is that almost all of us have some power to influence some change, in the relationships and conversations of our day to day lives. You don’t need to have all the power to begin to re-shape how it operates in your work. We’ve developed and discovered some brilliant tools that we think can help you do just that. We’d love it if you could join us, explore them together and let us know what you think.

Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas is the Power Sharing Project Lead at SMK

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