This is a long-read blog in which we share what we’ve been hearing on the Power Sharing Project so far about lived experience, power, civil society, individualism, collectivism, and allyship (i).
In the midst of lockdown, I was privileged to speak to Margaret Aspinall from the Hillsborough Family Support Group, who has been campaigning for justice for her son, James, and the 95 others who died in the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster. I asked her what it means to her to channel her personal experience of injustice into her campaigning:
‘Your voice is their voice, your eyes are their eyes, your ears are their ears, you have to do it for them. This is not about the 96 anymore – it is bigger than that. It is about all individuals for the future, to change things for the good of everyone.’
In the first phase of the Power Sharing Project—which asks how power can be better shared in pursuit of change—we’ve heard many personal accounts of injustice, inequality and activism. We’ve spent lots of time moving from the individual to the collective: how do we put people’s individual experience at the heart of campaigning without losing sight of the systemic causes and collective effects of inequality? Margaret recognised that what the victims and their families experienced was the result of systemic problems within the police and wider society. She knew that changing even some of that system would benefit all of us.
Our Power Sharing Project community of practice don’t want to be valued for their personal stories alone. They want to be valued for their potential to work on solutions. They don’t want their hardship romanticised or to be viewed as ‘heroic’ (the implication being that there are people who have ‘failed’ to be heroic enough). And they want powerful allies in civil society, from the people who have not walked in their shoes.
Where have these insights come from?
Since March we’ve had conversations with well over 100 people, through online workshops, interviews (most of whom are activists who identify as having ‘lived experience’), community research in Croydon, Brixton, and with the We Belong community of young migrants in the UK, and through discussions with our Core Learning Group. We’ve been asking: How does power affect our ability to drive radical change? What do we need to be able to play a part in social change? What does power sharing really mean, and what does it look and feel like when it is achieved?
So, what have we been hearing so far?
1. People who have experienced injustice, poverty or inequality are driving social change – they are not waiting to be invited ‘in’.
‘We were told we wouldn’t be listened to… and I said, ‘just watch me.’
We could fill a book with examples of social change activists who are motivated and informed by their personal experience. From Pregnant then Screwed, whose campaign to end the trauma of lone births due to Covid restrictions recently reached the front page of the Daily Mail, to the charity We Belong, run by and for young migrants, and endless examples in between: parents of victims who work tirelessly for changes to protect young people from serious youth violence and disabled activists fighting for equality. Marcus Rashford has combined his public and financial power with his own experience, to force a government U-turn on free school meals and to bring together food brands and anti-poverty charities into a taskforce with a vision to end child food poverty in Britain. About his first letter to the Government, he told the BBC: ‘What families are going through now, I once had to go through that… Now that I’m in the position I’m in, it’s important to me to help people that are struggling. That was the main reason the letter was written.’
2. Listening to unheard stories of injustice is crucial, but stories aren’t enough. People want more opportunities to work systemically on the solutions.
‘Lived experience gives us an ability to pick out the nuances that others, without direct experience, might miss. However, we must be careful to not get caught up in the detail of individual experience – s there is a potential to re-live trauma and cause harm by creating negative coping mechanisms that focus on reenactment.’ (Whitney Iles, CEO of Project 507 and involved in the Power Sharing Project)
Stories are really important and organisations like On Road Media and Sound Delivery are doing important work to change the culture around storytelling. Our community of practice say they do not want to be valued for their lived experience or their stories alone – a role which can be exhausting and re-traumatising, and at worst simply exploited as a tool for fundraising by an organisation. They want to be able to move beyond their individual experience to think systemically and be supported to understand tactics for campaigning. Political education is the groundwork for social change.
‘Lived experience becomes currency – it helps charities get into powerful spaces. But it isn’t people with lived experience who benefit from that growing power.’
3. Some civil society organisations are already working to share power
We heard lots of examples of good practice. Larger organisations are shifting from centralised power to act more like alliances in order to unlock power across their networks. Many understand that their power as an organisation only exists because of the people they serve and act accordingly, making sure the opportunities they design for people to get involved are the ones they are actually asking for. There are funders and large charities involving people with experience of the issues they are trying to address in funding decisions.
4. But organisations can also be just another part of ‘the system’ to be navigated, so they aren’t always people’s first choice when it comes to driving change
People repeatedly pointed out the ways in which civil society can mimic the power hierarchies it intends to challenge. It’s not immune to the systems of oppression and inequality that seep into all aspects of society, such as racism, as ACEVO’s recent report explored.
The community of practice want civil society to recognise the unequal distribution of wealth within civil society, even in sectors fighting for greater equality. It’s not complicated: people with lived experience need to be paid for their time working on a campaign. If they claim social security, they need to be able to be paid without this having a negative impact on their income.
Where civil society organisations seek to be allies to community-led campaigns, there are risks as well as benefits for community activists.
‘You have to be careful that your ally doesn’t become the forefront of the campaign – use them as the fuel – but they should never co-opt the campaign or be the focus.’
Some answers to these challenges lie firmly with organisations themselves, while others will have to be tackled by changing policies, laws or social attitudes. There are few quick fixes but a serious, long-term commitment to changing both individual practices and systemic barriers is essential.
5. So, what is the role of those organisations and individuals working within them, who currently have power but might not have lived experience?
As one member of the community of practice said:
‘We can’t put the responsibility to fix a system on the people who it wasn’t designed by and who have had no responsibility over it so far, but who are on the receiving end of it. People with current power need to take their responsibility seriously and use it well.’
But who sits at the centre of a campaign? Do we acknowledge how much organisations profit from people’s personal experience in financial and reputational terms, and does that value flow back to the people we serve? Are the people with lived experience being paid a voucher for their time, whilst allies are in stable, salaried positions? And the buck shouldn’t stop at co-production – what are the opportunities for employment and career development for people who have experience of the issues at hand?
These are just some of the reflections we’ve heard so far, at the end of phase one. In phase two, we’ll explore what power shared well across civil society could look like. Our ambition is to identify practical ways that civil society in London can begin to do that, as well as solutions to the systemic barriers that might prevent it.
Want to share your thoughts?
We’d love to know what you think. What resonates? What doesn’t? What are we missing? Is there something you feel you can bring to the project? Reach out, we’d love to hear from you.
And you can join the project’s community of practice here.
(i) A more comprehensive summary has been shared with everyone who has been involved in stage one so far, for their thoughts and feedback. We are dealing with very complex and sensitive issues, and everything we are dealing with is open to interpretation and re-interpretation.