Leading the change

Published: 27 April 2022 
Author: Naima Khan 
Young person holds up a small black and white poster that reads: Don't wait for leaders, become them.
Photo credit: Rob Walsh / Unsplash

This is the third of a series of essays looking at aspects of PHF’s strategy through the work we support. In this essay Naima Khan reflects on the strengths, nature and complexity of lived experience leadership.

A few months ago, National Survivor User Network (NSUN) and Mind launched Lived Experience Leadership – Mapping the Lived Experience Landscape in Mental Health’ by Rai Waddingham. The report sheds light on the nature and complexity of leadership, especially for people who are usually denied a seat at the decision-making table. It embraces the contradictions and fluidity in the discussion on supporting people with lived experience to lead. It also underscores the work that has been done for decades by leaders with lived experience without recognition.

One of the key recommendations from the report is for all those wishing to support lived experience leadership to focus on acts of leadership rather than pre-determined characteristics of a leader. This, the report says, can create space for more collective and fluid forms of leadership whilst mitigating concerns around ego and celebrity.”

Collaborative Inquiry into Lived Experience

The spirit of this is reflected in PHF’s Strategy 2020, which states people and groups, especially those facing the greatest challenges, must be at the heart of efforts to design, influence and lead change.” This idea has led to PHF’s Collaborative Inquiry into Lived Experience in the Migration Sector. It is an action research project, led by a Learning Collective of people with experience of injustice caused by the UK immigration system.

The hypothesis is that by increasing the presence and power of lived experience leaders, the impact of the migration sector will increase because of the understanding and insights that come with lived experience leaders. The ambition of the Inquiry is to find ways to make the migration sector more inclusive, equitable and less oppressive.

Polish Migrants Organise for Change (POMOC), co-founded by Magda Fabianczyk and Marzena Zukowska, is part of the Learning Collective shaping the Collaborative Inquiry. When describing what supporting lived experience leadership looks like at POMOC, they said: We oppose gatekeeping, and make our work, processes, and contacts transparent and accessible to others in the sector. For example, when working with people from vulnerable backgrounds or those with lived experience, we compensate for labour whenever possible to create sustainable organising environments.”

What is the impact of these efforts on the culture at POMOC and the work it delivers? Organisationally, we strive to break down hierarchies and create space for a multitude of ideas, whether they come from first-time volunteers or staff. We bridge direct service with organising, recruiting and investing in leaders from our pool of service users’.”

Resourcing lived experience leadership is a direct challenge to the paternalistic, saviour-based ideology of support that much of the UK charity sector was formed within. But plans to support lived experience leadership come with challenges too. Rai Waddingham’s report mentioned above explains that the term itself is contentious in the mental health sector and beyond: “[the term] can be validating and encourage a sense of hope. It can also divide, belittle and feel out of step with the more collective values inherent in the survivor movement.”

Initiatives for lived experience leadership also need to consider that the oppression is ongoing including racism, ableism, sexism and ageism. For many, their traumas may be with them long-term, as it is for people who live with addiction, eating disorders or for sexual assault survivors. We don’t yet have robust mechanisms for those who struggle to be visible for fear of retribution or those who can’t be paid because of our unjust immigration and welfare systems. This impacts refugees, asylum seekers and disabled people most prominently.

Waddingham’s report also explains that the fuzzy edges” of the category lived experience’ means lots of people can reasonably claim the term. This isn’t a problem except that it means that organisations are likely to favour those with less complex and challenging lives” which reflects current practice. This needs to be actively resisted to avoid tokenisation.

There are other forms of leadership that can bolster lived experience leadership as well. Generous Leadership’ for example, emphasises the need for leaders to note the ecology of the space they are in and understand the interdependence of the levers and pullies that impact the lives of their community. Servant Leadership’ – a term that’s been around since the 70s and has been of particular relevance to the faith-based sector – insists that leaders focus their attention on the wellbeing and growth of the people they serve in all areas of their lives. These categories of leadership make clear the acts of leadership which could be valued above the personal characteristics of individual leaders. Perhaps, for example, you don’t need to be the most decisive leader, if you have a great team of collaborators with you in leadership.

Supporting young people to lead social change

The youth movements we have seen this century seem to embody this collaborative spirit. They challenge the individualistic understanding of leadership in social change work, which we are so used to in the UK. Endless 30 under 30’ lists and profiles of charismatic leaders, convince us that the catalysts for change we seek are to be found in rare and exceptional individuals. But young people in the climate justice movements and organisations like People Beyond Borders work globally and in ever more decentralised ways.

Paul Hamlyn Foundation has particular interest in supporting young people to lead social change and shape the world around them. I spoke to Ruth Pryce, Head of Programme – Young People, about ways she identifies strong leadership in the youth sector. She emphasised that it is as much about the culture a leader creates in their organisation as the outputs they deliver.

The type of leadership we look for is not directive,” she explains, it’s not one personality driving it, it’s leadership that asks how can we have a collective better future?’ Rather than saying how can I make your life look more like mine?’. It’s about not setting yourself up as the expert or as the person with the power that can make the change for somebody else.” What can a good leader do to shape the culture in their organisation? They need to create conditions that enable trust to be built. They’ll understand the assets of everyone their work impacts and the things that they are working on”.

Jodie Tonita is a co-founder and executive director of Social Transformation Project, an organisation which aims to shift the leadership culture. The work of her team focuses on building the collaborative capacity of social change movements. In reflecting on the work of her own organisation, she captures a shift happening across many sectors including the migration and youth sectors. In this quote, Jodie’s thoughts speak to Ruth’s point about the impact of creating conditions conducive to trust and steers us away from valuing single visionary leaders: When artful leaders have space and support to connect deeply and are challenged to strategise and work together in new ways, possibilities light up at the intersections. We can create conditions for this kind of connection, challenge leaders to strategise in new ways and support the emergent ideas and collaborations that arise.”[i]

[i] As told to Adrienne Maree Brown in her book Emergent Strategy (2017)

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Director, Inclusive Mosque Initiative