The challenge from lived experience

There’s a lot of talk at the moment in the UK charity sector about the importance of valuing the challenge from lived experience in both service delivery and campaigning. While people may be talking about it, there is one new report which is both compelling and challenging by Baljeet Sandhu – the value of lived experience in social changeIt is a superb report and well worth making the time to read it.

I am really excited to see this new focus on welcoming the challenge from lived experience. Recently I have been inspired by the work of Migrant Voice giving a voice to migrants on issues of concern to them – the recent TOEIC campaign is such a superb example of the power of such campaigning. I also continue to be inspired by the work of Freed Voices, which exists as an independent project within Detention Action to ensure that the voices of people who have been in immigration detention are heard both in campaign planning and by decision makers.

And at City of Sanctuary, we are working hard with people with lived experience. We are ready to be challenged on our ways of working and on our strategy. In addition our recent Sanctuary in Parliament event was so inspiring by giving a platform for experts by experience and then asking MPs to respond to their points. We want to do much more of this in future.

The value of lived experience is one of the most exciting things happening in campaigning – but it needs to be real, genuine and not just tokenistic. And for this to happen NGOs need to be ready to give up some power and lose some control. The command and control approach to campaigning by some NGOs is no longer fit for purpose.

For NGOs really to gain the value of lived experience in campaigning then they must be ready to lose control. We do need to see a shift in the power dynamic in campaigning. Whilst professional campaigning skills are important, so is lived experience. If we can get to a place where both are valued, then surely we will see real change both internally as well as externally.  

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Lived experience

I have thought a lot recently about what drives and motivates campaigns. When I look back on my campaigning, I know that it was when I had time with people who had lived experience of the campaigning issue that I really felt a sense of drive and purpose for the campaign.

At Oxfam campaigning against the use of supermarket vouchers to support asylum seekers, it was my time with asylum seekers who were using these vouchers, which really motivated me and showed me that this campaign needed a priority focus. At the Refugee Council looking at our campaigning priorities, it was travelling around the country meeting refugee communities, which highlighted to me the need to campaign on destitution, detention, access to legal support and the right to work. And at the Red Cross, it was meeting with asylum seekers around the country who were struggling with the Azure card which propelled me to keep campaigning on this issue.

Lived experience is so powerful in motivating campaigns. And increasingly I have seen how lived experience is so important in also shaping and running campaigns. I have loved seeing how campaigning experience and lived experience come together, with both being valued, to push for real change.

In my next blog post I will look at how this new focus on lived experience is beginning to have an impact on the charitable sector in the UK.

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Learning from a webinar

Having written in my last post about how you can overcome the language barrier, I faced a new challenge the other day on a webinar.

I was due to run a webinar introducing a simple approach to advocacy for NGOs across Ukraine. There hadn’t had too much contact with the organiser beforehand, but I did know that there would be a translator on the webinar. I made contact with him days before and sent him my presentation slides. Then I didn’t give the webinar too much more thought.

On the day I logged onto Zoom, which I enjoy using for such webinars. It always seems to have a good connection; you can see the participants; and you can share your screen. And it is free for the first 40 minutes.

It suddenly dawned on me that this was going to be more complicated than I had first thought! Whilst I was sharing my screen to show my presentation in English that was useless for all of the participants. With hindsight I should have asked for my presentation to be translated into Ukrainian. And this should have been the presentation which was shared with the webinar not my English version. 

As time was against us, I decided as I progressed not to talk to certain slides. That decision made sense to me but confused my translator. I realised that I needed to tell him which page number I was on to make sure he was keeping up with me.

All this was in addition to having to pause after every sentence or so for the translation. So, it was a tough webinar, but amazingly there was really positive feedback at the end of it. there was also interest in thinking more about my approach and having a more detailed conversation.

I was stunned that despite these difficulties we could still communicate with each other and this webinar offered them some useful learning for their advocacy campaigns. They also asked me some great questions. I learnt a lot from this experience and will be better prepared for my next webinar with translation! I’d be interested in your ideas about how to respond to such challenges on a webinar.

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Breaking through the language barrier

I’ve written before about how campaigning and challenging injustice shows our common humanity. Across the world I have met people wanting to campaign for change. I am interested in how to break through the language barrier to support them.

My first experience of running a campaigning workshop with an interpreter was in Tajikistan. I was never convinced that the Russian interpreter fully understood the word ‘campaigning’. It was not my most successful workshop. Some years later I ran a workshop in Peru, but I made sure that I had time in advance with the Spanish interpreters to clarify their understanding of campaigning. This workshop worked so much better!

Campaigning is a hard enough word to explain sometimes in the English language as it has so many connotations. This is also true in other languages. So time with the interpreter is just so important.

More recently I ran a workshop in Sri Lanka with a Tamil interpreter. The Tamil group was so keen to learn and they asked such great questions. However I found it really hard to answer them as I need to build up a flow to my argument. But having to stop after every sentence for the interpreter makes it very hard. This is a skill well worth practising!

I’ve also just run a workshop in Bulgaria. Here my slides had been translated into Bulgarian. I had two laptops with the English version for me and the Bulgarian version for the screen. Again I found the discipline of changing both slides really challenging!

So it is possible to break through the language barrier. But working with another language is a different skill, and it is one that requires thought, preparation and practice. But it is so worth the additional effort to be able to break through the language barrier!

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More hope on destitution

Last month I attended a meeting hosted by Women for Refugee Women and NACCOM to explore the possibility of a new campaign to end destitution.

I wasn’t too sure how I felt as I travelled to the meeting. While I was optimistic and hopeful, I was also slightly wary having been to some of these meetings in the past, where organisations have sought to promote themselves as opposed to the campaign.

But it was my feelings of optimism and hope which were right thankfully! I was struck by the energy in the room. There was also a real sense of common purpose that by working together we could campaign to end destitution.

Reflecting afterwards I tried to think why the meeting had been so positive and not reverted to some of the less positive meetings I have attended in the past. I think for me there was one key reason. Most of the people in the room either had lived experience of destitution or were working on the front line dealing with the impact of destitution. This reality seemed to give the meeting such focus and urgency.

Whatever happens next, if this energy, focus and urgency can be sustained then we are looking at a very exciting campaigning initiative. And it gives me hope!

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Hope on destitution

My last two blog posts have been about destitution, and whilst being a bleak issue, they have made the case for a new national campaign to end destitution.

But don’t please get the idea that I think nothing is happening to tackle this issue. There is the great organisation, NACCOM, which is a membership organisation of front line groups across the country directly tackling destitution. 

And one of its members, the Hope Projects in Birmingham, has particularly inspired me over the years. I look to support its work when I can. They focus on destitution and look to support people where they think that they can work with them to break them out of destitution. So they offer such people accommodation and access to a special destitution fund. But also and crucially they offer them legal support to identify possible ways to address their immigration status so that they can support themselves. 

I just love their practical approach and how they refuse to ignore people, who have been cast aside by the Home Office, and work with them to help give them hope.

There are amazing groups around the country such as Hope, who are indeed giving hope to people who have found themselves plunged into destitution. What is exciting now is to see the energy from these groups and from the very people who are and have been experiencing destitution to campaign for an end to destitution in this wealthy country. I feel full of hope that the time is right to push such a national campaign!

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So what is destitution?

Since writing my last blog post, a number of people have asked me: what is destitution?

It is a strange almost Victorian term, but I take it to mean a human being who has no income, no home, nothing. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they are people who cannot fulfil their most basic physiological needs (food, water, warmth, rest, clothing, shelter) – the most basic rung in the hierarchy of needs. If people have no home nor an income, how can they meet their most basic of needs?

And there are people in this country who are truly destitute and living in destitution. Just to survive and meet these basic needs they are inevitably open to abuse and exploitation. And with none of the rights that people living in the UK take for granted.

This is why it’s time to campaign to #EndDestitution

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End Destitution Campaign

No-one living in the UK should be destitute. By destitute I mean having no job, no income, no benefits, no home, nothing.

In the sixth largest economy in the world, no-one should be destitute. And if people are destitute, then just to survive they will be open to abuse and exploitation with none of the rights that we take for granted. There are people living in destitution in this country. This is a humanitarian crisis, often hidden but leaving thousands of people destitute.

It is time to campaign to end destitution.

There are a variety of charities already working across housing, migration, refugees, poverty, disability and other sectors, which are very often small grass roots organisations, dealing with the human consequences of people living in destitution. Destitution is often enforced by policies and can be avoided by explicit policy or practice change.

These charities know all too well the impact of destitution, but very often lack the capacity and resource to be able to use this knowledge to influence our politicians in a sustainable way to ensure that people are not left destitute. 

Over the past few months I’ve been having conversations with people all over the country concerned about the issue of destitution. There seems to be a growing consensus emerging that we do need a new campaigning push, which harnesses the energy already committed to helping people directly so that we can campaign for policy and practice change to end destitution.  

This is an exciting and much needed development – watch this space!

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Passion and campaigning

I’ve written a lot recently about the importance of passion in campaigning. And passion for a cause has been much on mind recently having just joined the trustee board of Voice of Domestic Workers.

If you don’t know about this charity they are well worth a look. They were set-up and are now run by people who are also migrant domestic workers. Their drive to serve their colleagues is just so inspiring. I did some voluntary work with them earlier in the year and was just just completely taken by them. Their authenticity and desire for policy change to improve the lives of migrant domestic workers is just so powerful.

And there are no anguished discussions about what their campaigning priorities should be. They know the issues faced by their community and they have no doubt about the change that they want to see!

And they have met a few MPs recently and not surprisingly their strong message supported by compelling evidence has been very well received. My feeling is that you can teach campaigning skills but you can’t teach passion! And Voice of Domestic Workers are full of passion – I am really looking forward to doing more work with them.

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Beyond campaign training

One area of work I have been thinking a lot about recently is how you can best support people to campaign once you have offered them some initial training on campaigning tools.

Earlier this year I worked with the Czech-based INGO, People in Need (PIN) and their partners on a pan-European campaign to mobilise young people to take action on climate change. The proposal had three stages: raising awareness of the campaign; supporting people with training on campaigning and climate change science; and offering on-going support to make their campaigning a reality. The first two stages, even with some innovative methods, were relatively straightforward. The stage we all struggled with was the final stage on the on-going support.

Once you have enthused someone and given them the basic tools to campaign, how can you then best support them to campaign?

One of the pieces of work I am most proud of is an assignment to support NGOs working in Ethiopia. I went out to Addis Ababa to run an initial workshop, but then I was able to have regular Skype conversations with the planning group over the next 12 months before my next trip to Addis. I just loved seeing how they grappled with the different tools from the workshop and sought to apply them to their own national context. And in particular it was fascinating to see how they developed their theory of change or future story, and how they challenged each other to assess the logic of each stage of their plan.

I think my only input after the workshop was to encourage them to apply the tools from the workshop, to ask questions and to challenge them. Campaigning can sound so simple in a training workshop. But when you get back to the office and are faced with all of the external and internal realities, it can become much more complex and difficult to develop campaign momentum.

So while I think some initial input is helpful in encouraging campaigning, just as helpful is the offer of on-going support – a regular check-in on the campaign. Asking what have we done, if we have got stuck, why are we stuck and what do we need to do as a result? I think coaching can be a very powerful support for campaigning, as can be a peer group, in creating a safe space to take stock and review your campaign.

As I develop my work supporting campaigning for change around the world, I am ever more keen to sustain contact with people as they strive to push their campaign forward.

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