The power is in the partnership

Jul 31, 2019

I recently participated in a community discussion about homelessness. One participant in the room offered her experiences with housing instability and serving as a safe place for homeless youth. She shared relevant stories and continued to ask questions to better understand the system and offered suggestions to move forward. I noticed a few people in the room begin to ignore her and roll their eyes, and later heard someone say the woman “dominated the conversation”.

Unfortunately the only thing unusual about this scenario is that someone with lived experience was actually invited to the conversation. While many of us strive to partner or “share power” with people with lived experiences, we often fall short. And as much as we all might think we want this partnership, it is difficult to implement successfully.

I frame this discussion as a choice we have when it comes to addressing community issues: We can guess or we can ask and include. Problem #1 is we guess a lot. Problem #2 is we guess wrong a lot. Problem #3 is we blame the people we claim to want to help when we guess wrong and our interventions do not work.

Here’s what I know and truly believe. People are experts in their own lives. They know what they need, they know who’s been left out, and they understand the very real impact practice and policy decisions have on individuals, families and communities. To build effective policies and practices on any particular issue, be it homelessness, foster care, Medicaid, etc. the people who are, or who will be impacted must be acknowledged, validated, and respected as experts. Advocates for Youth suggests that “A true partnership is one in which each party has the opportunity to make suggestions and decisions and in which the contribution of each is recognized and valued.” The value of this expertise warrants a discussion about the challenges to partnership and some tips on how we can do better.

Like most solutions, we have to start with self-reflection and begin to understand the social norms and context we operate within.

  1. We are conditioned to listen to the teacher/doctor/policy maker as the experts. So when someone challenges the definition of “expert” it is uncomfortable and as “experts” we may even feel defensive about our role in the process. If people with lived experience are the experts, what am I?
  2. Partnerships are hard. Logistically speaking, if we want to truly partner with people with lived experience, we have to be willing to work on the weekends, evenings, etc. when it makes sense for the experts and willing to provide child care, meals, etc.
  3. Shared decision making. We are so used to having the power to make decisions that we don’t believe we should be asking the experts (because we think we are the experts).
  4. We don’t know how to respond. We may not have thought about it from their perspective and are surprised or even feel guilty or responsible for the challenges they raise.
  5. The ideas do not fit the agenda. The solutions and suggestions they offer may not fit neatly into the agenda we’ve already decided (this is also called “just asking for feedback and then ignoring it and going on with my own agenda”).
  6. Their ideas are not realistic. The ideas generated may not match any current funding stream or program or project we can conceptualize. This is an excuse that seems real, but is really about silos and inflexibility of systems and funding streams.

So listen, I’m guilty of doing all of these. I’ve been working with people, coalitions, and boards, etc. for a long time and I still don’t have it all figured out. But, as I’ve stumbled along, I’ve learned some valuable lessons and I’ve made some important adjustments.

  • Invite them to your table, or better yet, get invited to their table. Often our tables are full of people like us, and there are already plenty of us.
  • Ask effective questions. Be quiet. Listen. Take note (verbatim).
  • Be genuine. If you ask people to partner, you need to believe their partnership is valuable and behave that way. Don’t ask for something you’re not ready to act on.
  • Remember that a true partnership is a back and forth. You can make suggestions too. Work together to build a clear understanding of the issues and develop solutions.
  • It is ok for you to know things too—in fact using your knowledge and power can and will help shape and elevate the outcome of your partnership so others will listen and act accordingly.
  • Allow people to share what they want to share about their experiences—do not over-probe or ask for details that do not contribute to the solution.
  • Make decisions together. Where should we meet? What time works? What kind of pizza should we order?
  • If you are not in touch with people who have experience in your area of interest, reach out and build relationships with other organizations that are.
  • Compensate people for their time and expertise.

Finally, each of us carries expertise. It may stem from experience, research, education, or a combination of all three. Everyone benefits when we approach partnerships with humility, a genuine interest in learning from one another and a similar goal in mind.

For more resources on sharing power and building partnership…

https://www.aecf.org/work/child-welfare/jim-casey-youth-opportunities-initiative/areas-of-expertise/authentic-youth-engagement/

https://www.usich.gov/news/people-with-lived-experience-must-be-meaningful-partners-in-ending-homelessness/

https://www.sprc.org/keys-success/lived-experience

Related Issues & Ideas

Article

Q&A: REED partners share the power in holding space for rest, healing, collective learning

View Q&A: REED partners share the power in holding space for rest, healing, collective learning
White Paper

Strengths of Latinx Immigrants Despite Legal Violence

View Strengths of Latinx Immigrants Despite Legal Violence
Article

Why building community power is vital for philanthropy

View Why building community power is vital for philanthropy
Report

Surgeon General's Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health

View Surgeon General's Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health
Report

A Caring, Connected Community: How Greater Des Moines nonprofits met our needs during the pandemic

View A Caring, Connected Community: How Greater Des Moines nonprofits met our needs during the pandemic
Report

The Intersection of Racial Injustice and Youth Health in Central Iowa

View The Intersection of Racial Injustice and Youth Health in Central Iowa
Website

Make It Okay messaging in multiple languages

View Make It Okay messaging in multiple languages
Article

8 Ways People of Color are Tokenized in Nonprofits

View 8 Ways People of Color are Tokenized in Nonprofits
Article

Building a Trust-Based Philanthropy to Shift Power Back to Communities

View Building a Trust-Based Philanthropy to Shift Power Back to Communities
Website

Frameworks Institute: Changing the conversation on social issues

View Frameworks Institute: Changing the conversation on social issues
Report

Systems Change & Deep Equity

View Systems Change & Deep Equity
Website

Iowa Coalition for Collective Change

View Iowa Coalition for Collective Change
Website

Iowa Public Health Association

View Iowa Public Health Association
Report

Cultivating Change: How the HealthConnect Fellowship lifted a network of advocates to improve children's health in central Iowa

View Cultivating Change: How the HealthConnect Fellowship lifted a network of advocates to improve children's health in central Iowa
Report

Shifting the Lens: How The ACE Study sparked action to collectively improve our community's health

View Shifting the Lens: How The ACE Study sparked action to collectively improve our community's health
Report

United Way Community Impact Report

View United Way Community Impact Report
Report

2020 One Economy: The Blueprint for Action

View 2020 One Economy: The Blueprint for Action
Report

Human Trafficking Awareness for Youth

View Human Trafficking Awareness for Youth

Zeroing in on Health Needs

How a needs assessment of Oakridge Neighborhood residents is informing ways to improve health and well-being

View Story
View Story

Doula Care Becomes Essential Health Care

An Iowa Doula Project is expanding community-based health care to improve Black maternal health outcomes.

View Story
View Story

Latinx Project tells story of strength and opportunity

New report highlights central Iowa Latinos contributions and disparities and elevates Latinx leaders

View Story
View Story

Re-Imagining How Iowa's Systems Work Together to Best Serve Families

The Vision Council has led conversations on how Iowa's families and children can be safe, secure, healthy, and well in our communities.

View Story
View Story

Champions for Change: A Collective Commitment to Children's Health

Outcomes from Mid-Iowa Health Foundation's HealthConnect Fellowship, October 2019-June 2021

View Story
View Story

Elevating the Latinx Community

How nonprofit leaders brought attention to the Latinx community and built new systems of support during the pandemic

View Story
View Story

Central Iowa Youth Drive Change for Better Health

uVoice high school students commit to learning about and addressing issues, including vaping and racial justice, in central Iowa.

View Story
View Story

The Dream Cube: Art for Social Impact

The Dream Cube, a monolithic structure constructed of pillows piled 8-feet high, popped up in downtown Des Moines late last fall. The provocative piece sparked conversations about the potential of our youth—if they have a safe place to dream.

View Story
View Story

How Youth Are Driving Community Efforts to End Homelessness

dsm Magazine features a unique collaboration that is engaging youth who’ve experienced homelessness in identifying new solutions to address this issue in central Iowa.

View Story
View Story

Protecting Those Who Protect Our Kids

Iowa ACEs 360 shares this story about how supervisors in the Polk County Dept. of Human Services’ Child Welfare Division are addressing trauma in their workforce.

View Story
View Story

A New Approach to Supporting Youth in Juvenile Detention

Teenagers in jumpsuits lying on yoga mats, their eyes closed, their bodies still. This is the image Megan Hoxhalli describes as remarkable for juvenile detention, a place where youth arrive shaken, dysregulated, and scared about their future.

View Story
View Story

Meet the team leading UpLift – The Central Iowa Basic Income Pilot

View Post

HealthConnect Fellows: Engaging authentically in systems change

View Post

7 insights gained through a nonprofit merger

Foundation grants
Nov 17, 2022
View Post

Six Elements to Consider with Community Conversations

View Post

Community-Based Participatory Research: What to Know

View Post

How student research informed the basic income project

Action planning
Sep 20, 2022
View Post

How empathy is a part of systems-change work

View Post

Making the Case: Communications Tactics that Work

Advocacy
Jul 26, 2022
View Post

4 ways to measure system-change progress

System change
May 31, 2022
View Post

Health disparities for Black pregnant Iowans: What you should know

View Post

5 reasons why youth should lead systems-change work

View Post

What we mean by 'system change'

System change
Apr 6, 2022
View Post

4 insights from researching housing instability in central Iowa

View Post

Iowa youth aging out of foster care: How are they doing?

View Post

7 lessons learned from Sesame Street partnership

Foundation grants
Jan 31, 2022
View Post

A closer look at mental health in schools during the pandemic

Community response
Nov 29, 2021
View Post

Get to Know Dr. Nalo Johnson

Foundation news
Nov 24, 2021
View Post

4 questions for nonprofit and community leaders

View Post

5 questions for leaders in philanthropy

Funder practices
Nov 5, 2021
View Post

5 ways to think about your personal brand as a part of your work

Leadership
Nov 1, 2021
View Post