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.
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.
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…
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.