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

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