Centring Lived Experience - Theory & Practice

How do organisations centre voices on the receiving end of injustice and inequality? How does it feel to put theory into practice in this work, and what does that tell us about how new ways of governance and organising need to work to do good?

Last month we organised a Beyond the Rules panel conversation to explore these questions with partners who are organising their work and governance differently. Natalie Creary of Black Thrive Lambeth, Catherine Scott of York MCN and Anthony Zacharzewski of Democratic Society joined Paula Black in conversation to share their perspectives, learning and impact from taking part in the Beyond the Rules partnership.

Here are some of the highlights from their discussion and conversation with participants…

The panel speakers: From left to right, Natalie Creary of Black Thrive Lambeth, Catherine Scott of York MCN and Anthony Zacharzewski and Paula Black of i of Democratic Society.

Diversity & Privilege

Lived experience is valuable and those affected by decisions should be involved in them. These values underpin the participatory and co-produced way groups like Black Thrive and York MCN work – and in practice they come with challenges. Even in organisations where the paid staff have similar lived experience to the communities they’re seeking to work with, it’s important to be aware that communities are not homogenous, that labels can hide this, and that privilege and lived experience are layered.

In their organisations, York MCN and Black Thrive have to negotiate and balance this. On the one hand they are able to “lean in” to this work by drawing on their own individual lived experiences as a source of strength and empathy. At the same time, they are conscious they have to acknowledge where privilege in class, race, gender, citizenship, sexuality, and so on, creates blind spots where they cannot truly empathise with somebody else’s experiences. What they mean by “lived experience” has to remain a live question.

Not everything can be participatively co-produced all the time, so this awareness of when an enabling team is – and isn’t – in a position to authentically represent and act in the interests of the wider network, is a continual reflexive practice.

“Nothing about us without us” - but who is “us”?

Owning the Problem

Systems change and governance at the moment relies on key individuals who “get” the importance of change. One of the values of shared lived experience is the understanding it enables – being personally affected by injustice and inequality means you are more likely to want to solve those issues for others facing them. York MCN and Black Thrive are grappling with is how to influence systemic governance and workforce strategies, rather than relying on individual allies.

One way forward discussed by speakers involves bringing people affected by decisions not just into the decision-making process in a co-productive way, but also into reporting and accountability spaces. This would mean that people with lived experience of a problem are involved in the assessment of whether or not progress is being made to solve that problem. Shifting decision-making and accountability towards communities with lived experience is part of addressing the power imbalance created when people with lived experience are involved as story-tellers rather than equal participants with equal power in processes. Important here is how participants can be equally affected, not just equally heard or equally represented.

“If you’re a fish in water you don’t notice the system. The system is there to help you thrive. If you’re not a fish, you’re drowning.”

Paula Black

Hard Wood & Bubbles – Incrementalism & Revolution

York MCN and Black Thrive are bubbles of innovation. They seek to create participatory and just governance structures and anti-oppressive policies within their organisations that model the wider systemic governance they’d like to see. This means resisting the push of funders and regulators towards 'off the shelf' formalised governance structures and policies which aren’t fit for purpose, and revisiting and redesigning these when possible. The goal is for democratic self-governing organisations where “the rules” match their purpose.

“Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.”

'Politics as a Vocation’, Max Weber.

It’s a complex challenge, and one we have felt as a partnership in Beyond the Rules – with every new layer of understanding uncovering a seemingly exponential amount of complexity, The various perspectives of the different Beyond the Rules partners have both added to and helped address that complexity, changing the way we work and think about power and voice.

“We’ve succeeded in asking better questions, not in finding simple answers.”

Anthony Zacharzewski

In this context the panel wrestled with whether this work is ever “finished”, whether a new normal exists, or whether it will always be a process of incremental improvement. Do we slowly bore through hard wood to create change, or do we burn the wood and build something new? Perspectives differed, but what was clear from the discussion was that if incremental, gradual system change is to be just, it needs to consider who it is burdening in the meantime.

“Why are you inviting me? Why is it your invitation? We need to create the space for people from marginalised communities who experience marginalisation to be leading this and telling us what to do.”

Natalie Creary

Space to Learn

The first rules we need to move past are the rules in our minds. Beyond the Rules as a project has given the organisations and individuals involved in the partnership the space and time to reflect on our practice. It’s also been an important space for support and validation among partners to hold each other.

We’ve had to become more comfortable with uncertainty, and with navigating rich, conceptual subject matter without losing sight of the ground. Finding the balance and language to describe this work to others has been part of this challenge, but one which all partners have met together. The role of Lankelly Chase, both as a partner and a funder of this work was something panellists were grateful for.

We’ll continue to learn together as we put this work into practice in the next phase of Beyond the Rules, where we will be exploring what we need do in practice to bring communities and people to the point where they want and have the skills to be able to lead, and the systems have the capabilities to listen and act.

About the Beyond the Rules Speakers

Black Thrive work to address the inequalities that negatively impact the mental health and wellbeing of Black people in Lambeth. The Black Thrive Partnership brings together individuals, local communities, statutory agencies and voluntary organisations to address the structural barriers that prevent Black people from thriving.

York MCN involves various projects, organisations and people coming together to create change. The goal of those involved is to improve the lives of people experiencing multiple complex needs across the city of York. They bring together people affected by housing issues, mental ill-health, contact with the criminal justice system, substance misuse, financial problems and other needs.


This blog is part of Beyond the Rules, a partnership between Black Thrive Lambeth, Dark Matter Labs, Democratic Society, Lankelly Chase and York MCN exploring democracy beyond government.

You can find more of our Beyond the Rules blogs here.

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