The term “lived experience” is used a lot, particularly in policy research or amongst social justice organisations. It has become part of the everyday jargon of our sector. However, have we reached a point where the term has become oversaturated and has lost its importance and meaning?
What does “lived experience” mean?
The term ultimately relates to first-hand involvement or direct experience of a given person, and the knowledge they gain from that involvement. For example, in the migration sector, this is undoubtedly important as the sector itself is majority White British, with no experience of migration systems or racism, and the many barriers that exist. Our work should not only be informed by direct experience but also led by it. Those who are impacted by immigration systems, for example, should fundamentally be the ones leading movements for change. Lived experience is vital, otherwise work and policy recommendations are based solely on assumptions.
The problems with “lived experience” as it is currently applied
However, lived experience is not a tick-box exercise. Ultimately, possessing this experience does not always mean that someone will also possess progressive values. Someone can have lived experience and say problematic things or be detrimental to the cause itself. There are many individuals in positions of power, such as Priti Patel, Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman, who have lived experience of racism, migration or displacement, and who come from migrant, migratised and/or refugee backgrounds, yet the rhetoric and policies they espouse directly harm racialised and migrant, including refugee, communities. There are also many individuals in positions of power, who believe that their experience of migration makes them experts in the fight against anti-migrant hatred, yet who remain indifferent to, and complicit, in anti-migrant discourse. This is not surprising given the co-opting and whitewashing of migration advocacy, and the diluting of demands for equity and justice into a call for representation or reform.
We also must interrogate what lived experience means and how it is used. Ultimately, when a term is used widely, the meaning of it can become diluted or skewed. This term needs to be looked at in conjunction with other factors. Moreover, we must ensure that we do not use one person’s experience in order to shut down or diminish someone else’s. Having someone with “lived experience” in an organisation, ultimately, does not exempt the organisation or individual from constructive criticism. In other words, we must not pit the struggles of oppressed people against each other. Uncritically accepting someone’s problematic values or behaviours simply on account of their marginalised identity, is contradictory to building solidarity and transformational change.
Lived experience can also fall short where it is used in a way that flattens out the differences within communities. Focusing solely on one common characteristic of lived experience ignores the multiple other experiences of oppression that people within the same community will possess. For instance, within a community with lived experience of migration, there will also be lived experiences of racism, sexism, queerphobia, ableism and/or religious oppression. Engaging with lived experience meaningfully therefore requires an understanding of intersectionality.
At MRN, we are on a learning journey with this and want to ensure we hold ourselves to account. We have moved to saying “lived experience and values-led”, since liberation goes beyond representation. We are led by values of solidarity and compassion, and by a desire to tackle systems of oppression at their root. We believe that those with lived experience, whose values of compassion are directly informed by their personal lives, are best placed to transform our society for the better.