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Power and participation

Building power and hope for social change - what are the magic ingredients?

Heather Coady, a member of the Stigma Free Futures Design team, reflects on the importance of power sharing and knowledge equity approaches in social change projects.

Written by:
Heather Coady
Date published:
Reading time:
6 minutes

The phrase ‘be the change you want to see’ always stuck in my head but I’m not sure I properly understood what that really looked like until I joined the Stigma Free Futures Design Team. I’ve always been fascinated by the process of change and this has shaped and driven what has been quite a varied working life including being a cleaner, care worker, full-time mum, activist, campaigner, policy and rights worker, funder, and strategic leader. I know what poverty and stigma look like both personally and professionally, and I’ve felt driven to get behind changing things that are unfair, things that stop people living their best lives.

At a particularly low ebb and feeling burnt out like a lot of people post-Covid, I was re-evaluating and looking for something that would give me some hope, a life-raft in what felt like overwhelmingly stormy seas. I’ve worked with some incredible people over quite a few decades and learned much about changing things for the better, but my latest experience as a member of the Stigma Free Futures Design team has been the most transformative. Being part of this group has been the most exciting, hopeful and satisfying experience of my entire career. I’ve regained a sense of hope and a sense of purpose that I didn’t expect.

As someone who has usually been in the role of designing and facilitating groups with direct experiences of badly designed systems, I was excited to be a member myself of a diverse group of people with a wealth of lived and professional experience that might influence JRF’s future approaches to addressing poverty and stigma. I was drawn to the commitment to genuine participation and coproduction that was evident in JRF’s design of this project.

I’ve really struggled to pin down what is different with this group and why it’s been so successful. I think it’s because it’s been something so deeply felt; it’s about a way of being that is consistent with our values, our vision and paying attention to the process we need to go through to achieve meaningful change. When something is experienced in this way it can feel profound but difficult to capture and articulate.

The central role of hope

I’m not alone in feeling scared and hopeless and increasingly cynical about whether it is possible to change the course of huge bureaucratic, gobbling beasts that diminish and crush our lives and somehow leave us feeling responsible and stigmatised. Doing this work is hard, takes its toll and requires us to take care of ourselves and each other. There needs to be an emphasis on self-care, collective care, deep listening, reflection and creativity. A deep holding of the space to ensure everyone's needs are respected and met and that everyone’s voice is equal as we discover together the new ways of working.

The facilitators clearly understood the importance of establishing a solid foundation as a group and designed sessions with this in mind. We were encouraged to explore what brought us to this work both personally and professionally. We also spent a good amount of time exploring how we would achieve the goals we set for ourselves by keeping to our values and principles.

With this in mind, the year-long project started and ended with a residential retreat, had 3 facilitators and strong administrative support. The conditions were created to establish a genuine sense of purpose, equality, camaraderie and respect. We appreciated each other’s strengths and wisdom, prioritising knowledge equity1: not privileging some kinds of knowledge and experience over another, being able to be a little vulnerable at times, and moving from supporting to being supported. Gently challenging each other and being able to laugh and at times cry at the hardness of the topic we were so intent on exploring, dissecting and making sense of.

Centring, not ignoring power

The ‘elephant in the room’ in my experience is often power. Who has it, and when and how we recognise that, is vital so we can work with it instead of being tripped up and frustrated if we ignore it and, particularly relevant given our exploration of stigma, how it works. There were times when the group assumed power lay in a particular direction, sometimes with JRF as the designers and funders of the project, sometimes with the design team who were being encouraged to have a voice and to lead the work shaped and influenced by their experiences. Sometimes between more naturally outspoken team members who were often anxious not to dominate and to ensure room for quieter, more tentative voices.

As is common with approaches that value genuine participation and coproduction, there were moments where we were uncertain how much were we able to determine and influence as a group, particularly if the route we wanted to take might compromise or fly in the face of JRF’s vision and purpose? The role of facilitators changed as the group grew in confidence and were encouraged to step in and out of taking the lead in development of the work. We sometimes forgot that facilitators were in the difficult position of wearing 2 hats: as valued members of the group, but also answerable to JRF.

Sometimes there was dawning realisation of our own complicity, in terms of being part of the problem we were so keen to solve, and having to own the power and privilege we might enjoy without always acknowledging it. Those were the important moments and when we came to some resolution that felt right it was such a rush because in those moments, we did something different and helped each other through those hurdles with compassion and grace and weren’t undone in the way many of us have experienced time and time again when that trickster power sneaks up on us.

Change starts with us all

Joining with JRF directors, sharing our process and learning with them helped us to see the results of this magic through their eyes. I think we were all a bit surprised by how far we had come and how significant our process had been in effecting the kind of change we were looking for. We became even more curious and committed to a genuinely collaborative way of working together, which has resulted in some significant changes to the way in which JRF as an organisation works.

We have been able to start conversations about some of the language that JRF uses and we were able to lead on a photography project to ensure the images used on JRF’s new website reflected real people without stigmatising or reinforcing negative images of people living with poverty. We continue to have ongoing conversations with JRF’s communications team, a relationship that feels deeply reciprocal and full of learning for all.

This has given the group the confidence to move into a different phase of the work now that we have such a solid foundation as individuals, as group members, as influencers of JRF. We have created an incredible springboard towards influencing wider change, based on deeply held and hard won knowledge and experience, and a commitment to collaborate with others to make much needed change. There is hope.

Note on 'knowledge equity'

  1. Often called 'co-production' or 'participation', a 'knowledge equity' approach involves widening the kinds of knowledge used, not prioritising one type over another. It means knowledge held in marginalised communities, historically excluded from traditional collaboration, can be used to create social change.

    JRF first heard the term used by the Centre of Knowledge Equity, although they're not the originator of it. It is the most useful way to describe what JRF has learned from movements placing lived experience at the centre of what they do, in particular ATD Fourth World over the last 60 years, and Poverty Truth Commissions which have been in development over the last 15 years.

Charismatic community leader wearing football shirt

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