The Importance of Lived Experience
People’s lived experience makes them experts, and if you aren’t listening to them, then your organization is missing out.
It’s important to listen to experts. Most organizations see the value in following (and employing) professional experts such as researchers, advocates, and policymakers. However, if your organization serves people, then there’s another crucial group that should be leading you: the people you serve. These people’s lived experience makes them experts as well, and if you aren’t listening to them, then your organization is missing out.
It’s a cliche warning to not lose sight of the forest for the trees. The big picture is important for any organization. But by the same token, you can’t lose sight of individual trees entirely. Especially if, taking this metaphor further, your entire purpose is to aid those trees.
Within a forest, there are generally many kinds of trees (not always: look up “Pando” for some awesome ecology). Some lose their leaves during winter, and some don’t. Some trees dominate a landscape; others are rarer. Some trees sprout in sunlight, others need shade, and some even need fire. It’s irresponsible to assume any of them is unimportant. There’s infinite variation in a healthy forest--and you can’t define something as “healthy” in ecology unless you understand a lot about how individuals function alone and how all of them function together. (And that’s before you account for anything that isn’t a tree!)
Now, obviously, humans are all one species and don’t have biologically determined roles within society. But our backgrounds, inclinations, and goals vary wildly. We all need help, but the kind varies. In order to serve people effectively, you have to take these variations into account. And crucially, unlike trees, people can tell you these things themselves!
If you run a homelessness nonprofit, then you know the people you serve have the commonality of being unhoused. And thanks to years of expert research and advocacy, you know what has worked in the past to help people get housing again, and you can probably make good guesses about how to best help each individual you serve. But unless you communicate directly with those individuals about their experience, you are ultimately still guessing. If you’re lucky, this does no harm, but at worst, your organization can find itself wholly ineffectual, both in terms of impact to individuals and big picture goals.
Even if you are following the best practices and advice of professional experts and believe you are serving people well, circumstances can always change. New policies, new methodologies, new treatments, new data--humans are masters of innovation. Experts with professional backgrounds can find themselves outpaced, or with new roadblocks, or with opportunities they don’t know how to utilize. Experts by experience add critical knowledge and ideas that are often more adaptable and more timely.
At a bare minimum, valuing lived experience with the people you serve increases community trust. It empowers individuals and communities with meaning and direction. It increases equity. And in terms of big picture goals for your organization, it ensures that you’re staying relevant and adaptable.