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Community advocates: Upholding lived experience

Community advocates: Upholding lived experience

How personal stories can support activism

Image above: Based on a slogan popularised by South African disability rights and youth activists

Listening to people has never been more essential to both advocacy campaigns and models of system design. LCJB winner, Morgan Cataldo, explains why and looks at how to support those sharing their life experience to spark change.

Here in Australia, our community sector is coming to realise they cannot design programmes that effectively support the end user without including the voices of those who access their services.

Within the current political climate, campaigning is becoming ever-more important. Real stories – straight from our communities – are often the gold that attracts media attention, drawing emotional responses from audiences.

Sitting alongside these advocacy efforts is the methodology of co-design. This is beginning to be used more widely within the state of Victoria and efforts to reform our family violence and gender equality systems.

Meaningful versus well-meaning

We know that meaningful co-design in service and programme development means that community advocates, or those with a lived experience, must be engaged at all stages of the reform process.

The Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) describes co-design in social policy as “working with people who experience vulnerabilities to jointly create interventions, services and programmes which will work in the context of their lives, and will reflect their own values and goals.”

Community advocates and lived experience

Whilst moving in the direction of co-design is a much-needed and welcome move, we must not forget the people at the centre of these processes.

As people with lived experience increasingly campaign and offer expertise, it is crucial their dignity is upheld and the integrity of their stories remains intact. Although sharing stories can be a positive experience for many, it can also be very stressful. This is something we must remain aware of in order to support people in the best ways we can.

The wider community sector must create spaces for others to explore freedom of expression and find an authentic voice. It is more crucial than ever that we support people in being able to tell their stories – not the stories stakeholders want told.

When we are asking others to step up and share their stories, we must ensure that upholding human rights is at the core of all we seek to do and at the very front of our minds.

Supporting people

Allan Pinches is a community consultant and is currently working at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. In his research, he lists the following principles as essential to ensuring community advocates are treated with respect.

  • Informed consent, and the role of plain language being used, particularly in binding documents such as consent forms
  • Considerations related to mental illness, disability, power imbalances, social disadvantage and vulnerability and dependence on services
  • Information handling, privacy and confidentiality being clearly communicated and upheld through all processes involving community advocates.

Different skin tones of hands and feet growing from the ground

Artwork by Molly Costello, an artist who explores concepts of connectedness

Here are some other crucial points – from my own personal and professional experience – to consider when working alongside community advocates and consultants.

  • The "one mouth, two ears" rule! Listen twice as much as you speak. This will enable a space where less assumption and more curiosity takes place. 
  • Knowing our role is not to ask, “What happened to you?” and re-hash old wounds for the sake of curiosity, or to feel inspired or moved by other people’s stories. Rather, our role is to ask questions such as: 

“What did you learn?”
“What do you want others to understand about this issue?” 
And most importantly, “How would you like me to support you/your community if at all?”

  • Appropriate and timely supports – such as counselling and debriefing sessions – which are organised in collaboration with the supported person or people
  • Open and honest communication between community advocates and those supporting them – for example, social worker or other representative – as well as regular check-ins and providing opportunities to make sense of experiences
  • Developing and practicing skills such as active listening, empathy-building and the ability to create environments of trust through rapport-building – for example, by setting healthy boundaries and communicating regularly to avoid confusion or mistrust
  • Investing in leadership and other sustainable development opportunities for community advocates that will be supportive foundations for future endeavours
  • Reimbursing community advocates for their time. Lived-experience is expertise.

Our responsibility

These efforts work to create an even playing field for those involved in design work. They also provide pathways to other supportive programmes and services that may need to be accessed by community advocates.                             

People who are choosing to speak about their experiences in the context of advocacy must also be supported to do so in ways, and in spaces, that do not represent organisations or brands.

A social organisation’s role is not, and never has been, to take from or distort a person’s individual experiences.

As young leaders, we have the opportunity to facilitate and support the developmental journeys of those we work alongside. The process of growth in a person is never linear, nor predictable.

When we speak about people who are considered “hard to reach”, is it really that people are hard to reach, or is it that the traditional methods being used are not working?

If we are to change our world, we have to change who is designing its systems. This begins with supporting people to utilise their experiences and wisdom in authentic and meaningful ways that contribute to shifting the status-quo.

Over the years, I’ve often asked people what might have made their situation different. And so many have replied, “If only I was asked for my side of the story. If only people had actually listened to what I had to say.”

Lilla Watson, Co-founder of BlackCard has attributed this quote to the Aboriginal Activists Group, Queensland, 1970s.