You care about making change in partnership with those on the margins. You know the value of community engagement. But if you want to bridge the gap between theory and practice you know you must listen to the voice of those with lived experience.
Our company hosted a panel at the CFUW BC 2018 AGM, where we asked young leaders three big questions:
- How have you drawn on lived experience of yourself and your peers to make change?
- What does “Nothing About Us Without Us” mean to you and why does it matter?
- How can we engage and partner with those on the margins in our community?
Here is what they had to share with the audience…
Raelynn Rose, Troubled Youth Records
Raelynn is a transgender former youth in care from Victoria, BC. advocating for young people who have faced trauma and exclusion. She is a rising hip hop artist who recently founded a record label called Troubled Youth Records, a label dedicated to lifting up the voices and offering inspiration to youth on the margins. Having lived through 14 years in foster care, as well as struggles with homelessness, addiction and mental health, Raelynn uses her skills and compassion to create real change in her community.
During the panel, Raelynn offered vulnerable insight into what it felt like to be switched between 11 homes during her time in foster care, being separated from her brother, and being left alone through her own ‘troubled youth’. She explained that she puts her heart on her sleeve in her music, in her public speaking, and through daily conversations. She does this to help all those youth who have ever been left alone and feel helpless.
To her, the principle of “nothing about us without us” means that in anything you are seeking to change, you have to speak to the people involved and include them meaningfully in the decision-making process. She described her own experience with a social worker who had the best intentions, but didn’t ask her what she needed, and often made decisions out of touch with her lived reality. Whether for youth in care or for any survivor of trauma and hardship, she said that no one can know what someone needs or has been through if they don’t ask.
As to what you can do to engage and partner, she says it is really simple: “Support, support, support!”. This looks like reaching out and building relationships with those who are going through hardship and empowering them to thrive on their own through lifeskills and mentorship. She identified education as a key area of support.
Jean de Dieu Tuyisenge, EduAfrica
Jean de Dieu is a Rwandan-Canadian with a passion for supporting marginalized people. He is the founder and Executive Director of EduAfrica, a non-profit devoted to funding genocide survivors and orphans in his home country who can’t afford basic education. Himself a survivor of genocide, war, and loss of family at a young age, he strongly believes in the power of education and mentorship and its role in supporting human compassion and empathy, social and environment justice and human rights for all people.
Jean de Dieu shared that for most of his childhood and youth he moved between countries in orphanages and on his own, eventually landing in ‘the most beautiful place’. He said in spite of a lifetime of struggling to find food and survive, he never gave up the fight. He looked at his brothers, sisters, friends, and neighbors and said “What can I do?”. He explained that he started EduAfrica in hopes of answering this question, and later founded an initiative called My Generation to help refugees and newcomer youth work together to restore human rights and values.
He said the principle of “nothing about us without us” matters because all of us have stories to tell, but not all of them have had the privilege to have them be heard. When the opportunity to be truly listened to comes up it means a lot. He is hopeful that through dialogue and engagement, community members will hit the streets, reach out to those on the margins, and be a role model to someone who will grow up to be great in their own way, and who will then help others.
The starting point, he says, is for you to be present in community and to truly listen. If you aren’t in the room, you won’t know what is really going on and won’t know how to help. He reflected on his current work with My Generation and as a settlement support work in School District 42, and says the goal of engagement should be to match people with many backgrounds and lived experiences to learn from and help each other.
Dylan Cohen, Fostering Change
Dylan Cohen is an Indigenous former youth in care and community organizer, who is working to create a just world that is decolonial, anti-racist, and egalitarian, and who sees youth with lived experience as keys to that creation. He’s First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition’s Youth Organizer, and is a project lead for Fostering Change, an initiative advocating to extend supports for young people aging out of foster care. He draws on his lived and professional experience to create systemic change through provincial advocacy and campaigning.
Dylan described his early experience leading a collective action for food security among students on his campus in Manitoba. It was his first concrete opportunity to participate actively in the issues that affected him. It inspired a later awareness campaign he led, where students body mapped their experience of mental health and shared it publically. He uses his lived experience to advocate for the issues he is passionate about, to organize his peers, to build relationships with decision-makers, and to influence policy.
He believes the principle of “nothing about us without us” is a call to work and responsibility. It means that anyone who wants to be a part of making change must put effort and energy in to include all people in the movement. While leading 25 not 21, an aging out campaign in Manitoba, there was a time when it was only him with lived experience. He says you need to look around at who is at the table in your social, political, and community activities. You must think about who should be there and how to remove cultural, financial, and other barriers to ensure every voice is included.
To engage and partner with those on the margins, he says you need two first steps. First, you learn about the issue from those with lived experience. This means supporting those affected by an issue and recognizing there are things to understand before coming to the work. Second, you build relationships with those directly affected by the issue, creating a safe way for them to be involved in the organizing and work. This includes dedicating your resources to those on the margins and using them to challenge the status quo, for example putting up funding to indigenous communities for pipeline resistance.
The audience responded with diverse and in depth questions, rooted in their own experiences working to include marginalized communities in change-making.
One theme which came up was in what ways community members could reach out and offer help to those on the margins. Panelists highlighted the need to bridge gaps in access to the help being offered – the divide between those who need and are asking for help, and those who are willing and able to offer it. Reminding us that some vulnerable people will not trust or desire the help being offered, they noted that one key way to offer help is to work at a systems level to lift up the voices of those on the margins.
A panelist mentioned the CFUW BC Study Circle Project, which brought community members and young people together for dialogue and action to support those aging out of foster care, and resulted in a club member asking a key question during the major all candidates debate in the recent provincial election.
Another theme which emerged was how to support those who have been displaced from their homes and who are navigating new systems and environments. This was answered in the context of both refugees and youth in care, who both navigate a transition from trauma to unfamiliarity. Panelists noted that people can arrive scared, traumatized, and sad – they may not want to reinforce that they are in a new place, they may want something to remind them of home. Give time for rest and healing, and they will ask for help how and when they are ready.
When asked about one change they would make to improve the situation for those on the margins, one panelist gave a small and simple suggestion: Total transformation of the system from the ground up.
Following the panel discussion, the audience had a chance to share with each other what they learned. They reflected on how our current approach is often dysfunctional, and how the system needs fundamental change. They felt that those who were willing to share and work from a place of lived experience were key agents of change, acknowledging that it is not an easy role to play. One audience member reflected that you must “listen to the people living the problem instead of prescribing solutions.”
We covered a lot in a one-hour panel discussion, but audience members and panelists went home with a deeper understanding of how to bring lived experience into all types of change-making work in community. They felt inspired, energized, and educated.
So, tell us in the comments what the principle of “Nothing About Us Without Us” means to you and your work in community…