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The LE Series: What is Transformational Lived Experience? (1)

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

Welcome to the introductory blog in our 'Lived Experience' series. Throughout this series, we hope to introduce you to new ways of thinking about 'Lived Experience', and engaging with how we might expand our understanding of its transformative power.

Challenging reductive approaches to 'Lived Experience'

Often, we think about 'Lived Experience' as being concerned with the 'wisdom and insights of people who have first-hand experience of social issues'; and while this is true, this often presents Lived Experience in its simplest form and strips away much of its transformative power.

This can often lead to unimaginative and exploitative activity in the name of 'Lived Experience'-led approaches, such as bringing people who use services into a room full of decision-makers to 'tell their stories', baring their most vulnerable moments to help 'out of touch' professionals connect with the cost of their decisions. Another way this often plays out is running unimaginative consultation sessions; expecting the people who use those services to solve systemic inequality by being asked, simply, 'how can we improve this service?', only to be told that their requests are unrealistic, and that they understand nothing about 'the system'. This alone does not create change - in fact, it often solidifies the status quo (more about this later in the series).

Why is this important?

Forward thinking organisations are grappling with a web of inter-related systemic issues; many, for the first time, attempting make sense of what a personal, local, regional, national, global and historical/reparative approach to the work of social justice might look like. For any organisation concerned with with social justice, systems change or equity, the significance of 'Lived Experience', is that it should be truly socio-politically transformative and disruptive. To reflect this, at Birthing Ourselves, we talk about 'Transformational Lived Experience' instead of just Lived Experience.

So…what is Transformational Lived Experience?

Lived Experience does not refer simply to ‘using what we have learned from our life, or the things that we have experienced’ and communicating this with other people. For Lived Experience to create equity, better outcomes, or deliver something different, we have to start by thinking about about it differently.

  1. Transformational Lived Experience is always about the insights, reflections and innovations that come to us as a result of marginalisation; about using our knowledge of having experienced inequality to bring light to how this inequality functions.

  2. Knowledge that comes from Lived Experience of marginalisation is important because other forms of ‘knowledge’ make lots of false assumptions about people who experience marginalisation. These assumptions create and form the basis of stigma, inequality and systemic injustice.

  3. Knowledge that comes from Lived Experience should disrupt and provide an alternative, often challenging the 'taken for granted assumptions' and damaging practices that actively marginalise people. It is about systems change.

Lived experience is not a 'neutral descriptor', it is a 'political practice' with a set of principles, behaviours and processes that actively challenge the systems and behaviours that create inequality, taking care not to uphold, or re-produce those practices.

This is important because people who have their own lived experience of a social issue or marginalisation can sometimes internalise false, negative or stigmatising attitudes about themselves and other people like them. This is sometimes called 'self-stigma' or 'internalised oppression' - without a clear focus on the 'transformational', and a clear set of working principles, lived experience work can perpetuate stigma and inequality.

Later in the series, we look at what taking an active, transformational approach to Lived Experience Leadership might look like in our organisations - recognising that inequality will only be reproduced if we continue to use the same inequitable practices that we have always used, and simply shift our focus on who we work with, rather than interrogating how we work.

If you like how we think and would like to partner up, learn more, share ideas or speak to us about working together, please get in touch with Aman on

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