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The power of lived experience in creating welcome

My name is Yusuf Çiftçi and I am the City of Sanctuary UK Co-Chair. I know that if we are going to achieve our vision of welcome, people with lived experience must be at the heart and head of this movement. I know the power of lived experience in creating welcome – and it’s why as a sector, and as a network, we cannot afford for lived experience to take a backseat.

Attacks on the right to asylum by the government have made me think about the importance of the power of lived experience in bringing communities together against all the poisonous politically-powered rhetoric about people seeking sanctuary. This was my main motivation behind joining the City of Sanctuary Board over a year ago – as someone with lived experience of this very hostile asylum system – to help bring that lived experience power to the fore at City of Sanctuary UK.

Lived experience leadership has a very important place in my heart because, as a sector, if we want to function better, we should start by examining how our leaders think, how they are supported, and how their decisions are made. We also need to think about to what extent this leadership is representative of recent lived expertise. Within this political climate, we cannot afford lived expertise to take a backseat. We need more lived experience leaders, more decisions shaped, informed, designed, and led by people with lived experience.

To achieve this, it is crucial to create space for growth and development. In my experience, the combination of tailored training, networking with peers, and structured open space for conversations has made the biggest impact in boosting my confidence and recognition of myself as a lived experienced leader. However, creating this space is not always straightforward, and it comes with challenges, such as, to name a few, power imbalances, lack of resources and support, or falling into a tick-box style of engagement.

To address these challenges, the City of Sanctuary UK team has been working in several ways. First, we have made a commitment to value lived experience. This is what people with lived experience primarily want, a commitment to work with them meaningfully as an organisation. We embedded it in our charter and in addition to that we committed to having at least 50% of our board comprised of people who bring skills, knowledge, and lived expertise to the table. It is important to focus on lived and learnt experience here, we need diverse skills and insights alongside lived experience, so that this commitment is not a tokenistic one.

Second, we strive for equitable recruitment. We want to achieve at least a similar rate in the staff team, including the senior management team, which is why we offer application support to sanctuary ambassadors when they apply to any staff roles.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we aim for meaningful involvement. The Sanctuary Ambassador Network engages in our communications, awards process, and advises our operations. This level of involvement allows for individuals with lived experience to have a say in how the organisation operates and is run. As we work with communities and mainstream institutions, we also require a genuine commitment and action plan to do the same when they apply for sanctuary awards, so that involvement with people with lived experience is happening among Local Authorities, Libraries, health systems and more.

Finally, we have established a leadership pathway where sanctuary ambassadors can follow their own leadership journey among any of the above involvement ways where they are supported to fulfil their aspirations. For example, two of my fellow trustees started from the Sanctuary in Politics course, became sanctuary ambassadors, volunteered in the operations advisory group, and were nominated to join the board. Alternatively, Nawal started as a volunteer, then joined the team as a website officer, and is now working for an international tech company as a programmer. These are examples of different leadership pathways that individuals with lived experience may pursue.

While this process is not always straightforward, I am optimistic that we are moving in the right direction as long as we have people with us. To bring communities together, and to create much-needed welcome in our societies, it is crucial that we center the voices of those with lived experience, especially when it comes to leadership positions. By providing space for growth, support, and meaningful involvement, we can better incorporate lived experience in our work.

If you want to find out more about co-production, join me on July 10th for a free webinar. Register here.

Find out more about our Sanctuary Ambassador programme here and our Expert by Experience Advisory Group here.