In the world of family support and prevention programming, we are hearing a great deal about the inclusion of people with lived experiences. It has appeared on our radar screens as if it is a new concept or an innovation unique to this moment.
It is not. But the question of why it is a valuable idea is not as easily answered as we might imagine.
Collaborations between professional helpers and those with lived experiences go back a long way. In settlement houses, neighborhood residents took an active leadership role in their organizations. Flash forward many years and child welfare agencies began hiring people with lived experiences to be case aides, co-planning programs and working with families in their own homes. In addition, many family resource centers have articulated and respectful roles for parents as board members and staff.
Within the context of implementing the Family First Prevention Services Act, states have a renewed opportunity to apply the life skills and experiences of parents into the difficult task of keeping kids safe in their own homes and communities. Hopefully, we will find appropriate ways to enhance the use of parent partnerships that can replace the inordinate amount of time and money we spend on out-of-home placements and family disruptions. There are many social, psychological and moral reasons why it makes sense to have parent partners engage and advocate for families until a dicey situation is stabilized.
Other helping professions have done this as well. Children’s mental health and early childhood programs have proud histories of parent-led programming. Twelve step programs thrive on the “fellowship” of members who support each other through sponsorship. Sponsors with extended periods of sobriety can help others navigate the process of recovery and self-examination. They complement the role of therapists, helping people in the nascent recovery phase through tedium and turmoil.
Likewise, community health care workers have improved health outcomes for distressed populations. They can assist their neighbors in navigating the system of care because these workers know the language and culture of those they serve. There is a consensus that people with lived experiences make any helping system more responsive and relevant.
All of these partnerships have thrived in a way that is neither patronizing nor puffery. They took time and attention to set clear parameters on roles and responsibilities.
For a parent in a tough place, the presence of someone with lived experience is an example of Shakespeare’s line that “past is prologue.” The past is written but the future is ripe with potential for improvement. The issues might be so convoluted that they lack easy answers. Simply knowing there is support and possibility can provide motivation to change.
What’s been lost in our recent conversations is that all of us have lived experiences that can influence and enhance our everyday efforts to support families. Our stories might not be the same or as compelling as someone who has been a client of a child welfare agency, had their children removed or lived through the nightmare of multiple foster home placements. Still, our own histories – the death of a loved one, a period of depression or suffering, the loss of a job, substance abuse, incidents of racism – are stories of loss, recovery, renewal and personal reckoning.
Our lived experiences represent our path forward and with the right dosage of empathy can be a way to communicate and connect with others.
This would be a return to our roots. Like other social workers with grey hair, I learned about the “use of self” in my graduate school internship. This concept was part of the original framework for social work, championed by Mary Richmond in the early 1900s. Later, it found its way into the writings of psychologists like Carl Rogers.
The use of self is the skillful, judicious personal disclosure into the relationship-building process. Combined with social work values, we use ourselves to help clients realize that we stand with them, forming a connection with a shared struggle and commitment to getting well.
Each of us has been witness to our own pain, joy and confusion about what lies ahead. Each of our experiences has currency, context and consequences. The use of self sets up the purposeful disclosure intended to produce an intentional improvement for the client.
In family support programs, the use of self is an essential skill that should be developed and nurtured. If we want our services to be authentic, engaging and less transactional, families need to be comfortable with those who greet them at the front door. Whether that is a parent who has endured their own journey, or a social worker who is willing and able to apply their own life lessons, the use of self can help a family understand that they are the experts about their lives and they are not alone in their moment of fragility.
In turn, the helpers can use their life experiences not as a road map for others, but as an indication of solidarity and suggestion. It is one additional way that we encourage families to come to us before their problems have become unmanageable.