The meaningful participation of people and communities with lived experience is key to a human-rights-based approach to poverty. Storytelling is a start, but it is only one side of the process, says Maytree’s Elizabeth McIsaac. We need to think deeply about how we receive those stories and incorporate people’s expertise into decision-making, she says, and we will improve our practice if we admit that we have lots to learn.
Sometimes we get carried away by our desire to do good – whether we focus on poverty, employment, arts and culture, or the environment. We eagerly follow the sparks of our own ideas about what would make the lives of others better. And as foundations, we often use those same approaches as framing criteria for our grants and support for the work that others do.
In my previous article, I reflected on Maytree’s journey in moving from theory to implementation in human rights and poverty, including on what a human-rights-based approach brings to our work on poverty, the challenges it brings with it, and where our work fits into the network of leaders, advocates, and organizations that have been at this far longer than we have.
It hinted at our thinking about the importance of engaging with people with lived experience of poverty. The meaningful participation of people and communities is a key component of a human-rights-based approach. Like other elements of this approach, it is not an abstract ideal. It is practice, guided by principle. It is something that is do-able, but there is much to learn to do it well.
The idea of engaging with the people and communities we serve is not new – many of our peers have been working toward this in many ways for many years. I humbly suggest that we, as an organization and as a sector, are not there yet.
Starting with storytelling
Stories connect people in powerful ways, and having the opportunity to tell your own story in your own words can itself be a powerful act. Hearing from a person about their life experiences can promote understanding in a way that charts and reports do not. They can restore a recognition of humanity that is often denied to the people who are most marginalized from our society and from collective decision-making.
Hearing from a person about their life experiences can promote understanding in a way that charts and reports do not.
Supporting people to tell their own stories, and to participate in public processes such as deputations and town halls, is important. These processes have a language and culture all their own, and the power imbalance can make getting involved in them intimidating or simply baffling. Supporting individuals and communities can make them more effective when they engage in these public processes.
Making space for people to tell their own stories is valuable. It is a way of using what power we have to amplify the voices of others. In doing so, we can show care and respect for the people who make themselves vulnerable in the telling.
How and when does ‘What we heard’ turn into ‘What we are going to do’?
Storytelling is a start, but it is only one side of the process. On the other side – we need to think deeply about how we receive those stories. How do we incorporate people’s experiences and expertise into our decision-making? How are we accountable for the ways we interact with and care for people who share their intimate experiences, including experiences of hardship and trauma? How and when does “What we heard” turn into “What we are going to do”?
Consultation and participation are not the same thing
At this point, it might be useful to repeat that efforts to engage with people and communities are not new. Governments and civil society have both been soliciting input from people for many years, in various ways and to varying degrees of success.
Currently, many of these efforts come in the form of “consultation.” In a consultation, the organizers set an agenda, pick a venue and format (such as town hall or focus group, and increasingly online), and invite people to attend. They might try to ensure that the attendees represent a variety of interests or demographics, or it might be open for anyone to attend. At the consultation, they might present a series of questions, or a specific proposal for attendees to respond to. They might even serve refreshments.
The responses will be recorded, and the attendees will go home. The attendees might be compensated with honoraria or transit fares. That will most often mark the end of the interaction between the organizers and the attendees.
Meaningful participation is based on relationship. The relationship starts from the premise that each party is equal in rights and dignity.
This is not a textbook definition, but I suspect that this is a pattern that many of you would recognize. It could be described as a transaction. Basically, the consult-er asks some questions, and the consult-ed provides some answers. The transaction is shaped for the benefit of the consult-er.
In contrast, meaningful participation is based on relationship. The relationship starts from the premise that each party is equal in rights and dignity.
Relationships – healthy ones, at least – are reciprocal. Each party gains and each party gives. They are mutually beneficial. They are characterized by ongoing consideration and respect for each other.
While each party is equal in rights and dignity, their roles might not be the same. One party might set the agenda for a particular conversation or process, and we need to acknowledge that this is an expression of power. We cannot hide from that. But we need to consider how we intentionally support individuals and communities in setting the agenda at other times.
How can people continue to participate and lead if they wish to?
As we acknowledge this power imbalance, when we are organizers, we must also be transparent about our role and intentions in the process. Why do we want to have a conversation? What is the agenda, and can it be changed? Are we gathering viewpoints, experiences, and stories, or are we asking for opinions on a specific proposal? Will people be able to propose their own ideas or contribute to creating new ideas? How will people’s views be taken into account when it comes time to make a decision? What opportunities will people have to take leadership in our collective work?
We must also be accountable to participants. How will we come back to them to explain what will happen next? How will we demonstrate that we considered their views in our decision-making? How can people continue to participate and lead if they wish to?
Ensuring that we are transparent and accountable for our own roles in a participation process is part of treating the relationship with consideration and respect.
What we gain from participation
Participation processes can support multiple goals. First, an effective participation process can yield useful content. This could mean better understanding the effects of our current collective decision-making – how our public policies or services fall short, and the impacts felt by people in their everyday lives. It can give insight into how people experience our systems and point to ways of improving them. It can also highlight both emerging and long-standing problems with our systems that are not being addressed.
Done well, participation can strengthen people’s sense of belonging and trust in public institutions. Done poorly, it can result in despair and distrust.
Equally important, the process of participation is valuable. Effective participation presents opportunities in two directions. Community leaders and grassroots organizations build capacity to advocate for policies, programs, and services. Participating in these processes can begin to even out existing power imbalances, by helping individuals to establish their relationship with officials and gain access to further conversations that will influence decision-making. Done well, participation can strengthen people’s sense of belonging and trust in public institutions. Done poorly, it can result in despair and distrust.
On the other side, the process can offer politicians and public officials opportunities to work directly with community leaders. They can expand their networks beyond the “usual” constituents who have the social capital and privilege to use their voices in traditional public engagement channels. This can enhance their ability to hear from and serve a wider range of people. Meaningful participation is a pillar of democracy and a human-rights-based approach. Doing it well strengthens the fabric of our communities and our collective decision-making.
What we need for participation to happen
Meaningful participation won’t just happen on its own. We need to plan for it. By integrating participation into our plans at the outset, we acknowledge its importance. It cannot be an afterthought or an add-on. We need to see participation as a core part of our work.
On a practical level, all parties stand to gain when they have been involved in shaping the conversations and activities from the beginning. For example, from a content perspective, we might learn that the issue that we have prioritized is not the one that people want to talk about. In terms of process, it gives us the opportunity to co-design a participation process and to identify and provide opportunities for training or other supports that would help people participate effectively.
Building and nurturing relationships takes time and effort. We have to plan to take the time needed to do that.
These plans must be backed up with resources, including sufficient staff and budget. The budget should include money to compensate people for their time and expertise. This could be through honoraria or by classifying participants as contractors or employees, for example.
Taking steps toward rights-based participation
Many of us are striving to get rights-based participation right – but we must be ready to make mistakes.
We have to be humble and ready to learn. Participation processes ensure that people who have not been traditionally regarded as “professionals” or “experts” have the chance to tell us that we’ve got it wrong. Or maybe that we’re on the right track. We have to be flexible, open, and prepared to make mistakes and learn along the way.
We have to be flexible, open, and prepared to make mistakes and learn along the way.
Humility is one thing. Fear is another. In our desire to do good, we can become paralyzed by the fear of doing harm. We don’t want the honorarium that we give to a participant to result in the government clawing back their social assistance – but we’re not sure what to do to compensate them instead. We want to be inclusive, but we don’t want to tokenize people by inappropriately focusing on one aspect of their identity. These are important considerations, but they should not stop us in our tracks. Sometimes the way forward is to engage people in figuring out what the solution should be. After all, this is the change we are trying to make.
Participation is inextricably tied to human rights. It is an expression of human dignity, agency, and self-determination. In its ideal form, it strengthens our social and democratic fabric and is itself a vital part of social change.
As foundations, we can help move participation forward if we focus on the goal of fulfilling human rights.
With such high stakes, it’s no wonder that we can feel hesitant. But we will make progress if we take steps in the direction of rights-based participation. We will improve our practice if we admit that we have lots to learn. Our mistakes will benefit others if we admit that we made them.
As foundations, we can help move participation forward if we focus on the goal of fulfilling human rights. Through our own work and the way that we work with others, we are well positioned to help transform the quality of community engagement – from transaction to relationship – in support of rights-based participation.