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Embracing lived experience co-production

Rose Fatherazi blogs on the lessons from working with the Modern Slavery PEC Lived Experience Advisory Panel one year on.

Published: 4th July 2024

As the value of involving those with lived experience of modern slavery and human trafficking has increasingly been recognised in the anti-slavery research sector, so have certain buzzwords like ‘lived experience engagement,’ ‘inclusion,’ and ‘co-production.’ Over the past five-years, various fields have attempted to define these concepts, and best practices are gradually emerging within the anti-trafficking sector through survivor-led grassroots organisations, NGOs, and globally recognised political and international bodies.

Developing an engaged research approach was one of our main goals from the start. This meant that embedding diverse perspectives within research projects’ lifecycle was always a priority. A consultation on the PEC’s research priorities in 2020 underscored the indispensability of meaningful engagement with those who have lived experience of modern slavery. Since then, we have made effort to prioritise lived experience perspectives in various ways; from developing funding calls, selecting research proposals for review, taking part in advisory panels, as well as working to meaningfully include lived experience in research projects we have funded not only as subject of research, but in decision-making roles.

The evolution of lived experience engagement at the PEC

In 2023, the creation of the Lived Experience Engagement Team (including a Lived Experience Manager and a Co-ordinator) marked a significant milestone in our development. Then, through a lengthy and inclusive process of recruitment, the Lived Experience Advisory Panel (LEAP) consisting of six members was incorporated into the Centre’s structure. The LEAP has played a crucial role in the development of several key areas of work, including developing and updating our research agenda; advising research and policy impact programme, including its funding decisions, delivery processes, research ethics and evaluation principles; support and collaboration on research projects funded by the PEC; and improving the PEC’s organisational structures and wider partnerships in order to become more inclusive.

We are currently working to capture the lessons we have learned from this cooperation in an article on co-production that we’re planning to publish later this year. From many insightful conversations that we’ve held as part of that process, co-production emerged as a key aspiration when it comes to meaningful inclusion of people with lived experience, with key questions on what co-production is, what are its challenges and how do we identify best practice. These discussions also explored terminology, distinguishing between terms like ‘victim,’ ‘survivor,’ and ‘Lived Experience.’ As a result, a new phrase - Lived Experience Experts - emerged as preferable and we’ve adopted it across the PEC ever since.

Key insights from working with Lived Experience Experts

After a year of working with Lived Experience Experts, the PEC has benefited hugely from the LEAP’s expertise in all areas of our work. Below are four key insights we identified over the last year that we’re taking away.

1. Acknowledging tensions

Engaging authentically with Lived Experience Experts can be challenging for everyone involved, especially in the context of sensitive subjects like exploitation and modern slavery. It’s crucial to build a trauma-informed space and foster inclusive communication, minimise sensationalist language, while encouraging honest dialogue. Recognising and addressing pre-existing challenges within research culture and practices, such as the lack of diversity and inclusion, is essential. Through these conversations, we understand that our role as research co-creators and funders requires us to break down barriers in systems of funding, reviewing, and evaluating research, which often privilege some while excluding others.

2. Taking risks

Co-production and lived experience engagement involve inherent risks, including the potential for tokenism. Survivor stories are often selected, utilised, and reinforced in ways that can be biased, so it’s important that we focus on expertise rather than stories. Organisations and research projects must ensure proper compensation and inclusion of survivors, recognising them as peers or professionals rather than simply participants. Testimonies and case studies should be used ethically, with appropriate accreditation and with survivors having control over how they are used.

3. Avoiding exclusion

Using jargon and assuming professional experience outweighs lived experience can lead to exclusion. Despite the LEAP’s members' limited working hours, we strive to incorporate the Panel into every facet of the PEC’s operations. This requires an investment of time, resources and relationships, often without guaranteed outputs. Nevertheless, the emotional labour and financial costs are worthwhile for meaningful knowledge exchange. There is still room for improvement, including identifying ways to work closer together, within the Panel itself as well as the wider PEC team on a regular basis.

"Using jargon and assuming professional experience outweighs lived experience can lead to exclusion."

4. Strategic building

Preparatory work is essential before engagement. Establishing pathways within an organisational framework and building capacity among existing staff and new recruits ensures that no single person is overburdened. Flexibility for organisational learning and training, along with humility to accept and learn from mistakes, is crucial. Drawing from the learnings of wider, especially survivor-let networks can provide valuable foundational structure. A lot of this is already out there – you just have to tap into it.

Creating new spaces based on trust, care and development aspirations is equally important. This goes beyond safeguarding and trauma-informed practices by ensuring that meaningful inclusion objectives are sustainable in the long-term. Given the precarious nature of funding in our sector, the funders need to ensure the safety of all staff amid potential funding changes. While some factors remain beyond their control, foresight in establishing mitigating pathways is necessary.

Recognising the work that goes into these efforts and rewarding successful areas is vital. As a funder, the PEC acknowledges its role within the infrastructure of research and knowledge production. Supporting partnership building and removing barriers to co-production are crucial actions. Leading by example and understanding the PEC's role within the wider strategic landscape reinforce the importance of these efforts.

By embracing these insights and practices, the Modern Slavery PEC continues to advance meaningful engagement with lived experience experts, fostering a more inclusive and effective research environment in the work to address modern slavery and human trafficking.