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Equity in Evidence conference: key takeaways

Partnership Manager Owain Johnstone blogs on our recent conference on meaningful inclusion of lived experience in research.

Published: 3rd July 2023

On 21st and 22nd June the Modern Slavery PEC, Freedom Fund and the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS) co-hosted a conference titled ‘Equity in Evidence: Fusing lived experience and community knowledge into research’.

Experts from around the world came together to discuss how to meaningfully engage people with lived experience of modern slavery in all stages of the research process, from agenda setting right through to dissemination, and turning that research into practical action in affected communities. It’s something that everyone can agree is important, but where there are still many questions to be answered about how best to do it in practice.

Panels included discussions on topics ranging from aligning research agendas with the priorities of people most affected by slavery, to alternative measurement methods, research as a form of empowerment, collaboration with affected communities in difficult settings, and global definitions in local realities.

We invited a group of expert participants chosen carefully to ensure a balance between researchers, practitioners, funders and policymakers, while aiming for a majority to either have lived experience or be from particularly affected communities, and also seeking diversity across as many different geographies as possible.

1. The Advisory Group was key

This was a conference about the meaningful involvement of people with lived experience in the production and use of evidence about modern slavery, so it was critical that people with lived experience were involved from day one in its organisation. For this conference, we also wanted to ensure that we had lived experience engagement from around the world feeding in.

We decided to recruit an Advisory Group comprising seven members from five global regions; each member either had lived experience of modern slavery or was based in and worked with communities particularly affected by it. The Group met monthly, reviewing drafts and proposals from the organisers and providing feedback and ideas, including on the topics for the conference panel discussions, safeguarding measures and steps to make discussions inclusive.

The Advisory Group’s work was absolutely central to the conference, not just to its design but also to its overall ‘feel’, creating a space for discussing issues with the people they most concern on an equal footing (see below). The Group’s members also spoke, chaired sessions or participated in other capacities during the conference. We will be working with the Advisory Group to produce a written report about their experience working on the conference and we are keen to learn as much as we can from that experience to inform future lived experience engagement work.

"The Advisory Group’s work was absolutely central to the conference"

Owain Johnstone, Partnership Manager, Modern Slavery PEC

2. Diversity of people and views

More than 90 people joined the conference, from over 32 countries. This level of diversity wasn't a 'nice to have' - it was fundamental to the conference’s goals of sharing a range of perspectives and identifying common priorities and opportunities to move forwards together (one panel focused on aligning research agendas with the priorities of people with lived experience, for example). So it was important that we heard as many voices as possible - a majority of participants either spoke on or chaired a panel, or delivered a presentation.

But more than that, we needed to create a level playing field and make sure that we heard all those different voices equally. The organisers and the Advisory Group worked hard to make sure that everyone at the conference, no matter their background, language or personal experience, would be empowered to contribute and collaborate based on their particular expertise.

To support that, we asked participants to follow a set of guidelines for conduct during the event, such as not asking directly about anyone’s personal experience of modern slavery. We also arranged for a trained counsellor to be available by phone, if necessary, and had a private room which participants could use for personal reflection, prayer or medical needs. Participants who did not want to ask questions in front of the whole room could submit anonymous written questions instead.

It was exciting and refreshing to be part of such a varied conversation, and a reminder that there is a wide range of views, and limited consensus, on key questions. For example, the panels on the definition of ‘modern slavery’ and how we measure it, and on what we mean by ‘policy impact’, created a lot of discussion with widely differing views.

The value of the conference was bringing those different views together and creating the space for a conversation between them. We were delighted to see such difficult topics discussed in a friendly, constructive manner by all participants. As one speaker commented, everyone at the conference was there to pursue the same goal, and that was clear from the tone of the debate, even when participants disagreed strongly.

I hope all participants found it to be a diverse and inclusive event, providing the space for everyone’s voice to be heard, but there is no doubt more we can do and lots we can improve on. Feedback from participants will help us think through what we could do differently in future events.

"This level of diversity wasn't a 'nice to have' - it was fundamental to the conference’s goals"

Owain Johnstone, Partnership Manager, Modern Slavery PEC

3. Where do we go from here?

Being part of such a rich, diverse and collaborative event was an amazing experience. The breadth and depth of expertise in the room was like no other event I have been part of. It was a tremendous privilege to be part of the organising team for the conference and I’m very much looking forward to building on the conversations that we had there over the coming months.

And looking forward is key. In the closing panel of the conference one word came through clearly: accountability. We all need to hold ourselves to account to make progress on survivor leadership in modern slavery research and its translation into policy and practice.

As a funder, we have a role to play in this. Last week, the Modern Slavery PEC’s Lived Experience Advisory Panel met for the first time, and we will soon be publishing an update to our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan - but of course there is much more for us to do and we look forward to working with a range of partners as we continue to learn and progress.

A big thank you to Freedom Fund for proposing this event back in Autumn last year and inviting us to help organise it, and also to GFEMS for their excellent support and partnership throughout. And the biggest thank you to all the participants who made this conference such a valuable experience.