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Field Notes

Community Engagement and the Expertise of Lived Experience

November 19, 2020

My latest experience partnering with older adults highlighted an observation around the work of ‘community engagement. I have observed its growing prioritization among social/nonprofit sector and also private and public sector stakeholders in order to gather community voice, inform solutions, and help make decisions. At least in theory.

The realization after the latest conversation with our team of older resident research partners in Washtenaw County, MI, where we are partnering with the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation: For community engagement to matter, one needs to first value the expertise that community members possess via their lived experience. One needs to believe that people are the primary experts on their own lives. Without this, it is far too easy to relegate community engagement to a one-off activity that can be checked off a list.

Community engagement can be worked into any number of efforts including strategic planning, measurement and evaluation, cross-sector collaboration, program design, and ongoing implementation and governance structures. A wide range of frameworks, tools, and methods exists to help structure an approach to community engagement and implement it from a light to deep level. Many of these resources detail community engagement methods without emphasizing the value of the people being engaged through them. I am now reflecting on how many community engagement efforts I have seen use these resources to hear people’s voices, but failed to listen. These efforts were essentially just going through the motions.

Appreciating the expertise of lived experience led us to recognize several types of expertise, and to reflect on the value we place on each:

1. Lived experience: Expertise of people who know the reality of economic security, education, health, equity & justice, and other societal issues by living them on a daily basis – whether young people, working adults, parents, students, older adults.

2. Front-line service delivery: Expertise of teachers, case managers, home visitors, health practitioners, counselors, and many others who work day in and day out with people who have lived experience.

3. Academic/research: Expertise of scholars, researchers, and others who deeply study and conduct direct research methods to examine issues faced by people with lived experience.

4. Evaluative/programmatic: Expertise of evaluators, analysts, design experts, and consultants who measure data and/or know best practices to gauge and shape programs and policies serving people with lived experience.

5. Strategic: Expertise of consultants, philanthropists, and others who consume a combination of the other expertise types in planning, leading, funding efforts to address societal issues facing people with lived experience.

Of course one can likely possess a combination of the expertise types, but keeping them distinct for the sake of this argument: how would you rank the above list? Which expertise is the most worthy? Which do you trust? Who is the authority? If working to address any given societal challenge, who would you want as your partner? Finally, a rhetorical question: Which expertise type appears to be the common denominator..?

The pattern I tend to see – which is fascinating if you think about it – is the bypassing of lived experience and also front-line service expertise in order to harness it via the other indirect sources of expertise. 

Read more insights from this project in the previous post.


This is kind of like me needing driving directions to a person’s house, and instead of asking them, I: conduct a literature review of research on the history of cars, review evidence from randomized-control trials to determine the effectiveness of routes used by others to reach the house, interview experts about best practices in following those routes, and form a directions working group of people living on the other side of town. At the end, I might feel inspired to conduct a survey of the person’s neighbors and summarize the results in a word cloud.

After all this, I decide it’s just too hard to reach the person’s house, and I only have enough gas to go a few miles anyway, so the working group helps shape a route to White Castle. It is probably on the way, and the person is likely hungry and who doesn’t like White Castle? I hire a consultant to fabricate a theory of change showing how I will reach White Castle in three years and how it will get me closer to the person’s house (without referring to a map), and build a measurement system to track my progress.

Two weeks after I launch my journey, unbeknownst to me, the person no longer lives there. They were priced out and could not make the next rent payment. But I am now committed, and dammit I’m getting that 10-pack of original sliders.


In recalling how often I have seen lived experience expertise shoved to the bottom of the list, I do consider why this tends to happen. And this is particularly when talking about community members who are marginalized due to race, income, involvement with the criminal justice system, many other factors, or a combination. 

One distinct possibility: significant public attitude research shows a consistent and uniquely low opinion of those who are struggling economically, which we know is closely associated with challenges in education, health, and many other life domains. Up to 50% of the U.S. population perceives people who are poor as some combination of the following: lacking motivation, lazy, morally inferior, untrustworthy, freeloaders, irresponsible, unfriendly, incompetent, makers of poor decisions, and ultimately responsible for their situation. Further research shows these perceptions reinforced by a combination of factors including growing segregation which reduces meaningful connections between people at different socioeconomic levels, media coverage and government policies that stigmatize people with lower incomes, and a need to believe in the system and our own success within it. These perceptions have notably increased since the 80’s and are particularly associated with communities of color, with systemic racism and its associated narratives as central drivers.


How many of these biases might be lurking beneath the surface about the very communities we work on behalf of, even while we may be engaging these communities to capture their voices?

Another possibility: Do we have stronger incentives to prioritize other expertise types over lived experience? Incentives like reputation, legitimacy, confidence in our own expertise, maintaining ownership of decisions, sustaining work we are already committed to, minimizing risk, or others? 

And then there is the related, patronizing perspective I have encountered which suggests that anyone facing a particular challenge cannot possibly be capable of resolving their situation better than I can.

Subtle ways in which the above dynamics may manifest in community engagement include: the captured voices never seeing the light of day (true story), presenting a summary of the voices without actually using them (true story), lifting up only those community voices that reinforce what has already been stated by the other expertise types (true story), and judgment around the voices who dared to say something we disagree with (true story). Even in the best of scenarios, I have watched ourselves get more intellectually excited about the mechanics of our process and tools for capturing community voices than what those voices were actually saying (true story).

Community engagement takes effort, but with the infinite benefit of helping our broader efforts make sense and actually have a chance of working. In doing it, ultimately each of us needs to honestly assess where we stand. 

If we lead with a core value around the expertise of lived experience and those who possess it, everything else starts to fall in place. It helps us to prioritize investing in community engagement, ensure diverse representation, work out our process, and to trust and meaningfully use the results. We not only hear voices, but also listen to what they are saying. And we are more apt to advance our level of community engagement beyond simply gathering input to true and deep partnership. The crazy thing: the more you do it, the easier it gets and the more it reinforces the value of community engagement in a virtuous cycle

We still routinely examine all of the types of expertise described above, and continue to find lived experience to be irreplaceable. Sometimes you just need to see and experience something to view it as possible and recognize its value.

Authentic, genuine community engagement is core to advancing equity and justice and systems change. Our view is if we are far enough along to justify the effort, let us come to it from the right place and do it right. A final note: we are not going to conduct a third-party evaluation to establish evidence of whether community engagement leads to worthy answers… 

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