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The Problem with Lived Experience

Some lived experiences are selected and elevated over others.

The Problem with Lived Experience
Paris Hilton speaks during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol October 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congressional Democrats held a news conference with Hilton to discuss child abuse and legislation to establish a “bill of rights” to protect children placed in congregate care facilities. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“The shift among nonprofits and funders towards valuing lived experience has been a journey,” Anna Verghese, executive director of the Audacious Group, told the Chronicle of Philanthropy earlier this spring. Verghese, whose group includes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, MacKenzie Scott, and the Skoll Foundation, says this shift has been “the result of generations of change makers calling on philanthropy and nonprofits to do better and, more recently, the frank conversations we’re all having.” And they’re putting their money where their mouth is: Audacious announced a $47.5 million grant to a six-year-old nonprofit called “Think of Us,” whose goal is to “break the cycle of incremental and ineffective reform in child welfare, by surfacing the perspectives of those impacted by it—the voice missing from previous designs and reform movements.”

It is obviously a good thing to include people impacted, either positively or negatively, by systems and policies in the policymaking and evaluation process. This approach is increasingly applied in a variety of contexts, and has become particularly popular in the field of child welfare. In addition to private philanthropy, public dollars are also supporting this approach. In a recent request for research  proposals offered by the Administration for Children and Families, applicants are asked to develop an “equity impact statement” that should … include “qualitative input from experts, such as those with lived experience.”

But “lived experience” in child welfare has been solicited and disseminated in ways that distort the conversation and promote policies that ignore data and evidence.

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