Foster America alum SL (Shree Lakshmi) Rao kicked off the year with a community-based webinar explaining how to authentically engage lived experts in the policy change process.
More than 200 people tuned in to the January webinar, which encapsulated the work that Rao undertook during her senior fellowship in Washington’s Office of Homeless Youth Prevention (OHY). Rao and community partners engaged young adults who have experienced homelessness to create policy recommendations to prevent housing instability for youth and young adults. This work built on Rao’s previous work, which culminated in a report that framed prevention and system gaps.
Rao and community advocates came together to discuss the processes they used to recruit and record the insights of young adults and their caretakers.
Panelists included Jacque Julien, executive director of the Communities of Color Coalition (C3), Jeri Moomaw, executive director of the Innovations Human Trafficking Collaborative (IHTC), and community organizers Milo Edwards, Kahran LaTourette, and Tiffany Sheffield.
The panelists made clear that their main priority was including people from many marginalized groups, including those who are Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ+ and neurodivergent.
The advisory council, composed of lived experts from across Washington state, participated in paid, weekly, three-hour sessions from February through May 2021. It was important, panelists noted, to have sessions that focused on getting to know one another through play and joy, which gave everyone space to imagine new possibilities.
Building relationships and learning from one another was important, panelists noted. Holding spaces focused on healing and creativity, instead of asking people to explicitly share their experiences with homelessness, offered a safe space for participants to create innovative solutions together.
The coalition – OHY, C3 and IHTC – also made sure that participants had adequate digital access to the sessions – including WiFi hotspots and tablets, that were funded by private philanthropy. Session organizers offered creative ways to virtually engage participants, using tools like Mural and Jamboard.
Although panelists noted that their process is not a formula for engaging lived experts in policy change – every community is different – they noted that gathering feedback from lived experts whom systems have most historically marginalized and excluded will create more robust, inclusive opportunities for change.