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The Richness I've Taken

My involvement with LEAF started when Oxfordshire Homeless movement, two or three years ago, got different organisations coming together and talking about homelessness. I went as a service representative, and I was a bit of a pain in their side. They’d say, 'We've got all the experts around the table here'. And I'd say, 'That's not true. We've got experienced members of staff here, but where's the lived experience representation?' I just banged on about it. At the time it was probably quite an unpopular point of view. And then, lo and behold, that got through, and Oxfordshire Homeless Movement wanted to work in partnership with Gatehouse, where I’m CEO, and Aspire, in founding the LEAF - the Lived Experience Advisory Forum. So that's where my involvement started.

We've got probably about ten core members with lots of different backgrounds, and then different people coming in and out. For me it was about not just getting a forum together, but a forum that could influence change and sit at the same table with strategic decision makers and commissioners. And not only for LEAF's development, but also those professionals' development, and that service development, because you're getting somebody that's lived that life and a whole range of people. So it's not just one voice. What you want is a broad range of voices. Co-production should just become seamless, across every area of whatever service it is, whether it's a statutory service, whether it's a charity. So that's at trustee level, down to the ground and everything in between.

It's definitely beyond anything that I thought it would be, the partnership with Aspire, and also the Forum of members' ideas and development. Co-production is currently a kind of buzzword nationally. And I suspect it will become more common, as it should do. I've done a lot of it over the years. But I don't think we've ever got it on a strategic level in the way that we've got it now. Aspire have got this amazing ability to bring something to the table that the Gatehouse wouldn't necessarily, or wouldn’t have time to develop. And the Gatehouse can bring something to the table, because we can talk to people that are currently, in real time experiencing it. So I've learnt loads from Aspire. I've learnt loads from LEAF members. I've learnt loads from professionals that I now talk to. I'm continuously learning, which is a beautiful thing.

The Gatehouse manages the LEAF coordinator, but we've not had a coordinator for about six to eight months. So I have been LEAF's Admin Assistant in the absence of a coordinator. I've been in the sector for 30 years. Because we didn't have a coordinator, it was my role to listen, really listen. And that is so powerful. Because if we're not stopping to ask the people whose interests we're trying to have at heart, how do we know what they actually want? Or if they don't have access to you? So it's been really nice to work as a team. I also had to strip away my CEO role at the Gatehouse and be aware that this is an independent group. And that I am in a position of power, If you like, so not to influence it, to steer it, but just to support it, to facilitate it. That's been interesting. Going back to the sort of frontline. To be honest, the Forum members would have recognised that it wasn't authentic a mile off. I’d never have got any buy-in if it wasn't, because you've got to be accepted on that group to facilitate it. And it's interesting as well, being held accountable, by people that weren't above me: not trustees or a line manager or things like that. Definitely humbling.

I am a lived experience CEO. So in that space, I kind of put my lived experience hat on. I still feel more comfortable in a forum of lived experience than I would in a forum of CEOs. It was the best hour of my month. So I always say to them, you know, ‘Once I step back a little bit, I’ll miss you more than you miss me.’ But that's my role now. So I do need to step back, and let the LEAF coordinator flourish. I’ll still be present sometimes. Because I think it's important, if I'm championing lived experience and co-production, that I actually have an understanding of what is going on, not just third-hand through a staff member. The most powerful tool you have is listening, because you've got all sorts of messages coming out of that. I think just I’ve just been learning again, around group

dynamics, the different skills, flavours, characters, passions in different areas people have – some around mental health, some around domestic violence, some around rough sleeping, some around the justice system and prison leavers.

It humbled me, for sure. I've learnt that what was my idea, originally, is somebody else's now. It's not something that I or the other founders have conjured up. It has a life of its own now. I came into it with the idea that there would be a forever changing group of individuals that have the space to express their needs, their experiences, their ideas, and that could develop services. That's as far as I got with it. I didn't come in with a massive idea, what I wanted was people to have the same seat at the table as myself, as commissioners, as anybody with any strategic role or position, and for them to be equal partners. If you let it grow organically, it will be something wonderful. But actually sitting in the Forum and hearing people's ideas and hearing people's feedback has broadened my brain on what LEAF can achieve, really.

LEAF are about to start their own independent research, which is something I've never done. It's been really important learning what support they need to become researchers, the parameters around research. We want it to be taken seriously. So that's going to be a big piece of work, which will hopefully develop that group bond and use everybody's skills. And then working in co-production with LEAF was included in the Oxfordshire Homeless Alliance terms and conditions. That blew my brain! I never thought we’ d see such a huge Commissioner get there. No disrespect to Commissioners, it’s just, what access do they have to the frontline? That was a pivotal moment for me. I thought, 'Okay, this is bigger than me. Much, much bigger than any idea I could have had'.

It's also made me reflect as a practitioner, why I still feel more comfortable in a Forum of people with lived experience than I do in a board meeting. I've got a personal and a professional side with this. And I think I just needed to recognise that sort of personal element. It's made me step back a little bit. I think it’s partly that in the Forum I have to be more vulnerable. I mean, I haven't admitted that I've had lived experience until probably the last three years. That's never come out in a professional capacity. But if I'm putting ideas forward and asking other people to be brave and vulnerable, then I probably need to check myself and say, 'Okay, this is not something to be hidden. It is something to be proud of. It's actually a lot around strength, resilience.'

People have aspirations, and they have a massive amount to bring to the table. They can look at me and say, 'Well, this is where she was, at some point. And this is where she is now.' I think if I’d had the opportunity to see any disadvantages that I might have lived through as a strength, and a significant skill that you can bring to the table, it would have got me where I am now a lot sooner. So seeing somebody, and looking firstly at what they can bring to the table, and then supporting them to reduce their barriers, is really powerful. Rather than looking at somebody and saying, 'You've got all these barriers, until you've reduced those, you haven't got a seat at the table.' I've always looked at it the other way around, you know, ‘Look how colourful this person is!' Colourful in character, abilities, skills, personality. Get to know that bit first if you can.

It’s quite an extraordinary piece of work, really. Ideally, it will go on, past any of the founders ideas, continue to be independent. LEAF is about enriching experiences for people with lived experience. But I think there's something really powerful about what professionals can take from it, too. I think it just builds up trust. And it builds up respect on both sides. The Forum members won't perhaps understand what richness I've taken from it. So I think it's probably important for me at some point to let them know.


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