Why Lived Experience Matters in Social Work
Updated: Jul 10
Social workers focus on improving the lives of vulnerable and marginalized individuals and communities. However, too often, when people are in a position to help those in need, they offer solutions through their own lens, which may not be applicable. However, when frontline workers have a shared situational understanding with their clients, favorable outcomes are often realized. They can put problems in context and offer insights without judgment based on their firsthand knowledge. BCT Partners explores why professionals with lived experience combined with expertise and empathy are more likely to achieve positive results for their constituents.
Personal Understanding: Professionals with lived experience have a unique understanding of the issues and challenges faced by the populations they serve. This can include firsthand knowledge of poverty, discrimination, mental health issues, and other social determinants of health. This understanding can inform and improve the delivery of services and interventions.
Empathy: Firsthand knowledge can help social workers develop compassion and understanding for the individuals and communities they serve, making it easier to build trust and rapport.
Cultural Humility: Cultural humility is a practice of self-reflection on one’s background and the background of others, which impacts teaching, learning, research, creative activity, engagement, leadership, etc. Social workers with lived experience can bring a valuable perspective on cultural humility by promoting understanding and respect for the diverse identities and experiences of the individuals and communities they serve.
Innovation: Social workers can utilize their personal experiences and knowledge to create new programs and services that are more effective and responsive to the needs of their populations.
Role Models: Professionals with lived experience can be role models and inspire others to realize their own value. The power and bravery of sharing a personal story can significantly impact others’ courage to share theirs.
Inclusivity: By hiring social workers based on lived experience rather than academic credentials alone, it helps promote inclusivity and understanding within the workplace.
In summary, lived experience is essential to effective social work because it means that a person has already navigated the problem they are trying to solve. Imagine the different kinds of interventions that could be designed based on firsthand knowledge. For example, what if social workers who have experienced homelessness developed resources to find better housing solutions for families? We could avoid so many more problems if decision-makers were reflective of the world outside and included people from a full range of socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, and educational backgrounds. Insights would be much more comprehensive and pragmatic when based on a wider range of experiences. That’s why Individuals who have overcome situations similar to
populations they serve are instrumental in designing and implementing programs that work.
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