“Nothing about us without us”: It is a simple and pragmatic request made by people with lived/living experience (PWLLE) out of necessity. It isn’t a new request, as various iterations of this mantra have been mobilized alongside a number of social movements in recent history. At its core, it is a reasonable ask, so why are we so bad at this? Initiatives that are designed without meaningful consultation and engagement are often the ones that generate the most unintended harms: they fail to meet their mandate, and they waste valuable time and resources. They are emblematic of the simple fact that tokenizing continues in most systems, and admission of this flaw is a very uncomfortable truth.
Post by Corey Ranger, past project manager, Mental Health and Substance Use – Peer Support, BCcampus
When BCcampus was tasked with the development, implementation, and evaluation of a Provincial Peer Training Curriculum for PWLLE in mental health and substance use, we began by acknowledging that uncomfortable truth. We adopted a set of values and principles founded in humility and the mutual understanding that our process would never be perfect. In fact, we had to acknowledge that the concept of perfectionism itself is rooted in historical, colonial, and oppressive structures. Taking this iterative approach, we spent our time having meaningful conversations with PWLLE and reflecting on our own processes. We heard from peers who have experienced tokenism in its many forms and learned about the negative impact it had on both individuals and the project outcomes. For those of you Googling “tokenism” at home, tokenism is an oppressive act in which under-represented groups — particularly PWLLE and BIPOC — are brought into the decision-making process, but only to appease inclusivity requirements. Power imbalances result in those individuals experiencing harms and ultimately being ignored when their insights do not conveniently align with those of the people who hold true decision-making power.
After a robust engagement and consultation process that involved quantitative and qualitative research, the establishment of advisory committees and peer-led expert working groups, and a commitment to developing transparent and trusting relationships, we have been successful in connecting with 271 peers to date to inform the development of this vital project (see Meaningful Engagement, Meaningful Results: Engagement and Consultation Road Map from the Provincial Peer-Training Project [PDF]). Every PWLLE who consults on this project is compensated for their time, no matter how big or little the commitment. We hired 35 peers to provide monthly feedback and guidance on all project deliverables for the duration of the project, and we sought out opportunities to challenge our own embedded power structures to move away from tokenism. No matter how robust we deemed the process, we still needed to ask two very important questions: What did we do well, and more importantly, where are the gaps in our approach?
In taking part in this reflection, we at BCcampus identified 10 Recommendations for Peer Engagement and Consultation [PDF] that we are happy to share with the world. These recommendations are derived from our lessons learned, peer-authored literature, and most importantly, from the voices of PWLLE who have worked on this project. Organizations and institutions are encouraged to take stock of their processes and challenge their own power structures. These 10 recommendations are a great place to start, but they are not absolute. It is our hope that adopting these recommendations will create a pathway to further growth, including the prioritization of decolonizing decision-making structures. Some systems will struggle to abide by these recommendations, as adopting them requires that necessary first step of acknowledging that there is significant work still to be done. The recommendations are not end points, but demonstrations of a commitment to always strive for more equitable and inclusive approaches.