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Essentials for Transformative Narratives: Share Lived Experience


Narrative plays a big role in building the public will to solve homelessness. Dominant narratives about people experiencing homelessness focus on individuals making bad personal decisions,  which often lead to ineffective and dehumanizing solutions – like clearing tents and throwing out people’s belongings, including ID, medications and what they need to survive. That’s why we’re working to build a transformative narrative that helps people understand that housing is a human need and necessary for everyone in our community to thrive. 

Through research, we have identified several essential elements for crafting messaging that will help us build narrative power. 

One of these elements is to share lived experience.

Humans communicate and relate to each other through storytelling. When we hear someone’s story, we see their humanity and understand their experiences.

This has a number of positive effects, including viewing the story subject more positively and increasing empathy. Stories also help us understand and remember unfamiliar or complex concepts. 

For all these reasons, stories told by people who have lived experience of homelessness and unstable housing are key to changing public perceptions. When people talk about their own challenges with housing, leaders are more likely to understand the storyteller’s needs and ways to make a difference for others who are struggling. 

But when asking people with lived experience to share their stories, it’s important to avoid causing harm. According to Brett Davidson in his essay on the topic, “impact-driven storytelling can easily become transactional and extractive, inflicting some of the very harms it seeks to address.”

If impacted people are engaged thoughtfully, though, storytelling can be a positive and transformative process. By sharing their experience – in writing, talking to legislators, speaking to the press or on camera – people with lived experience can sharpen their skills as community leaders.  

As advocates and practitioners, there are a few considerations1 Sources: Keep these seven lessons in mind when interviewing trauma Survivors Marketing That Does No Harm: Trauma-Informed Storytelling in Action Self-Care for Storytellers, or Your Story is Yours Voice of Witness Ethical Storytelling we should keep in mind to authentically and intentionally collaborate with people with lived experience in our advocacy work and elevate their voices: 

Invest time to build relationships within the community. Build trust, transparency and respect. Openly acknowledge your power and privileges, and take steps to mitigate any power-dynamics that may exist when asking people to share their stories. 

Determine where they are in their healing journey. Is it too soon for them to share their story? Could sharing their story do more harm than good? Pay close attention to body language and prioritize their well-being, health and safety.

Ensure they have ownership of their own story and agency in how it is shared. They are the experts. They should choose what parts of their story to share. Respect their boundaries and do not push it. Allow for complexity within the story, and use asset framing to focus on their strengths. Respect the narrator’s authentic voice, honoring their grammar, speech pattern and word choices. 

Get informed, ongoing and enthusiastic consent. Explain why you are asking them to share their story, and ensure they can help determine how and when their story will be shared. Check in regularly to confirm consent at each step of the story sharing process. Someone who says, “Yes,” at the outset may change their mind as the process unfolds.

Practice empathy and flexibility. Attentive and empathetic listening can be healing. Honor their story and experiences. Let them unfold their story in the way they choose. Avoid potential triggers, and be supportive and responsive. If they are showing signs of retraumatization, immediately stop and provide referrals for professional support or counseling services, like a local mental health provider or the national 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

Provide training, coaching and mentorship. Many people will feel more comfortable telling their story and/or speaking publicly after receiving thoughtful training, guidance and peer support.

Offer equitable compensation, including any time spent preparing or training. Be clear about the scope, timeline and expectations from the outset.

Seek feedback for improvement and thank them for their time and vulnerability in sharing their stories.

Storytelling can be a powerful tool to grow understanding and compassion for others’ experiences and is a very important part of building narrative power. Let’s do it well and in ways that are good for everyone involved.

Learn more about sharing lived experience and our other essentials for transformative narratives in our recently updated Messaging Guide for Communicating About Homelessness. And stay tuned as we continue to share essential elements for building transformative narratives in the coming months.