I am the Communications Lead for the National Expert Citizens Group and the Independent Futures (IF) Group in Bristol – we are the advisory group of people with lived experience of multiple and complex needs. We are equal partners for the Fulfilling Lives project, a Big Lottery funded initiative to see how we can help individuals who keep falling through the gaps in the system. It is evident that many who come under this category – who have experienced at least three out of the four problem areas; mental health, substance misuse, homelessness and offending behavior, are still bouncing from service to service not getting their real issues dealt with properly. Having had hard earned street level experience of accessing these services means that our voice matters. Increasingly we are not only asked to contribute but actions are being taken as a result of what we say.
Ultimately my question is how can we use our united voice to influence change? Storytelling is an art. We hear many stories which are the standard – my life was hell and now I am free. But how do we do this in a more creative way – a way which has powerful punch?
Communications, in my opinion is the key to many aspects of this whole program. Stigma busting, reframing thinking and inspiring change. But taking a risk and sharing my personal story has not been easy. I like to compartmentalise my life. I worked in media for a while (radio) and no one knew of my dark past life. I know that other Expert Citizens have found it challenging to share their story. Especially if it involves domestic violence, rape, abuse and consequences for their children. Together we find solutions to protecting our anonymity if that is necessary.
Ultimately, this journey is for US too. We want to empower services, but we have had to learn trust, take responsibility, respect one another and take healthy risks in order to grow. Already I have managed to see the power in taking responsibility. Our Chair, Matt came from not being able to speak at all in main meetings to delivering a speech at the Bristol Golden Key launch event. He stood in front of the Mayor of Bristol, Head of police, probation, mental health services and many movers and shakers around Bristol. Proud is not a word I over use, but I felt it that day.
There are 12 Expert Citizen groups across the country like ours here in Bristol. These are in the areas which have been granted Big Lottery funding. We get together as the National Expert Citizens quarterly to share progress, ideas and ‘moving forward’. We hope to build a strong organisation and network which will continue after the life of the Fulfilling Lives project. Increasingly we are seeing the need and demand for ‘service user’ groups and feedback. We no longer have to ask ourselves “why me?” and can start saying “how can we use this to benefit others?”
I look forward to keeping you posted on the NECG (National Expert Citizen Group) News and progress.