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Co-ordinated by the Transition Innovation Group at Community Foundations of Canada, this series Bolder, faster, together: Perspectives on societal transition asks: How can we all take responsibility for the past, navigate a turbulent present, and co-operate to protect future generations?

Surveys, open houses and webinars — we’re all asked to take part in some sort of community engagement activity to help inform decision-making. Whether it’s for new development in our neighbourhood or a local business asking for feedback on your latest store experience, we are often invited to participate in shaping the world around us.

One key aspect of community engagement is to seek out the voices of those who hold lived and living experience. Our team at Urban Matters is heavily involved in engaging people with lived and living experience of homelessness and substance use to inform community initiatives.

Engagement after engagement, we hear frustration from people with lived experience that they are tired of sharing their stories with well-meaning social work supporters with little context of their experiences. We hear their desire to shift the power dynamics away from agencies and organizations that are removed from their circumstances to those who appreciate and relate to their experiences. Their vision is clear: to play a central role in Canada’s care economy.

Many people with lived experience are motivated to support and care for individuals who have faced similar challenges, vulnerable circumstances and traumas. They advocate for their experiences to be meaningfully valued and their contributions to be front and centre. They want to be meaningfully compensated for their knowledge of our society’s support systems — systems that have been woven around them like blankets, though full of holes and in need of a major redesign.

So how might we support a transition from “caring for” to “caring with” people with lived experience? With this fundamental question, a key focus area has emerged: creating meaningful employment as a pathway to greater cultural belonging.

Peer navigators gather for a workshop and reflection session with organizational hosts. Photo by Marina Bryan / Urban Matters CCC

Programs and employers recognizing lived experience

Many organizations across Canada are working at the intersection of employment and healing. EMBERS Eastside Works in Vancouver is a leader in supporting people with lived and living experience transition into employment opportunities. It provides employment and support services that address the full continuum of low-barrier employment. This has helped to further people with lived experience’s sense of belonging in the community, acting as a springboard for additional positive life adjustments.

Many people with lived experience are motivated to support and care for individuals who have faced similar challenges, vulnerable circumstances and traumas, writes @welk_erin #diversity #equity #belonging #SocialImpact #SocialEnterprise

The team at Eastside Works is discovering that great things happen towards healing and belonging when the focus is first on relationships, rapport building and fostering confidence. Johanna Li, director at Eastside Works, says it’s important to give people time to grow into supported employment.

“Typically, we are seeing that clients who have two or more barriers take at least nine months of regular support before taking initial steps to meet employment goals,” she says.

“We see the inter-relationship between employment goals, quality of life and health and mental health. When one or more of these things are going well, people experience greater success in the other elements.”

Neil Van Dongen, an employment support liaison with ASK Wellness Society in Kamloops, B.C., spends his days cultivating the interplay between recovery and employment with clients. The society’s bike maintenance program allows individuals to support bike maintenance, and with support, earn a bike for their own use. This offers Neil and other supporters a window into each person’s strengths and interests as well as the types of employment roles that will support their growth.

“It’s really important to build a relationship with people first, as the journey in employment and recovery can be bumpy but hugely impactful for a client,” says Neil.

“You want them to feel comfortable sharing with you so we can find them the right type of employment.”

Another approach for creating meaningful employment for those with lived experience is through peer navigation — an effective strategy that allows individuals to use their personal knowledge and experience to support those in similar vulnerable situations. It’s a powerful tool that recognizes people with lived experience are uniquely positioned to support and empathize with others in a way that professionals and service providers may not always be able to.

PEOPLE Lived Experience is a supported employment organization that specializes in the support and placement of peer navigators in Kelowna, B.C. Currently, its Indigenous peer navigation program sees 24 individuals with lived and living experience embedded within nine organizations, such as libraries, recreation centres and youth and family services.

Caty has been part of the program since it first began in 2020. (Caty’s last name has been omitted to protect privacy.) Before her work as an Indigenous peer navigator, Caty was a single parent with a career in health care. Through the years, she experienced domestic violence, substance use disorder and multiple mental health illnesses. This led her to homelessness and unemployment.

Now in recovery, Caty serves as a peer navigator with PEOPLE. Her role is to provide guidance and support to others who find themselves in vulnerable circumstances. The position has provided her an opportunity to work in many different organizations and departments, allowing her to develop new skills.

“I could not even go to a job interview because my anxiety was so overwhelming,” she says.

“PEOPLE has accommodated me and allowed me to be flexible with my hours so that I could take care of my mental health, go back to school, work part-time from home and support my family. All of this made it possible for me to reconnect with my parents, sister and extended family. I wouldn't have been able to do that without the support, training and livable wage this program has provided.”

While Caty serves community members in vulnerable situations, staff from the host organizations also learn from her. Before participating in the peer navigation program, staff describe attempting to connect community members to local services but finding they were not always equipped with the knowledge and connections to provide meaningful support.

“It’s that feeling of: you want to help people, but you don't know how,” says one of the organizational hosts participating in the program.

“Having the opportunity to learn from a peer has been pretty amazing. I do my job differently because of having the navigator here.”

Creating a culture of belonging

Regardless of the type of supported employment, what becomes clear is the need to focus on belonging and reconnecting with all aspects of individual identity that help people with lived and living experience progress in their healing journeys. These transitions are often transformative, peppered with real ups and downs, but ultimately set folks on a path of greater independence and confidence.

Additionally, another piece of major transition is the organizational and systemic change that has transpired. In Kelowna, we are starting to see a notable shift in the acceptance of peer navigators supporting the organization’s clients. Both staff and vulnerable community members intentionally seek out the peer navigator for their knowledge in navigating the complex system of social supports, and sometimes just simply for their presence. Staff have expressed an interest in continuing more formal training for their teams to expand their skills and understanding.

These stories and transformations continue to inspire us to seek more ways to support transitions related to the care economy. As we recover from a pandemic that shone a light on the importance of the care economy, we should continue to find meaningful opportunities that place people with lived and living experiences at the intersection between employment and healing. This transition is a bright spot in the ongoing struggles within the social serving system. It offers hope to create a culture of belonging where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Erin Welk is co-CEO with Urban Matters CCC, a community consulting firm focused on addressing complex social issues. She translates social impact strategy into grassroots solutions and mobilizes changemakers to scale promising practices into system-shifting policy and programming.