ANQA entrepreneurs pose in an urban outdoor setting

Image: ANQA collective photographed by Frederic Aranda

On 17 February 2021, over 140 members of the Refugee Week community gathered online to ask what more we can do to support leadership by refugees and people seeking sanctuary within our movement.

Part of the Refugee Week Slow Conference, ‘Who Decides? Supporting Lived Experience Leadership’ followed several workshops on the topic that we have held in recent years, all of which have had large turnouts. We know that the Refugee Week network believes passionately in leadership roles going to people from refugee backgrounds, and we also know that they/ we often face challenges in helping this happen in reality.

We hoped this workshop would help us share some practical ways that we can support lived experience leadership in our different contexts, as well as developing our understanding of the wider issues around power and representation in our movement.

At the national level, Counterpoints Arts has run two Refugee Week leadership programmes for emerging leaders with lived experience of displacement (supported by Ben & Jerry’s Foundation), and in November 2020 we founded a new Advisory Group with the aim of broadening the range of voices that inform Refugee Week at the national level. We are proud of these initiatives and also recognise that we have more to do.

This piece draws on the reflections on lived experience leadership shared by the speakers at ‘Who Decides?…’, along with examples and insights shared by attendees. The speakers at the workshop were:

  • Ali Torabi, Refugee/ Programme Manager Rights & Justice – Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (Chair)
  • Loraine Masiya Mponela, Chairperson, Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group (CARAG)
  • Fred Kastner, Director of Social Innovation at TERN
  • Salani Mutseyami, Former Chair of Nottingham Refugee Week & Refugee Week Leadership Group 2019
  • Almir Koldzic, Director of Counterpoints Arts

This is not a comprehensive guide on supporting lived experience leadership, but we hope it will be a useful resource as we collectively consider the change we want to make in our movement, and how we can bring it about. For further reading, we suggest Baljeet Sandhu’s Lived Experience Leadership Report, available on the LEx Movement’s website.

Starting Points

All transformative social movements have been led by people most affected by the issue. Lived experience leadership is not just about representation – it’s about building a movement that can really change things.

We must constantly ask ourselves where the lived experience leaders are in our sector and movement, and what barriers are preventing them reaching leadership positions.

Living through war, persecution, exile and the asylum system gives people an insight and knowledge that cannot be otherwise learned. As a sector and movement, we must recognise the value of this expertise and not view it as secondary, e.g. to technical or professional knowledge.

At the same time, we must beware of holding lived experience above all else, and should not assume that, just because someone is from a refugee background, they are the right person for a given role.

Giving someone an opportunity to lead – to hold power and make decisions – is different to giving them a platform to ‘share their story’. A leader’s first-hand knowledge of displacement will inform their work, but that doesn’t mean they need to talk about it – or use the ‘refugee’ label – in every context.

We cannot walk alone. We all have a role to play in creating change, and our movement is strengthened through the alliances and partnerships we build. Our movement should be welcoming to all, and the expertise and work of those without lived experience must also be valued.

Lived experience leaders come from a wide range of backgrounds and have different levels of experience. People who have recently arrived may want to lead, but we should also consider people who have had years to build their experience and expertise in the UK – and ask where these people are in the leadership of our projects and organisations.

Pushing people to lead when they are not ready can do more harm than good. Leadership is a journey and people need support to get to a position where they can lead, especially when they face significant barriers.

Nurturing Leadership

Promoting lived experience leadership within our movement is not about waiting for the right person to ‘turn up’, but rather supporting people to become leaders. Language and cultural barriers, discrimination, poverty and mental health are among the reasons refugees and people seeking sanctuary may face a tougher road to leadership, and require targeted support.

While ‘enabling participation’ should not be confused with supporting leadership, meeting people’s basic needs is a vital first step. As Loraine Mponela said at the session, “I can’t do this work in the street”. To be in a position where they can take responsibility for a project, people may need practical support, for example food and travel expenses, or support accessing technology.

Nurturing leadership is a long-term project, and may start with building relationships of trust within a network, for example through regular support/ social gatherings. Once relationships have been established, opportunities can be offered based on people’s existing skills and interests (for example a chef might lead a cooking event).

Perhaps the most significant type of support that can be offered is training and opportunities to develop experience. This could mean creating targeting opportunities, making existing opportunities more accessible or passing on opportunities that come our way. We must remember the power of our networks and ask how we can share this out.

Finally, we can elevate and amplify the work of lived experience leaders by promoting their work, nominating them for awards and helping them make useful connections.

Questions to Consider

Things to think about when considering how to support lived experience leadership:

  • What roles should people have in a given project? Who should be leading, and who should be in a supporting role? Think not just about who can lead, but who ought to lead.
  • What is our intention in encouraging someone with lived experience to lead? Is it the right thing for the person at this time, or is our main motivation elsewhere (e.g. pleasing a funder)?
  • Can/ should we widen our notion of who has ‘lived experience’? Someone who is dealing with the challenges of having recently arrived in the UK may not be in a position to lead (although we shouldn’t assume this). Might some roles be better suited to someone more established here? If so, do we need to look outside our existing networks to find this person?
  • Are we assuming someone is right for a role just because they have lived experience?
  • What support do people need – to lead a given project, or (more long-term) to become leaders?
  • How can we value the expertise and work of everyone involved?
  • How are we asking people to ‘carry’ their lived experience? In what context do they want to ‘share their story’, if at all? Are they happy with the way their experience and role is being described?


Here are some examples of approaches to enabling lived experience leadership.

They will not all be possible in every context, and we are not saying that any of these alone necessarily ‘resolves’ the issue of who holds power, which is a question we should continue to ask ourselves, as organisations and projects, and in our movement as a whole.

However, we hope they will be useful examples of practical steps we can take in our journey towards making the change we want to see.

Leadership Programmes

Supporting people to overcome barriers and grow into leadership roles. Could involve training, mentoring, work experience and opportunities to lead projects.


Refugee Week Leadership Project

TERN’s Champions programme

Specific Roles

Creating roles that either specify or place value on lived experience. This could include valuing things like language skills.

Example: Detention Action Lived Experience Campaigns Coordinator role

Board of Trustees and Advisory Groups

Ensuring people with lived experience are on an organisation’s board, or setting up an Advisory Group where people with lived experience are represented.


Refugee Week Advisory Group

Freedom From Torture ‘Trustee who is a refugee’ vacancy

Inviting External People into Decision-Making Processes

Recruiting people with lived experience to join interview panels or make commissioning decisions.

Example: Counterpoints Arts’ selection panel for their ‘To love, care, breathe … as acts of justice’ open call

Holding Yourself to Account

Writing representation of lived experience (and other forms of diversity) into policies.

Example: TERN has a target of becoming 51% refugee-led by 2023.

Your Experience

We hope to continue, as a network, to continue this conversation and keep sharing our learning on supporting lived experience leadership.

Get in touch to share your experiences: What has worked well in terms of developing lived experience leadership? What challenges have you faced? What questions do you have? What observations have you made? What support or resources do you need? Your responses will help us learn more about what we can do to support lived experience leadership within Refugee Week, and contribute to our collective knowledge on this issue.

You can also join The Refugee Week and Platforma network googlegroup, an email list where you can share questions and learning with others working on similar projects – sign up here.