Valuing Lived Experience

In many elite institutions where social innovation and entrepreneurship are taught, educators have noted a common problem: many of their students want to work on problems in which they have no lived experience. While some students are choosing to work on issues that have personally impacted their lives, others are working on problems they haven’t experienced, be that local homelessness and recidivism, or issues impacting people living in emerging markets far from their own homes, such as mini in-home solar systems or sanitation issues in areas with high urban economic poverty. Many times, these issues impact places they have never been or people they have never met.

In Baljeet Sandhu’s report on The Value of Lived Experience and in many of her talks, including her contributions to the Yale convening, she has pointed out that leaders with lived experience of a social problem are often overlooked and undervalued in social impact education. In many social entrepreneurship and design thinking courses, those with lived expertise are often viewed simply as “participants to engage”, “focus group members” or “potential clients” rather than leaders, innovators, and pioneers of change who provide a systems perspective that is often missing from elite classrooms. For social innovation education to be effective we need to start equitably and meaningfully valuing ‘lived expertise’ in social innovation education.
Simply bringing these concepts, terms, and reports into the social innovation classroom can start important conversations on power and equity that are often overlooked or avoided. In many countries, these conversations might be fuelled by a growing public discourse on equity and inclusion, diversity, race, #metoo movements, or populism. The Dunning-Kruger effect highlights a cognitive bias we all face: the less we know about something the simpler it seems. This bias might be why some educators are willing to support student initiatives in foreign countries, countries which neither the educator nor the student intimately understands, yet many educators find it hard to discuss issues related to imbalances of power and inequity in the classroom. Our proximity to these challenges leave us knowing they are complicated, messy, and difficult to shift. However, are we implicit in perpetuating inequity in the world if we avoid these complex challenges.
Here are a few initiatives targeted at shifting the conversations in classrooms to spaces where discussions of equity and social justice are prominent in social innovation discussions and where valuing lived expertise is addressed head on.