Power and change: leadership, lived experience and coproduction

by the Arts & Social Outcomes Network

This  is a joint blog conceived by a small group of networks, all focused on socially engaged creative and cultural work: Age of Creativity, Arts & Homelessness International, Counterpoints Arts, the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance, the Happy Museum project, Hear Me Out, the LENs (lived experience network), the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance (NCJAA), and Unchained Poetry.


At a recent WhatNext? meeting the cultural thinker Suzanne Alleyne asked this question of Arts Minister Lord Parkinson:

As we know, there is a very small subset of society that holds power in the publicly funded arts sector. Research shows that human beings fundamentally don’t like change, and that often those in power do not want to share it with those who don’t have access to it. What do you think the steps are that we need to take together to change this?

Our organisations have been built on the idea that power dynamics can change. Like many of you, we want to work out how to share what power we do have. As networks we are also all about collaboration. Thinking about what we might usefully do together, we realised that we shared a desire to ensure that the work is led by the people who understand the need for it best. A shorthand for this might be ‘leadership by lived experience’. Our first step was to explore where we are all at with this work – and to share an example of an organisation or project we feel is leading the way. This blog describes what we discussed and is a way for us to share our own messy experiences as we try to build or change our organisations. 


The LENs

The LENs is an organisation entirely led by lived experience; it was founded by a group of people involved with an All-Party Parliamentary Group enquiry into ‘Creative Health’ in 2017, to ensure that the voices of those with lived experience remain at the heart of the arts, health and wellbeing movement. Thus far it’s a voluntary organisation working with the support of the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance, on a journey to becoming independent and resourced. One challenge on this journey has been finding Directors with the capacity and skills to build an organisation – weighing up the need for lived experience with the other skills you might want in a Director; perhaps even understanding that many people will have lived experience they are unwilling to share. Finding board members has been an issue for many organisations recently – the pandemic has increased the strain on voluntary resources – but this may be compounded by layering it with lived experience; we know there is a huge crossover between economic and social deprivation and chronic illness, for example. There is simply less capacity out there, and also perhaps less confidence.



Like Age of Creativity, the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance came about through networks of delivery organisations. It is now particularly interested in developing place-based, peer networks that can build trust between people with different skills and experiences. Its priorities are grassroots, local organisations which are very often led by lived experience; this is where innovation has always come from. A recent CHWA survey of arts and mental health practice showed that 40% of the people working in this area start programmes of work for others because of their own experience of the benefits of creative work for mental health. This is a real opportunity to learn more about how we might sustain mental health, and about how cultural work can be re-designed, and co-designed to be relevant and transformative.

The LENs is a crucial partner for CHWA, and acts as a critical friend while CHWA provides some infrastructural support. It also has lived experience threaded through its own membership and CHWA’s regional champions buddy with LENs colleagues around the country to build regional networks. It acts as a broker for new relationships with the LENs, for example with funding organisations, research or policymakers. The LENs are observers at CHWA Board meetings. One of the things CHWA is constantly approached to do is speak publicly, or recommend speakers. Where possible we either share the opportunity with someone with lived experience or pass it on. We also prioritise recommendations of lived-experience led organisations. I have some anxiety about the fact that the LENs is a separate organisation, rather than intrinsic to CHWA but can also see there are advantages to a purely lived experience led organisation. Like Arthur (above) I think there is a lot of unacknowledged lived experience – especially in relation to mental health, and we do what we can to support more open conversations about this and to model that in the way we structure our events, offering mental health support to attendees at our last conference for example, or ensuring we create spaces that feel caring, and creative.


The National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance (NCJAA) is a thematic network, of over 900 individuals and organisations working in the arts, embedded within Clinks – an organisation supporting voluntary sector organisations working in criminal justice.

Clinks actively encourages people to apply for roles if they have lived experience of the criminal justice system and/or protected characteristics. This is not something we pay lip service to, we actively do not ask for disclosure, no matter what the conviction, at application stage, during the recruitment process or at any time of during a person’s employment.

For Clinks, this is a vital part of being an inclusive employer.  We represent a sector that actively supports people with lived experience and we believe in finding the right person, with the right skills, for our roles. A past criminal record does not define a person.

We carry out a staff equalities survey every two years. This is anonymously completed and gives us a chance to see how we are doing in all areas of inclusion, diversity and equality. This supports us to understand who we have working at Clinks and what needs we should cater for in terms of employee support groups and safe spaces. From this, we can confidently and proudly state that a quarter of our workforce have lived experience of the criminal justice system; actively co-producing and delivering our aims and output as an organisation.

Clinks’ approach to the recruitment of people with lived experience of the criminal justice system remains a rarity amongst employers and we are keen to encourage others, especially but not limited to those organisations in the criminal justice system, to adopt similar ways of working. 

We are keen to understand the role of lived experience in our membership and within the NCJAA network, especially larger, established organisations who deliver creative work in criminal justice settings. Lived experience involvement is often talked about within the sector but can be limited to consultative or tokenistic approaches. As a network we would like to see more people with lived experience leading the delivery of creative work in criminal justice settings.


Unchained Poetry is lived experience – led by Lady Unchained (Brenda Birungi), the organisation often has to refuse poets wanting to perform who have no criminal justice system (CJS) experience. It has also now opened up to people who have experienced domestic violence, considering prevention a core aspect of its aims. Lady Unchained works as a host and producer for National Prison Radio – where most producers have lived experience. Like the NCJAA, Brenda has concerns about some organisations who remain exclusionary of people with CJS experience through being insensitive in the way they communicate – or even undermining people’s confidence by expressing shock at CJS experience. These organisations need to go to the spaces where people with lived experience are, rather than bringing people in as temporary fixes… Brenda has herself been the token lived experience person, and wants to change this by building a network of people with lived experience that supports skills development. This is essential to move beyond perpetual labelling and stigmatisation, being able to move on. There is also more work to be done to connect statutory services with third sector organisations.


Age of Creativity isn’t yet led by lived experience but, like many other organisations, they are focussed on the power dynamic of delivery and challenging the status quo. When the work began in 2013, it wasn’t created in direct consultation with older people, but through convening delivery organisations (arts/ age organisations working with older people). The last 18 months has been a time of soul-searching for the organisation and its Director, Farrell Renowden. Age of Creativity is now committed to all work being led by older people – but more specifically older people who lack agency or equity of access to culture and creativity, taking time to seek out the voices of those who don’t participate and ask why. The organisation has now created a network of Age Friendly Creative Ambassadors: putting their voices at heart of leadership decisions; and taking a step back from existing plans to revisit and re(co)design them with this group. 

It can be challenging for many funders and partners to get their head around the need to do this when the organisation already focusses on engagement, but the pandemic has exposed more opportunities to respond to growing inequalities and increase power-sharing with older people, so the Director is already having difficult conversations. The structure in which they operate is inherently hierarchical and complex, as part of a wider organisation, so they can’t change power issues in staffing structures, but their influence is filtering outside AoC itself and becoming evident in new strategic plans and large scale projects.


Arts & Homelessness International (AHI)

Most social issues are about power and inequality; the Director of AHI is very aware of existing at the apex of privilege and his own possible complicity in this. His previous experience in this sector has been of working with traditional structures, although everything artistically was cocreated – and he never felt happy with tension between traditional charity structure and power issues. The last ten years has seen an unstoppable momentum in cocreation within arts and homelessness, and AHI has been set up to be co-created from the start: 50% of the Board and staff have lived experience and practical steps like flexibility of hours, joint decision-making and well-being plans inform the way the organisation works.  

AHI takes an asset-based approach – people who have experienced trauma of homelessness bring assets to the sector, in terms of huge resilience, empathy, risk-taking ability, networking and communication skills. This is now built into its recruitment. 

As the global arts and homelessness network, they works across three main audiences, policy, projects/orgs and people who are/have been homeless, aiming to normalise arts and creativity and co-creation into the sector. They have been working with local authorities on policy co-creation through Legislative Theatre to destabilise power structures and are about to launch the sector’s first Leadership Programme for creatives who are/have been homeless. Currently 30% of the organisation’s turnover now goes into pockets of homeless people which is likely to increase this year. Lastly, as a Director without lived experience, Matt will be joined by colleague David Tovey to become Co-Directors this year. Matt admits that AHI is far from being an expert in co-creation but are part of a group of passionate orgs advocating for and trying to model this approach for the sector.


Counterpoints Arts

Founded in 2012, Counterpoints Arts is a charity based in London that works across the UK and internationally. In the past 10 years we have become established as a leading strategic organisation on the arts, migration and social change with long-term funding from bodies including Arts Council England, Unbound Philanthropy, Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Our mission is to support and produce the arts by and about migrants and refugees, seeking to ensure that their contributions are recognized and welcomed within our arts, history and culture. Central to our mission is our belief that arts can inspire social change and enhance inclusion & cultural cohesion. We work across all art forms and collaborate with a range of people and partners, including artists, arts/cultural and educational organizations and civil society activists.

Informing all our work are a set of core beliefs, regularly reviewed and tested for relevance. They include that:

  • Art can inspire social change
  • Everything we do is delivered in collaboration with partners
  • Migration is an integral part of our everyday life and as such should be normalised and amplified in all its historic and contemporary richness
  • Displacement can be both a traumatic and transformative experience
  • Refugees and migrants bring potential to their communities
  • There is civic power in the act of learning together
  • First-hand experience of migration & displacement informs all aspects of our work.

Our Director (and co-founder) is from a refugee background as are others in our team. We have a long-running commitment that at least 70% of our commissions and programming is with artists from refugee and migrant backgrounds. Many of the artists we work with have a participatory approach where co-creation is central to their process.

We have co-created a set of principles to guide this kind of work: The Platforma Manifesto.

We have also run leadership programmes for people from refugee background, to give them opportunities, mentoring and peer support.


The Happy Museum project

Happy Museum focuses on sharing ownership and encourages museums to work from the basis of mutual benefit (give and gain) with their volunteers, audiences, participants and staff alike.  Building on two of our principles, Pursue Mutual Relationships and Encourage Active Citizenship we explore how museum staff and public can work together, with different expertise but equal status, to achieve common outcomes such as making a sustainable and flourishing locality in which to live and work. 

The pandemic has exposed our interdependence – locally, nationally and globally - and our approaches to it and other looming crises must engage the full diversity of contributions in order to succeed.

Since our launch in 2012 our commissions have tested new ways of collaborative working such as Human-Centered Design at Derby Silk Mill, site of the world’s first factory – where instead of hiring designers to lead a major refurbishment they hired design facilitators  who used a process called Human Centered Design to co-produce the museum with the local community. Thousands of local people were involved with the project, contributing 35,000 hours in shared endeavour and the subsequent Museum of Making opened its doors in 2021.  The work had tangible impacts on participants as they learnt new skills and built community and the museum believe that habiltualising participation makes their organisation more responsive to their community and more reflective in their attitudes and organisational culture. 

Our Affiliates have experimented with a range of models of co-production for social change including therapeutic models at the Museum of Homelessness, The Art of Invitation at the Museum of Now and Scratch – a theatre-based approach at Battersea Arts Centre.


Hear Me Out

Hear Me Out has been making music in UK Immigration Detention Centres since 2006. We work with artists and people held in detention to make sound tracks which we record in detention and platform to the world, in as many ways as possible. 

Our artistic work is always co-created. Detention strips agency, co-creation creates empowerment and makes space for people to lead, create, assert and express themselves.  We also work with people who have recently been released from Immigration Detention, which includes consultation, running a touring band for musicians we met in detention and we are now creating ongoing support programmes. 

Through this work and organisational commitment to Black Lives Matter, we are now looking at the necessity of power-sharing and the opportunity this brings to transform our work and its impact.  As an organisation, we have committed to developing co-creation across our structures as well as our artistic output, ensuring decision-making flows from a combination of lived experience and organisational know how.  This means finding ways for power to be authentically shared with the people we are here to support, and changing how our governance, our board and our staff team operate.

We’re still at the early stages of this and are beginning to bring lived experience into our team and trustees. We are changing recruitment processes and fundraising narratives, devising procedures to help us support the complicated challenges  the people we work with face and to learn from them. We are also rethinking how we can counter patronage, to ensure agency.  

There are many challenges and few prescriptive solutions. Co-creation for us is linked to trauma-informed practice and trust, we know we need to make challenges and create safety as well as a continuing to ensure authenticity.  A big asset for us, as we grapple with these challenges, is our extraordinary team of artists,  who have been working in these ways since our inception.


A postscript about the Collective Power Award

CHWA collaborates with The LENs and the Ideas Alliance on the Collective Power Award, which aims to recognise an inspiring project, consortium, collective or movement of people in which meaningful partnership and co-production has improved the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities through culture and creativity.  

To find out more and to apply for the CHWA Awards 2022 - Collective Power Award, click here