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Why Programs Working with At-Risk Individuals Need Lived Experience Experts

The Crucial Role of Lived Experience Experts in Youth Programs Discover the transformative power of Lived Experience Experts (LEEs) in programs for at-risk youth. My latest article delves into how LEEs, with their unique personal insights and relatable backgrounds, significantly enhance the effectiveness of youth-focused initiatives. From offering authentic engagement to ensuring program relevance, LEEs play an integral role in addressing complex social issues like gang involvement, drug addiction, and human trafficking. Their firsthand knowledge and experience create a credible and resonant connection with the youth, fostering meaningful conversations and impactful outcomes. Learn why incorporating Lived Experience Experts is not just beneficial but essential in shaping successful youth programs.

White female mentor instructing young multicultural males

In the realm of social work and community programs, especially those dealing with at-risk individuals, the inclusion of Lived Experience Experts (LEEs) has become increasingly vital. A Lived Experience Expert, as defined by Sandhu (2017), is someone who has personally navigated through specific life situations, providing them with unique insights and understanding. This article delves into the profound impact of integrating LEEs into programs, particularly those focused on youth facing issues like community violence, gang involvement, human trafficking, and drug addiction.

Mixed group of multicultural males and females standing together

Understanding the Role of Lived Experience Experts

Lived experience is not about enduring a situation in real-time; it is a reflective process, where the individual has moved past the experience and can now look back on it with clarity and understanding. For instance, someone with a history of gang involvement would have been actively part of a gang or grown up in a gang-influenced environment but is now removed from that life. The term "Lived Experience Expert" is not new, but its significance has grown in recent years.

The value of LEEs in facilitating programs cannot be overstated. They bring authenticity and relatability to educational and intervention efforts. As detailed by Reingle Gonzalez et al. (2019) and Novotna et al. (2012), firsthand knowledge of complex social issues like gang violence or drug addiction empowers these experts to connect with youth in ways others cannot. They are seen as credible sources, enhancing the likelihood that young people will engage and absorb the information shared.

The Impact of Lived Experience on Program Effectiveness

LEEs contribute significantly to the development and implementation of curricula designed to address these challenging issues. Their involvement ensures that the program content resonates with its intended audience. LEEs' deep understanding of the youth's language, body language, and current trends - aspects often overlooked by others - fosters a deeper connection and understanding (Blum, 2021).

White male and white woman meeting with a group of predominately white students

Involving LEEs in program facilitation not only enhances participants' understanding and improves projected outcomes but also makes the program more relevant and engaging for the youth. This relevance is particularly crucial in areas like gang prevention, where lived experience encompasses a range of connections to gang culture, whether through direct involvement or familial and social connections.

Lived Experience Experts: Beyond Facilitators

The role of LEEs extends beyond mere program facilitation. They embody roles like "Creditable Messenger" and "Community Mentor," offering a beacon of hope and direction to individuals who may feel lost or misunderstood. For many LEEs, the chance to contribute positively to their community is a driving force behind their involvement in these programs.

Group of young and old individuals in a circle comforting one older man


In summary, integrating Lived Experience Experts into programs dealing with at-risk youth is not just beneficial but essential. Their unique perspectives, understanding, and ability to connect with participants on a profound level make them invaluable assets. As programs continue to evolve and seek effective ways to reach and positively influence at-risk youth, the role of LEEs will undoubtedly remain a cornerstone of their success.

Learn more about how to locate, engage, hire, and develop a Lived Experience expert for your organization or mentor group in the Walk With Me Impact facilitators guide.


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