She didn’t know about the gas card

That sacred kitchen draw.
The bills were piled in there. I say bills, I mean debt collectors demands. The provident loans.
That sacred kitchen draw.
The gas card was in safe in there. What do you know about the gas card?
I remember starting high school and making a couple of new mates in year 7. I’ll never forget when I was invited around for dinner by Bekki. I left school with her one day and went to her house. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was the first time I saw a tiled kitchen floor and not a ripped, poor fitting tile print lino. It was also the first time I ever saw a fridge freezer combo with an ice dispenser at the front. I’ll never forget that fridge.
I left Bekki’s that evening. Dad was late picking me up and I spent about half an hour using their house phone trying to find him and arrange to be collected. I was embarrassed, ashamed and jealous.
I never went to Bekki’s. I was used to going in that kitchen draw and walking up the garage to put a tenner on the gas and leccy card. In fact, I was used to being in the shower when the electric ran out and having to wait for someone to lend mum a tenner, with shampoo spilling all over my face. Bekki didn’t know about the gas card. From then, I stuck to selling fags and bits of weed I nicked from my dad on the back playground, to get some lunch money. Bekki’s house was everything I’d never have, there was no point being friends with someone who had the means to live and do way more than I ever could. I wanted to stick with people who had the gas card.
15 years later I’m leading change through lived experience.
Since the beginning of my blog some 18 months ago, I have been invited to various conferences, universities and schools to ‘share my story’. I have been contacted by various forms of media outlet to ‘share my story’. What does it actually mean for a person with lived experience to share their story? For me it means giving up my anonymity and any chance of living my life without the shadow of a conviction and prison sentence. It means fear for my family who also face the consequences of continued stigmatisation through no fault of their own. It means for ever reflecting on my parenting ability and recognising potential further risk of harm to my daughter, who will forever be cared for and viewed through the lens of a mother who went to prison. It means I enter an online space and receive abuse. It means I enter a classroom and see fear. It means I am vulnerable to judgement and face discrimination and micro aggression often.
It also means I may be seen as an ad hoc, as a political statement or the token expert by experience. I have seen, read and experienced first had the positives and negatives of leading change. It has taken me a while to adjust to a position of leadership however, I am there and finally recognise why I often feel imposter syndrome. It is because society juxtaposes leaders with people who have the gas key. I mean, how many leaders have been stood in a shower when it’s gone off at the same time as the lights, and someone is lighting a candle to dash to the kitchen draw to then walk up the garage with a tenner? Sometimes, all in change?

Experiencing societal oppression and inequality, the prison system, drug use and mental health issues has not lead to an ‘expert by experience’ and we need to reframe the way we view those with lived experience. We hear all the time about ‘managing expectation’ or ‘changing perception’ with groups we may work with. I always use my uni assignments to identify and challenge perception of the prisoner population as I think it is a point of view that is lacking in undergrad work. With this being said, I also think that for anyone who is supporting, sharing and advocating ‘lived experience’ there is a need for managing expectation and perception change within organisation structure and culture.

I wonder whether my invites to share my story have been due to a recognition of my ability to lead change or simply because I am an ex prisoner?
I have identified that there is a generic view of ex-prisoners who share their story as ‘motivational’ ‘inspirational’ ‘change-makers’ ‘brave’ …. But here we are missing all of the traits, attributes and skills that are built up by adversity and ultimately result in the ability to lead change. When we use these words as descriptors we are (maybe unconsciously, maybe not) underestimating, undermining and misrepresenting leaders with lived experience, potentially due to a power threat or an unrealistic perception of their abilities. How many organisations have ‘lived experience’ support worker roles? How many organisations have lived experience leadership roles? What message is this sending? We would love to use your story online…. Volunteer with us, apply for the support worker role…. But a leader of the organisation…. Oh no!
Are we only valued up to a certain point? Can we only make it to a certain level? Are we asking people who claim to be ‘a voice’ why we are not hearing from a lived experience leader’s voice?
We should be.
Leaders have the gas cards, and if they don’t anymore, they are lending the tenners!

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