As part of National Care Leaver Week, we spoke to lived experience leader and director of strategy for The Care Leaders, Luke Rodgers BEM about what a lived experience leader is, what first inspired him to make a change in the system, and how The Care Leaders are helping other lived experience leaders to do just that.
Luke defines a lived experience leader as someone who has personal experience of something – usually a social issue – and as a result of that experience, has decided to do something positive about it.
“I have an experience of care and because of that experience, I’ve decided I want to work in care,” he says.
Luke believes a lived experience leader comes in two parts: there’s a lived experience leader who just shares their story, and then there’s a lived experience leader who has professional experience.
When it comes to ensuring we nurture and develop lived experience leaders in care, Luke stresses the importance of recognising that a lived experience leader is not solely their story.
“Lots of people will think a lived experience leader is just somebody who’s got a story to share, and will only ever give them an opportunity to share that story, for example, on stage. But what they’re failing to realise is that these lived experience leaders have got talent, skills, and abilities like all of us.
“To nurture them is to therefore give them opportunities that enable them to go beyond their lived experiences. That’s just someone asking ‘what are you good at?’ or ‘what are you interested in?’ Is it marketing, is it writing, is it filmmaking? And then giving them the experiences to be able to develop that.”
“A lived experience leader also needs to be nurtured because if they’re working in the space they have personal experience of, this comes with unique challenges. It’s important that organisations to recognise they need particular therapeutic safeguards, to understand intersectionality and be open to change – to make them feel psychologically safe working environments.”
That being said, Luke believes that it’s that unique lens that gives lived experience leaders an advantage when working to improve social care. “They have direct experience of care so they understand the nuances of it, they understand the stuff that you only understand by living in it every day.”
Like many lived experience leaders, this same lens led Luke to first consider a career working with care-experienced young people. But there was one moment in particular that stood out for him.
Luke, who previously worked as a personal trainer, was asked by a former foster carer to speak at an event about health and fitness for children in care.
“When I went to the event, lots of the kids couldn’t speak English because they were asylum seekers. There were foster carers and young people there, so I didn’t really know what audience I was speaking to either. I just felt quite overwhelmed and quite scared at the prospect of speaking to such a large group of people without the support to doit.”
Luke instead decided to talk about his life story. “While doing the speech, I remember being absolutely petrified and I felt the eyes of one foster carer who was just really engaged. He was welling up.
“All I was talking about was relationships I’d had with people – I didn’t really think it had any value. But the foster carer came up to me afterwards and was blown away. He said ‘you’ve reminded me why I do what I do. I often get bogged down by the system but it’s hearing powerful stories like that that remind me I am making a difference.’
“I remember sitting back and thinking ‘wow, sharing your story can really have an impact’.”
The event Luke was asked to speak at was a statutory event — in other words, something that has to happen by law. The focus was youth engagement.
“The idea was we’re going to get young people to engage in health and fitness activities so they had a photographer there and they took lots of photos. I remember just thinking how tokenistic it was because I was a personal trainer that did a talk on foster care – I didn’t even talk about health and fitness.
“After that speech, I wondered how they could host events that had zero impact whatsoever on children in care but then communicate and make it look like they were.
“Kids deserve to be properly engaged so I decided to do something about it. Since sharing my story seemed to have the biggest impact, that’s what I chose to do.”
The Care Leaders Fellowship is Luke’s most recent venture, together with the rest of The Care Leaders team. It’s a 12-month leadership programme that gives lived and professional experience leaders the opportunity to develop an idea, project, or business that supports children in care in some way.
“There’s no power dynamic and there’s no professional saying “you’ve got lived experience, come and take this opportunity that I’ve defined for you.
“We’re just bringing people together and helping them to develop their ideas.”
While lived experience leaders have lots of great ideas, they are rarely given the skills to develop those ideas in social care.
“Innovation is stifled in children’s social care – it’s a scary word. So giving our fellows the space for 12 months to develop their idea, project, or business, is something we’re really passionate about.”
Fellows on the programme have four residentials that they attend and 24 online workshops and training sessions. Included in the seven modules in the programme are workshops on self-leadership, storytelling, and digital marketing.
Among the Fellowship’s facilitators are Sir John Timpson, CEO and founder of Timpson’s Shoes, Benjamin Perks, head of campaigns and advocacy at the UN, and Maggie Atkinson, former children’s commissioner.
“We’ve got some really big names involved in the programme and their support reiterates to our lived experience leaders that their ideas are valued.”
Luke is also particularly proud of The Care Leavers National Movement, which started as a forum to direct the National House Project (NHP).
Despite local authorities often struggling to get young people involved in things locally, this national movement was a huge success.
“We created a really simple structure to get them involved which was us saying to them ‘this is your forum and you’re going to have full ownership over it. You decide what you want to do, what you want to talk about, you can give it a brand, a name, you can plan a conference to launch the NHP charity, and you can go away on a residential that you’re going to plan’.
“We really just gave them ownership of everything. We had no agenda whatsoever.”
After going on their residential, the young people decided that this was a movement, and so, The Care Leavers National Movement was born.
As well as launching the NHP at a conference that they planned and managed, they decided that the purpose of the movement was to challenge systems. They also wanted to celebrate success stories because they didn’t feel that the perception of care was right.
After working with this group of young people for 18 months, Luke recalls around 14 people on the board in total.
“I think that’s now grown from six local authorities to about 18 local authorities. The most impressive thing, though, is that they lobbied Government for the Digital Poverty Campaign.”
The Digital Poverty Campaign aims to ensure that all care leavers are given access to digital resources when they leave care. This includes having access to a year’s worth of WiFi and a laptop. The group reached out to charities including Catch22 and the Care Leaver Covenant, as well as signing up over 30 organisations to the Keeping Care Leavers Connected Campaign.
“What I really like about that is that lots of these forums start off as a group of young people just getting together and having conversations and people always ask ‘how that is sustainable?’ But they were so strong as a group that they went and lobbied Government.”
Local authorities are now offering digital access to young people when they leave care.
While the campaign was a huge success, Luke says that the challenge continues to be people overcoming their idea of what youth engagement is. “The young people gave authentic feedback, which, at the start, a lot of people in leadership roles found very challenging. They had to overcome their anxiety of young people speaking to their trustees about the reality of what was and wasn’t working.”
Part of the solution to that problem is to change the narrative for care-experienced people.
Lots of them will say they feel stigmatised, labelled and judged in some way. We need to change the narrative because those young people deserve to not feel that way.
Expanding on why that is a problem, Luke emphasises the societal narrative that says care leavers are “challenging” or “badly behaved”. “If people believe that, then this is a barrier to care leavers accessing things like housing, schools and jobs. We need to have a new narrative which is that these young people have got absolute potential and they just need meaningful and loving relationships with people that genuinely care. They need to be given opportunities to develop skills. They deserve to be represented for their individuality, not for their pseudo labels.”
Luke also says it’s important for people to realise that kids in care don’t come into care because of what they’ve done – they come into care because of what’s been done to them. “People in care have exactly the same experiences as many of us – it’s just that we highlight kids in care. We make a big thing of it so that’s partly where the stigma is created but they’re like everyone else. We all experience trauma in our lives at some point.”
If Luke were to give his former self any advice it would be to be more persistent. “Don’t worry about upsetting people in the pursuit of getting what you want. I was a people pleaser and would often just go along with what was happening. But I got into a space where I thought ‘I don’t care if I annoy people because this is what I deserve and this is what I want.’
“My next piece of advice for care leavers is to believe in yourself. This is a difficult one because not believing in yourself comes from a lack of self-esteem, and a lack of self-esteem comes from going through previous experiences where you’ve been made to feel bad. So just know that those experiences will pass, the shame will leave at some point and things will get better.
“It’s also not someone else’s responsibility to make your life better. You have a lot of agency and power in that.
“My final piece of advice is to remember that things can happen later. There’s a lot of pressure care leavers specifically, to think about education and work, whilst thinking about finances, housing, mental health, relationships, and all of a sudden you feel like you have to do everything now.
“Take it from me, you don’t. Take one day at a time, get your feet on the ground and recognise that when you leave care you have agency. It’s not always easy, you are not always dealt a fair hand, but you have choices.”