Kellie Ziemba: Charities must recognise the immense value of lived experience

My past enables me to amplify the voices of the women my organisation supports – speaking as someone who has been there

Content warning: This article contains references to domestic abuse, sexual violence and exploitation, trauma, addiction, self-harm, eating disorder and mental distress. 

Kairos Women Working Together is an organisation that supports, advocates for and empowers women who face multiple disadvantage and are subject to or at risk of sexual exploitation. 

As chief executive of the organisation, I have made it a strategic objective to put women with lived experience at the heart of all we do.

In practice, this has not only led to exploring how we actively involve the women we support in co-production and steering the organisation, but also how we honour and utilise our own lived experiences to fuel the passion with which we work and to inform our practice. 

By the time I was 25 years old, I had endured relentless trauma throughout my young life.

At the time, I was living in poverty and subject to horrific domestic abuse and sexual exploitation.

The resulting mental distress felt as though it was eating me alive. 

I was not there for my kids and was consumed with guilt and shame. The only way I knew how to cope was to starve myself, self-harm, or escape into substances.

I lived each day – each hour – in survival mode. 

My journey of recovery was not a simple or linear process. But one of the most crucial factors was that I was able to access specialist women’s services, such as Kairos, where I found the sisterhood I needed to start to heal from the trauma of male violence.

It is such a privilege to now lead Kairos and support women just like me to build fulfilled lives, free from violence, abuse and exploitation. 

I have only recently started to learn how to use my "lived experience voice”, with the aim of influencing positive change for marginalised, abused and exploited women.

For many years as I built my career, I was led to believe that my professional self should be kept completely separate from my personal self.

In many work settings, women who openly identified as having some kind of “lived experience” were seen as a risk, viewed with a sense of suspicion and closely monitored.

I would hear other managers say: “She’s only here to heal her own trauma, keep an eye on her,” or: “Watch her, she may struggle to set appropriate boundaries,” or: “I’m concerned she has not healed from her past.”

It certainly did not feel safe to bring my whole self to work.

I felt so much shame about my past and that deep down I was utterly defective.

Constantly trying to hide the vulnerable, traumatised part of myself was exhausting and made me feel like an imposter among the “real” professionals. 

But now I see the absolute gift that my lived experience is.

I can speak from a unique perspective on the issues that impact women – amplifying the voices of those we support at Kairos and speaking directly from my heart, my truth, and from my valuable expertise as a woman who has been there. 

Over the past few years at Kairos we have built a culture where lived experience is truly welcomed and valued.

My top tips for this begin with actively recruiting people with lived experience.

We changed our recruitment practices to be more open and welcoming and so not to exclude women who may not have the education or work experience typically required for the role. 

It is also vital to invest heavily in staff wellbeing.

We do this through the provision of access to personal counselling, external clinical supervision, group reflective practice sessions, weekly paid wellbeing hours and an annual wellbeing break for all. 

Finally, create a safe space for staff and volunteers to reflect on and openly discuss how their own “stuff” affects their work.

At Kairos we recognise that we are all on our own personal journeys.

It’s a fallacy to think anyone can or should divide themselves into separate parts for the sake of “being professional”. 

As one of our team members recently said: “Kairos is the only workplace where I have felt psychologically safe enough to be my true self. I can be both a professional and have trauma and flaws.” 

I encourage all organisations to think about the value of encouraging people with lived experience to bring their whole selves to work.

Our unique perspectives offer valuable insights and strengthen the collective experience within the team. 

Kellie Ziemba is the chief executive of Kairos Women Working Together

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