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The Power of Lived Experience: A Conversation with Nicholas Wennington
By Emily Lam
When I found out that I would have an opportunity to interview Nick, I did not know what to expect or how to prepare. Nick previously experienced homelessness for 10 years and struggled with addiction and mental health issues. As an Older Person with Experiences of Homelessness (OPEH) advisor for our research project, Aging in the Right Place (AIRP), Nick’s lived expertise is critical to the work that we do.
I began with a list of possible questions that I could ask him. Questions like “How did you get involved with this research project?” or “What’s your favourite part about working with this research project?”, but I soon realized that these would only scratch the surface of Nick’s wealth of knowledge and experience. Based on what I had read about Nick and his work on addiction and homelessness, I came to realize that his vast life experiences contributed to who he is today, and his hopes, dreams, and projects related to improving the lives of others. How could I possibly capture that in a couple questions? How could I dig deep and ask illuminating questions? So, I did what I do best. I decided to wing it, well for the most part. I went in with an open mind and open heart, and that provided an opportunity for me to facilitate an in-depth and rich discussion with Nick.
While my meeting with Nick proved to be more of a conversation and less of an interview, I was able to walk away from it with newfound knowledge and understanding. A significant theme that emerged from our conversation was the importance and power of lived experience in making impactful change. When asked what his “why” was, he replied immediately, “I share to make change… knowledge can open doors to make change.” For this particular project, AIRP, Nick indicated having spaces specifically for older adults, and the importance of sharing knowledge between generations. Older adults have accumulated an invaluable wealth of life experience that can help younger generations thrive. Although young adults or adolescents are growing up in a different era filled with technology and easy access to information, we are at risk of losing the rich and nuanced details on the unique experiences of older generations. Aging in the right place for Nick means recognizing the value of lived experience and how it can contribute to the well-being of each other.
In fact, Nick lives true to his word and is constantly using his lived expertise to help others. He became involved with the AIRP project through previous involvements with research studies such as the At Home Project and as a lived experience advisor with various research projects, committees, and conferences. He is also currently head of the Persons with Lived or Living Experience of Homelessness for the Community Advisory Board of Metro Vancouver. His belief in being deeply connected to the community is translated to his practice, where he has built a strong network with community members and services. When asked whether it was challenging to speak on his lived experience of homelessness, mental health struggles, and addiction, he revealed that he finds power and strength in sharing his adverse and very diverse experience.
Nick is currently working on multiple projects to help those who are experiencing homelessness. His hope is to one day create peer support networks to streamline services, such as applications to housing supports or rehabilitation for substance use in order to make them more accessible. In addition, through this network, peers can help people who are experiencing homelessness in completing their taxes, connecting with family members, and even engaging in meaningful research studies and data collection. Because OPEH have often already created rich community connections, they can potentially be better suited to comfortably interview or collect data from other people who are experiencing housing issues. All of these initiatives led by those with lived experience of homelessness can not only offer rich findings, but also program outcomes.
Nick also believes that OPEH can provide opportunities for learning for young children who are in school. He mentioned a tour across Canada with other persons with lived experiences of homelessness to share stories about homelessness, mental health struggles, and substance use. He sees schools as important hubs for children to connect with older adults with diverse experiences and adds that children can benefit from having trusting relationships with older adults who are looking to share their rich life experience.
Through my conversation with Nick, I am better able to understand how crucial lived experience is for understanding issues, research, and informing policy. Nick’s active commitment and drive to ensure marginalized voices are heard inspires me to look at my own involvement in research and appreciate how lived experience is integral to the goals of our project. Our conversation also encouraged me to reflect on my own lived experience and adversity and see it as not only a valuable source of knowledge to be shared, but also a powerful agent of change. Most importantly, I am appreciative of a chance to connect with an open mind and an open heart who has taught me so much in so little time. Near the end of our conversation, I asked Nick what was something that no one ever asks him. He replied, “How was your day?” While lived experience of homelessness, mental health issues and more, are important in making change in research, in policy, and in life, we cannot forget that first and foremost, we are humans who yearn for connection and to be heard. That is the essence of lived experience after all.