In both advocacy and community, I have been hearing a lot about ‘lived experiences.’ While generally a positive term about showing up with authenticity and reflecting only on what you know and have been through, the term can be over-used, and done so in a harmful way for more powerful voices to speak their lived experiences (or a collective experience) over anothers. Whether you want to call this ‘Oppression Olympics’ or the role the oppressed (in one category – let’s say race) can be very much an oppressor in another (let’s say economic status), conversations often escalate into two separate narratives holding very little space for one another.
I am going to advocate for a new term – ‘heard experiences.’ In my work as a storyteller of immigration stories, I hear a lot of stories. Indeed, part of the role of a lawyer unfortunately is having to translate these stories into the colonial language of immigration laws. Indeed, we often times have to guide our clients into re-framing their stories so they meet very specific tests (be it the Ribic test, or the test for Rehabilitation). Indeed, heard experiences in many legal settings can be classified as ‘hearsay’ and immediately discounted for evidentary and probativ value.
What I am trying to do more of, and encourage others to do as well, is to also de-center our own stories or perhaps rather than use another’s stories as a bridge to one’s one, utilize the act of hearing and holding space to reflect on how to better centre the story that is being told and that you have the privilege of listening to.
Remember, even hearing stories of one’s trauma, hardship, struggles is a privilege. You are given access to someone’s inner secrets, perhaps some that those closest to them do not know. The first step of that should be to reflect and speak your own experiences to try and form an artificial bond. That very mindset of trying to think of how to tie in your own lived experience into someone else’s who may not have given neither the consent to, nor told enough to allow you to do so, can negate or reduce what they seek. We have all been in circles where everyone is asked to share an example of a story, and rather than listening to another’s.
That is why I think the practices of witnessing, which many Indigenous communities practice, is and can be so powerful. If you attend an event with this format, you recognize that the response from the witness is to demonstrate that they have heard the speaker and what they have learned, rather than to immediately input themselves as the focal point.
Implementing Heard Experiences into My Legal Practice
How do I plan to integrate heard experiences into my legal practice? First – by not rushing into consultations and meetings telling clients what they should do before hearing them out. Giving them time to share their story at the outset and expand on any written materials they provided in advance needs to be a starting point. I can acknowledge that especially where we see cases of the same nature repeated, we tend to start cookie cutting and templating processes. This is effective only to a certain extent but does not create the strong client bonds you need to sway a case.
Second, is to ask for clear consent when sharing stories, even where they stories may be themselves anonymous or seem reduceable and redactable. Not only is this a confidentiality obligation, but it is also good to reflect to the storyteller of the bigger impact their story may hold and ask if they wish to share it with a bigger audience.
Third, is to spend much more time journaling privately these experiences. Rather than to make point form notes and connect it to my own past practice or some legal test, start carving lines between what a client has said, what they have presented, who they are, to form a web. Utilize these stories to compare against dominant narratives, but more importantly to contrast. Document where dominant narratives fall short and question the sources. Again (with consent) seek to inspire storytelling through different mediums to try and counterbalance generalized lived experiences, and to encourage acceptance of these. Acknowledge and hold the conflict (and perhaps even disagreement) these may have to your own perspectives but not to automatically and immediately discount them.
I look forward to hearing from more new clients, giving them spaces to share their lived experiences without the judgment or reduction that I, as a listener, too often apply.