by Katy Goldstraw
26th July 2021

The APLE Collective is a national collective of individuals seeking to eradicate poverty. Our new book details our participatory activism during the last year of COVID-19 lockdowns, demanding a voice and questioning what it means to be heard.

Addressing poverty with lived experience: what does this mean in a pandemic? As the first lockdown was announced in March 2020 and the UK government began daily policy announcements, based on the knowledge that existed within the Westminster bubble on that day, in that moment, there emerged an almost exclusively digital response to the pandemic. APLE (Addressing Poverty with Lived Experience) Collective members, familiar with community face-to-face meetings and conversations over participatory activities were immediately pushed online. It was obvious that among the APLE Collective members, there was a digital divide. Some APLE members owned laptops and had access to broadband packages; others were trying to join meetings on their phone with limited functionality and using much of their data package in the process. Other APLE members didn’t have any digital technology as they hadn’t needed it before now. The digital divide became a campaign focus for APLE.

APLE members are led by their experiences. It became immediately obvious that for those living on a low income, the digital divide was complex, and reflected the intersectionality of inequality that already existed, exacerbating these and creating new inequalities. APLE Collective members from RAPAR (Refugee and Asylum Participatory Action Research) found that as asylum seekers they were using over half their weekly allowance simply to communicate with legal representatives. APLE Collective members from the Poverty Truth Community were facing financial premiums as a result of needing to get online to home-school their children but not having access to credit, and so were forced to purchase digital devices from less reputable sellers. Some APLE Collective members from Thrive Teesside had no access to digital devices at all and were unable to get public health information or basic supplies as they were fearful of leaving the house. These examples of digital exclusion are the foundation of something broader, for to be digitally excluded is to be silenced. If you have used all your data accessing websites to home-school your daughter, if you have used all your weekly allowance speaking to your solicitor to progress your asylum case, then you don’t have any data left to engage in activism. In a locked-down world, those who are digitally excluded are silenced.

APLE Collective began socially distanced activism online and, when restrictions permitted, in person, campaigning to have our voices heard. Socially Distanced Activism details our participatory approaches to building a voice and critically discusses the meaning of the term ‘lived experience’ in a pandemic setting. Having our voices heard is not just about speaking out but about being listened to. Being listened to is about going beyond storytelling, about being involved in analysing our stories and seeking epistemic justice by working in partnership with those who have influence to seek solutions.

Our book is collaboratively authored and edited by people who have lived experience of poverty. For APLE Collective, the term ‘lived experience’ – sometimes used tokenistically to fill a funder’s tickbox – is about an ethical commitment to valuing the expertise gained from living on a low income. It is about a philosophical commitment to the equality of experiential knowledge alongside other practitioner and academic knowledge sets.

The book details the journey that APLE Collective has taken through the pandemic to campaign against the digital divide and address digital exclusion using participatory approaches within the Collective. Thrive Teesside writes about Thriving Women, discussing through poetry the experience of women living on a low income and the effect the pandemic has had on gender roles. ATD Fourth World writes about its work globally to address the digital divide, discussing the importance of lived experience in addressing epistemic injustice. Expert Citizens write about how what began as community research became about building community and relationships as the pandemic hit. Keep Talking Hardship developed creative communication approaches that reflected locked-down lives in the local area.

The book concludes with a formula for activism based upon three principles for change:

Taking voice seriously: for change making

Our Collective is about meaningful conversations that take our voices to the seats of power. It’s about being actively listened to, for positive changes to occur as a result of hearing our message.

Taking voice seriously: as an epistemic necessity

Campaigns grounded in the voices of lived experience have the potential for transformative impact. There have been endless campaigns and policies aimed at solving poverty. These campaigns and policies could succeed if they actively incorporated the voice of people with lived experience of poverty.

Taking voice seriously: as a collective action

To share personal experiences and insights, expressing how poverty feels should guide action against injustices. Acting upon this collective voice is to open our hearts and minds to overcome the barriers that trap people in poverty through cocreating constructive and sustainable solutions.

Recognising the expertise gained through lived experience of poverty is about decolonising hierarchies of knowledge, and working collaboratively using participatory processes to find workable policy solutions that address poverty. Only by listening to the voices of people with lived experience can we solve poverty.

Katy Goldstraw is the APLE Collective Administrator and Senior Lecturer in Health and Social Care at Staffordshire University.

Researching Happiness cover

Socially Distanced Activism: Voices of Lived Experience of Poverty During COVID-19 by Katy Goldstraw, Tracey Herrington, Thomas Croft, Darren Murrinas, Nicola Gratton and Diana Skelton is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £5.59.

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