Planning work with Experts by Experience & developing how we hold space

May 10, 2023
Explore, Adapt, Renew
Lizzie Hobbs
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Lizzie Hobbs

Refugee Action recently ran two courses aimed at refugee and migrant sector organisations who are also on a journey to shift power to people with lived experience. Participants reflected on what they’d learnt and what they’d take away. We are sharing these reflections to show the importance of dedicating time and space for doing this work and the value in coming together to develop new skills and learn from each other.

One of the ambitions of the Explore, Adapt, Renew programme is to transform the role of Experts by Experience within the sector, & to centre and embed their knowledge, experience and voice in all aspects of service design & delivery, advocacy & community development.
Refugee Action recently ran two courses aimed at refugee and migrant sector organisations who are also on a journey to shift power to people with lived experience. 
  1. The first was a pilot course focused on supporting organisations to develop a project to include people with lived experience.
  2. The second course focused on developing facilitation skills, learning about the role of a facilitator and how to create space where people feel able to speak and can be heard.

After each course, participants reflected on what they’d learnt and what they’d take away. We are sharing these reflections here to show the importance of dedicating time and space for doing this work and the value in coming together to develop new skills and learn from each other. 

Thank you to all the participants who took part and for the helpful feedback that we will use to improve the courses for others. In particular, building more spaces for sharing and discussing this work and creating opportunities for people with lived experience to co-deliver the training.  

Get involved 

We will be running similar courses again in the future. If they sound like something your organisation would benefit from, or you'd like to discuss shifting power work more generally. Please get in touch: lorae@refugee-action.org.uk 

Developing a project to include Experts by Experience 

Over three weeks, participants were guided through a ‘discovery, ideation, prioritisation, planning’ process, coming together and working independently to create a project plan that will work for their organisation.

The 10 organisations that took part were: PRAXIS, Bradford Rape Crisis, Haringey Migrant Support Centre, Notre Dame Refugee Centre, RAMFEL, Hope Projects, Refugee Action, Hibiscus Initiatives, Joining Communities Together, Spectrum Rainbow Community. 

What organisations told us they gained: 

  • A practical understanding of the different ways to centre people with lived experience
  • Clarity on how to advance this work
  • Learning how to plan and develop a project, and implement with local communities
  • A sense of togetherness and learning from each other
  • Work skills and the use of collaborative tools (Miro) 
“It really helped me to structure my planning and to develop my ideas into more substantial plans. It was extremely useful, and having insight into other people's plans meant that I thought about different aspects which I might not have considered before.”

Learning and insights

Out of 8 respondents, 5 people said they were supported ‘well’, and 3 said they were supported ‘really well’, on their journey to ‘shift power’ to people with lived experience of the asylum and immigration systems.

What participants found most useful

Partners found that the [project planning] template and practical tools were really helpful. The MIRO board helped to set out the issues and areas the partners should be thinking about, offering clarity, and provided an accessible tool for sharing the plans with colleagues and funders. 

Working together was beneficial, allowing for more focused and dedicated time than when working independently.

Participants also found engagement with peers in the sector useful, as well as the sharing session where experiences could be shared within the group. The discussions about ideas and concepts around empowering humanity were appreciated.

“The discussions with other similar organisations were also very helpful, just having the space to talk through ideas and find out how other projects were being delivered/designed.” 

Reflections and challenges

One of the top challenges for organisations is addressing the challenge of internal capacity. Most teams are small and under-resourced and the thinking and planning time needed for this work is often swallowed up by trying to meet demand for essential services. Putting time aside to do this course is part of some organisations’  efforts to prioritise this area and undergo strategic change to become more user-led.  

Another challenge that organisations explored was how people’s involvement is often negatively affected by changes in circumstances associated with their immigration status. Participants on the course built into their plans; flexibility, opportunities for people to be involved at different levels of intensity and time dedicated to understanding individual needs and circumstances. 

Reflections about outcomes and outputs were shared, highlighting that it is important not only to have tangible measures around the success of a frontline service, but also to recognise that impact can be assessed via the degree to which service users feel empowered. 

“Stepping back and thinking about better involving service users means reflecting on what needs to be improved in our organisation to empower the people we work with and ensure that we are truly user-led. It can be a challenge to make time for this alongside core activities at a time when our frontline work is so needed but, ultimately, our service will not be fulfilling its purpose if this is not done.” 

How partners feel about acquiring knowledge to engage experts by experience and be more user-led

Partners felt strongly that the course has enabled them to become more user-led and has equipped them with information to be able to engage experts by experience. In particular - working through a plan, setting up timelines, using the software, having discussions, shifting focus, and gaining a better understanding of what barriers to involvement might be for people with lived experience.

Working procedures can now be questioned and adapted, and steps to follow can be rationalised. Project proposals can be written that incorporate service users’ inputs, prioritise them, and focus on co production.

Sharing learning and ideas with other organisations was also helpful and a constructive way of addressing how to improve ways of working, including how to be more creative when centering work around those with lived experience. 

Partners feel more able to target people with different skills so that opportunities are open to all, whilst at the same time avoiding tokenism. They’re aiming for true empowerment which will benefit both the organisation as well as the service users.

“The course has helped to form other plans, including our anti-racism work; a big part of this is how we ensure service user voices guides service development.” 

What they plan to do next

Haringey Migrant Support Centre

HMSC will be setting up a steering group - a small group of former visitors to meet regularly to evaluate the organisation’s services, share experiences, and discuss what they’d like the service to look like. This means involving service users in planning and delivery of services, giving them decision-making power, and giving the group space to feed back to the Board of Trustees. The group will be user-led, with staff and volunteers available to support facilitation as required. 

“This EbE project is intended to be the first step towards becoming a user-led organisation. Through the steering group, visitor feedback will be taken on board and be central to any discussions around planning and strategy of service delivery.”


PRAXIS have a project plan to work with current and former service users to co-produce and deliver a training programme, to housing providers and organisations supporting people in temporary accommodation. This will enable them to better understand and address the issues faced by migrants. The training will be modelled as ‘Train The Trainer’, and will focus on the experience of people living in temporary/insecure accommodation while navigating the immigration and asylum system. The plan is to recruit up to 4 trainers with lived experience, into paid roles, and to recruit 6 peer navigator mentors (volunteer roles) to foster solidarity and resilience (also with lived experience).

“Our aim is to make sure that there are accessible and substantial roles at Praxis for service users, or those with lived experience - both voluntary and paid. We do have existing EBE roles, however this new project with the peer navigator and trainer roles will enhance and embed this practice in our recruitment across services.


RAMFEL are forming a group led by experts by experience to address issues experienced by those on the 10 year route to settlement. Once established, the group will dictate where the organisation focuses their campaigning and advocacy efforts. If successful, further experts by experience groups with differing campaign areas of focus may be established.

“Following the Refugee Action training, we have engaged with the organisation Act Build Change and devised a training plan that we hope to commence with the first group cohort.”
Bradford Rape Crisis

Bradford Rape Crisis are creating a new volunteer programme for users of their service to develop skills and experience. They want the programme to be informed by the vision and values of the organisation, and the needs and aspirations of the women using the service, so have been having conversations with the staff team and meeting women on a 1:1 basis for informal interviews. The initial plans, volunteer role descriptions and training programme will be shared at a workshop attended by potential volunteers and the staff team, and developed further through facilitated discussions. The vision and the values underpinning the project will be agreed collaboratively. The plan is for the programme to emerge and be quite iterative with lots of opportunities for the volunteers to come together to reflect on the project and make changes. 

Facilitation Skills

Over 4 sessions, participants from 12 organisations took part in activities and exercises aimed at developing relationships and trust, building consensus and shared understanding, designing sessions that respond to varied learning and communication and managing power dynamics. Afterwards the group unpack the activities and reflect on their value, options for different uses and adaptability. The participating organisations were: CARAS, MRSN, Migrant Help, Fatima House, Praxis, Women with Hope, Solace, Rainbow Migration, Joining Communities Together, Bristol Refugee Rights, PAFRAS and St. Augustine’s Centre. 

What organisations told us they gained 

  • Knowledge of approaches for meeting and workshop facilitation
  • Learning to slow sessions down so participants get the most out of them
  • Ideas for exercises and different techniques for engagement such as ice breakers and games
  • Learning creative methods that can be used when facilitating a new group of people with lived experience
  • A better understanding of group dynamics and how different individuals might respond
  • Listening skills

Learning and insights

Out of 5 respondents, 4  people said their organisation was supported ‘well’ on their journey to ‘shift power’ to people with lived experience of the asylum and immigration systems.

What participants found most useful

Partners found that simplifying content, having discussions, and activity planning was useful. The practical aspects of the course were really appreciated, enabling participants to practise different and diverse activities, and engage creatively with the content.

Reflections and challenges

Challenges highlighted by partners include maintaining the focus of participants whilst facilitating sessions, and ensuring equal engagement from all participants. They found the course helped with these aspects, teaching how to handle participants’ different learning styles and confidence levels, and how to encourage people to share their thoughts and ideas without feeling pressure.

Another challenge is catering to different learning/engagement styles online, and bringing everybody together when still working remotely. It can be difficult to help people feel as though they are part of the group, and technology can create barriers.

Partners shared reflections on the role of facilitator; to create and hold a space where people feel safe and empowered to share ideas and engage openly and honestly with what others are saying. They highlighted the importance of managing to keep the session on track to fulfil the aims of the group, whilst managing any difficult dynamics along the way. Asking the right questions is vital.

“Good facilitation will create an environment where everybody contributes and is heard, and therefore better decisions are made.” 

Another reflection partners shared was thinking about how to recreate aspects of being in a physical space online, through the use of varied activities and relationship building exercises. 

How participants feel about facilitating and holding space 

Most of the participants have experience of facilitating groups or meetings, but few have ever actually done any training. Experience is usually gained by observing what other people do and learning on the job! 

Some participants felt confident that the course helped increase their capacity to facilitate spaces by equipping them with new information and know-how. They found it useful to have honest open discussions and encourage people to challenge each other's opinions respectfully by creating group trust.

Some people said they felt better equipped, with greater confidence in starting and running sessions and that they’d built understanding around how to let participants shape and lead meetings. 

“I have a greater awareness and confidence in starting the group, how to run a session (in terms of structure and content), how to keep people engaged, and how to actively listen to members of the group to ensure all diverse and unique views and thoughts are heard.” 

Participants who already have groups or structures for working with EBEs feel optimistic that using these techniques means that people will feel free to speak openly and honestly. Others who are still launching their expert by experience group, and are looking forward to implementing the techniques and strategies learned.

What they plan to do next

Rainbow Migration

Rainbow Migration facilitates an existing group of LGBTQI+ people who have been through the UK asylum system. The group advises on the organisation’s public campaigns activity and are going to be playing an increasingly influential role in developing the campaigns themselves. Key to this will be strengthening the group through trust and relationship-building exercises and decision-making functions. 

Women With Hope

Women With Hope are a member-led organisation focused on improving the lives of women from asylum seeking, refugee and migrant backgrounds. They have started using the ice breakers within group meetings to make them more engaging and maintain the attendees focus, and using the course learning to try different models of session structure. 

Migrant Help

Migrant Help has a 5 year plan to embed co production across everything they do, which involves organising and facilitating groups involving people with lived experience - called the Lived Experience Advisory Panels (LEAPs). Feeling inspired, they are slowing down to analyse the process of facilitation, think more about power in human interactions, and how to build group trust. They would be interested in supporting staff and people with lived experience to access this training in the future to support building a culture of working in equal partnership, whilst gaining insight, skills and confidence.

“The more we can get people with lived experience facilitating groups the more we are able to shift power to them and become stronger organisations as a result.”
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