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The CJA holds the ELEVATE CJS Taster Day 2022

This is really amazing. I have never been in a space where such an open, honest, and rich conversation is happening. I am over the moon to be there while this conversation is happening.

Attendee at the ELEVATE CJS Taster Day 2022

Early on a bright Saturday morning at the University of Westminster, located on London’s busy Regent Street, leaders with lived experience are gathering to sign in at the ELEVATE CJS Taster Day 2022. The buzz of the city continues into Fyvie Hall, as they chat over coffee and pastries. The space is reminiscent of an old civic building, with its dark wood floors, walls, and surprising organ in the far corner of the Hall. In contrast to the historic venue, there is an atmosphere of innovation and reimagination. 

The space fills with a diverse mix of people with lived experience and the potential to start systemic change. Their expertise range across the criminal justice and social justice sectors, and all are eager to learn more about the CJA’s new lived experience leadership programme, ELEVATE CJS (Elevating Lived Experience Voices, Advocacy, Training and Expertise). 

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The day started with an introduction to the ELEVATE CJS Programme, a comprehensive twelve-month leadership programme that promotes the redistribution of power to people with lived experience of the criminal justice system. Through personal and professional development training, the Programme will equip individuals with the skills, knowledge, and networks to advance systemic change, challenging the criminal justice sector to reimagine who can be a leader. 

Vulnerability can be positive. I am constantly learning, and will continue to.

Attendee at the ELEVATE CJS Taster Day 2022

A central part of the day was the panel discussion focusing on the importance of lived experience leadership: exploring why it is valuable; what it takes to be a leader for change; and highlighting the most challenging barriers and obstacles that people with lived experience face within the criminal justice sector.

Nola Sterling, ELEVATE CJS Project Manager, spoke about building resilience against the stigma that comes from society and then becomes internalised.  She also discussed the need for the ability to separate ourselves from traumatic experiences that are often connected with encountering the criminal justice sector. 

Other panellists included Jason Grant (Research Practitioner at the NHS), Caragh Arthur (Senior Policy Advisory at HM Prisons and Probation Service), and Tassie Ghilani (National Lived Experience Lead at HM Prisons and Probation Services). These inspiring speakers explained why, in the face of challenges and oppressive policies and processes, they continue to use their lived experience to steer change and make space for others with similar experiences. 

The biggest barrier that still affects me to this day is the DBS check. Technically my crimes are spent which should mean I don’t need to disclose. Because I came out of prison a long time ago, I should be able to go to an organisation and introduce myself without referring to my past. But because of the enhanced DBS Check, all my convictions show up, and then I have to explain what was I thinking about as a sixteen-year-old, compared to who I am now. These are real tangible barriers and they are systemic.

Panelist at the ELEVATE CJS Taster Day 2022

One panelist described how people often feel sorry for them, not understanding that they are not sharing their lived expertise to gain sympathy – they are sharing it to effect change to the system.

I’ve been out of custody for quite a while and I have achieved great things working for massive organisations and improving big systems. When do I stop being a criminal? When do I become a great professional with lived expertise?

Panelist at the ELEVATE CJS Taster Day 2022

All of the panellists agreed with Jason Grant’s explanation for why leaders cannot wait to be recognised by others, while in other sectors there is more open acknowledgement of lived expertise, such as that of having a disability. He said that those of us with lived experience of the justice system need to galvanise ourselves. We should not wait for someone to open the door: let’s kick the door down!

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The second part of the Taster Day provided an opportunity for individuals to sample bitesize sessions from the ELEVATE CJS Programme. These Interactive breakout sessions included:

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Sophie Gordon, Senior Communications Strategist at FrameWorks UK, provided an introduction to framing, what framing is, and why it matters to all our work. Drawing on examples from FrameWorks UK’s communications research and practice across a range of social issues, Sophie showed the difference framing makes – changing hearts and minds and opening up opportunities for systems change. She shared hints and tips for how this can be used by people with lived experience to reframe narratives. Attendees discussed their experiences of communicating with the media, policymakers and others, and reflected on how framing can be used to improve the outcomes of these discussions.


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This workshop offered an introductory exploration t0 how vulnerability plays out for us as leaders. Adé Adeniji is a Brene Brown-trained facilitator and Sandra Barefoot is the Programme Manager for the RESTORE prison programme at The Forgiveness Project. Adé and Sandra believe that vulnerability is at the core of leadership and, through allowing for a small safe space to look at this, they created an opportunity for people to connect through their hearts. The interactive session began with poetry from Koestler Arts, and attendees sat in a restorative circle, working in pairs to discuss and share their thoughts on leadership and vulnerability.

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Morwenna and Wendy, lecturers at the University of Westminster, provided an introduction to research in creative methodology. They showed how Photovoice, a participatory and active research tool, can enable new insights and engagement. The session began with attendees exploring the venue, capturing images which show how they felt when they arrived, and how they were feeling at this point in the day. Examples included the initial ‘Staff Only’ signs that reflected the barriers for people with lived experience, followed by photos of Parliament, which demonstrated their feeling of empowerment that they could change policy as an emerging leader on the ELEVATE CJS Programme. From these images, conversations started on overcoming imposter syndrome, creating systemic change, and more.

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After the interactive breakout sessions, there was a networking lunch with plenty of food and drinks to replenish everyone after a full morning. It was wonderful to see people sharing their thoughts on the programme and what they had learnt in the different sessions. Everyone was making the most of the opportunity to meet new people and develop relationships with likeminded individuals who want to contribute to changing the criminal justice system.

To be able to lead you need to be in a good space emotionally in terms of vulnerability to use it to impact.

Attendee at the ELEVATE CJS Taster Day 2022

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To bring the day to a close, Romarilyn Ralston, Project Rebound Executive Director at Fullerton College and a Just Leadership USA (JLUSA) Alumni, gave a keynote speech by video link from Los Angeles. She shared her experiences of the justice system and her rise to leadership with the JLUSA Programme that inspired ELEVATE CJS.  Romarilyn described the transformative power of education, networks and leadership courses such as JLUSA and ELEVATE CJS, that are designed for emerging leaders with lived expertise of the criminal justice system.

I love the name ‘ELEVATE’. I love it. Just saying ‘ELEVATE’ makes me feel taller, feel bigger, feel stronger.

ELEVATE is about lifting people up. It is about giving people opportunities to be their best selves, to go out and do the things that you want to do, and to hold you up when you need holding up. That is also a part of ELEVATE: no man is an island; no woman gets to where she is by herself. ELEVATE is all about being that partner with you, making sure that, if you want to run, they are there to pass the baton to you. Whatever it is that you want to do – they are there to support you in doing that.

The ELEVATE Programme believes in leadership; they believe in community; but most of all, they believe that people like us – those who have a lived experience with the criminal legal system, those who have been criminalised, those who have been marginalised, those who have been set apart, forgotten about, counted out – you are back in the game with ELEVATE.

That’s what I love about ELEVATE. They put you back in the game.

Romarilyn Ralston on the ELEVATE CJS Programme

The overall feedback from the day was that it was a great opportunity for people with lived experiences of the criminal justice system to learn, explore new concepts and form new networks. 

Read more about ELEVATE CJS and follow @elevatecjs for updates.