The Power of Lived Experience

Why involving people with direct experience with a problem leads to more powerful solutions
Victor sits on a rooftop ledge with his arms outstretched. He is smiling and wearing a Code for America jacket. Behind him to his right is the Seattle space needle

On a day shortly after I started my prison sentence, an older gentleman pulled me to the side. As we walked around the track, he offered me some advice. “They can lock you up physically,” he said, “but don’t let them lock you up mentally.”

It’s something I’ll never forget.

I had the chance to take that advice when I walked into my first coding class at University Beyond Bars. The advanced coding class had 15 seats, and I was chosen despite not having any prior tech experience. What an amazing opportunity, I thought as I strolled into the classroom—before quickly realizing that I had bitten off more than I could chew. Everything displayed by the projector might as well have been in another language. The instructor lost me when he said something about an “async function.” I wanted to wrap my mind around what he was saying, but I obviously needed to study a lot more. The teacher’s assistant insisted that I stick with the program, sent me home with some books, and off I went. By the time Unloop, a program that taught computer coding fundamentals, came to the prison, I was ready. This is where I learned to code. Behind prison walls.

After I was released, the older gentleman’s words came back to me again. Although I was free, there were stigmas and barriers to things like housing, healthcare, and employment. I was aware that my criminal record was going to present quite a challenge, but I didn’t want to let it dictate my future, especially as I tried to make my way into the tech industry. I am formerly incarcerated, I am Hispanic, and my resume prior to prison had no professional experience. Others would try to put me in a box because of all that, but whether or not self-doubt would lock me in my own mental prison was up to me. I had to believe in myself and see my background as an asset.

Recognizing the value of lived experience

Put simply, lived experience means that a person has lived through the problem that is going to be solved. People who have been closest to the problem have the most experience with it, can elevate real concerns, devise the most pointed solutions, and engage community support. Think “teach a man to fish” rather than “give a man a fish”—it’s the idea of building with not for.

Lived experience, when it pertains to the criminal legal system, can mean that a person has been arrested, convicted, or incarcerated for any length of time. But I believe lived experience means something a lot deeper than that. It means someone knows what it’s like to have their freedom taken from them. They know what it’s like to no longer be able to provide for themselves, and to have to rely on other people for help. They know what it’s like to navigate conflict. They know the importance of gratitude. They know what it’s like to carry the label of “formerly incarcerated” or “justice impacted” when navigating society. They know people will put them in these boxes.

I am very much one of these people. I have spent half of my life in the criminal legal system. When first starting my sentence, I couldn’t imagine asking my probation officer, my attorney, or my dad questions about how to do my time. They didn’t have the lived experience. I came to feel more comfortable learning how to do time from people navigating prison successfully—like the man who offered me advice on the track.

When I began to reintegrate into society, I wanted advice from others with lived experience, but I didn’t know where to turn. I soon learned that my coding skills—formerly put to work on projects like an application to help people with dietary restrictions find food options—could be used to build tools in service of people facing the same challenges I had after leaving prison. And for those projects, my lived experience with the criminal legal system was key.

"People who have been closest to the problem have the most experience with it, can elevate real concerns, devise the most pointed solutions, and engage community support. Think “teach a man to fish” rather than “give a man a fish”—it’s the idea of building with not for."

Lived experience as a tool

Our Code for America Santa Barbara Fellowship team is working to find better ways to connect people re-entering society with the resources they need to thrive. In November 2020, I made a trip down to Santa Barbara County to conduct qualitative research with the goal of better understanding what the re-entering population there was dealing with. Before we built any kind of tool for the community, we wanted to make sure we were infusing the voices of the people we serve into our process. Here’s where my lived experience became my greatest asset.

Victor stands in front of the Santa Barbara county parole office.

When I visited some local probation offices, I was able to speak with individuals about their re-entry process not from a position of power, but from the position of a peer. At the end of the day, I felt like I had been interviewing versions of myself. The conversations were more organic, our shared experiences alleviating some of the pressure that comes along with being interviewed. When I told them about Thrive, the application we’re developing—a compilation of resources available to people going through re-entry, local nonprofits that provide assistance, and other useful information—they offered helpful critiques and comments of what would be most helpful. These subject matter experts—and future app users—gave the best advice, and my lived experience was the tool that allowed us to gather it.

These conversations also gave us another idea that came to fruition in March 2021. In partnership with the UC Santa Barbara Underground Scholars, we hosted a virtual resource fair that highlighted the reintegration process in Santa Barbara County and the many resources available. The coronavirus pandemic had hampered the community’s ability to connect with other people going through re-entry, and we believed that a virtual resource fair hosted by people with lived experience in the legal system—rather than one put together by probation officers—would allow space for the community to connect and learn together in a safe environment.

an image collage of posters that advertise various services for people going through reentry, like free laundry and tattoo removal.
This is how people in Santa Barbara used to find resources—by checking out posters at the local probation office. With our app and resource fairs, they’ll be able to enroll in these programs all in one place.

Justice impacted keynote speakers shared their journeys in their reintegration process. Organizations presented the resources they offered and were able to exchange information with people in real-time. Attendees had the chance to explore and comment on a prototype of our compiled resource application. One staff member at a community-based organization remarked that they were “blown away and excited to see that someone is finally making something so vague and disconnected much more fluid and connected.” The best feedback came from one of our keynote speakers: “The hardest thing to do is pick up that phone and call. That phone weighs a hundred pounds,” he said. “So having these resources online, that’s a game-changer for me.”

a gif of the thrive app interface
A preview of what the Thrive app will look like.

Making sure lived experience is present in every solution

Our experience building this application and hosting this resource fair proves the importance of lived experience in a human-centered design approach for developing resources or tools for specific populations. The resulting solutions are more representative of the community’s needs, and people feel seen in the process. But Santa Barbara is not the only county that needs resources and tools like this—every community in the country can benefit from solutions informed by individuals that have lived experience with our most pressing problems.

People with lived experience not only lead us to better solutions, but also inspire others to realize the value in themselves. The power and bravery of sharing your story can have a significant positive impact on others’ courage to share theirs.

"What if we were empowered to be the architects of the solutions to problems we know best?"

Personally, I like to imagine a world where people like me are more involved at every step in the legal system. What would it look like if someone with lived experience in the legal system was able to inform decisions about how to care for and rehabilitate people in prison? What if more of these people became judges, lawyers, and case managers? What if more of them became coders, like me? What if we were empowered to be the architects of the solutions to problems we know best?

I am not unique. There are thousands of formerly incarcerated individuals who possess the skills and passion to make a difference—and thousands more people with other experiences that the tech world could benefit from. What if people who rely on SNAP for food got to redesign the digital enrollment process? What if people who have experienced homelessness were part of the conversation about virtual resources to find housing? Would our solutions be more powerful, put to better use, and help more people? I think so.

Related stories