Lived Experience As Expertise

Individuals with first-hand experience often have ideas and solutions but are not always positioned to influence outcomes. In this series, we discuss how philanthropy is uniquely positioned to acknowledge institutional oppression and to shift course, center equity and counter oppression,enable understanding and healing, and drive inclusive solutions. This four-part series covers key methods, including: 

  1. Personal Interviews: With a guiding principle of “just listen,” we interviewed shelter residents to create programmatic solutions that vastly improved healthcare access for New Yorkers staying in the City’s shelter system.    
  2. Focus Groups: In Los Angeles, focus groups engaged people with lived experience as partners. Their input resulted in better strategies to reduce homelessness, especially among marginalized communities.   
  3. Lived Expertise Partnership: Prioritizing first-hand experience, we teamed with a professional with lived experience to address racial justice and criminal legal reform in New York.   
  4. Inclusive Data Integration / Bayesian Analytics: Recognizing the importance of qualitative data and community knowledge to center equity and guide inclusive decision making, we engaged diverse voices to center racial equity in a research design framework.    

Read on as we encourage you to consider how you guide your philanthropic approach.  

Lived expertise partnership shapes strategy on racial justice and criminal legal reform 

Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City holds social justice as a core value in its mission to build sustainable neighborhood communities. From 2018-2019, Redstone supported Trinity’s efforts to develop a strategy to advance racial justice in NYC, with an initial focus on the criminal legal system.  


Trinity Church Wall Street is both a grantmaking institution and a church with deep roots in New York City. For Trinity, racial justice is a gospel issue. Trinity’s Vestry (similar to a Board of Directors) identified racial justice as “the primary moral issue for the American church.”  

As Trinity sought partners to develop an initial strategy for its racial justice grantmaking, it was crucial that the team shaping the strategy included the voices of those with lived experience of the criminal legal system to inform their approach. That intention led Trinity to partner with Redstone and human justice advocate Marlon Peterson. 


Peterson knows the manifold impacts of incarceration firsthand. He shares his experience of returning to society from the New York State Prison system in his acclaimed TED Talk: “I was discarded, like waste material – and justifiably so to many. I eventually served 10 years, two months, and seven days of a prison sentence. I was sentenced to a decade of punishment in a correctional institution. I was sentenced to irrelevance – the opposite of humanity.” As a 2018 Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity, head of racial and social justice consulting firm Precedential Group, and the author of Bird Uncaged, Peterson draws on this experience to push for structural change.  

Peterson and Redstone worked together as a team of advisors to help Trinity develop its strategy, with each bringing complementary strengths to the partnership. Peterson’s experience of the carceral system gave him invaluable perspective on the ways that Trinity could help advance racial justice imperatives and his advocate network helped Trinity to connect with additional expert perspectives. Redstone’s experience in quantitative analysis, building philanthropic strategy, and project management helped keep the project on track, surface key strategic questions, and facilitate decision-making among a diverse set of stakeholders. 

The partnership resulted in a more impactful, ambitious, and accountable strategy. For instance, Redstone analysis helped to quantify the significant number of citizens returning from New York State prisons directly into New York City homeless shelters – unable to obtain safe and affordable housing. Peterson’s insights on the prison discharge experience and connections to a range of experts on the topic helped shape several aspects of Trinity’s response, including efforts to connect returning citizens to housing and community before they are released. Peterson also highlighted opportunities to advocate for removing barriers to affordable housing, including some that can be addressed through parole provisions. As another example, Peterson’s urging helped the team look beyond the criminal legal system toward grantmaking opportunities to build up neighborhoods and promote public safety.  

In 2020, Peterson summarized the powerful impact of incorporating individual stories and lived experience into strategy development: 

“There were some ‘eureka’ moments when it came to the stories behind the statistics. I brought some stories into the room… [they had] an impact to inform how deep the problem is, first of all, and how far-disconnected analysis can be from [the experience of] incarceration. We did this in 2019, and now we’re in this moment that we’re calling a racial reckoning, and there are stories that people are paying attention to, whether it’s Jacob Blake, or George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery… Throughout the process, sadly, it’s the stories that people need. The numbers and statistics aren’t enough.”

Trinity continues to seek the guidance of those with lived experience as it works to support neighborhood transformation and create lasting change. Fostering collaboration between advisors like Marlon Peterson and Redstone is a powerful tool for grantmakers and others to develop strategies that reflect the true dynamics of the problems they seek to solve.  

    About the Authors
  • Bob Shaver

    Bob helps social sector leaders make the world a better place.

  • Jeremy Avins

    Jeremy helps social-change leaders build a more equitable and sustainable economy.