“I have something to offer, insight not everyone can claim to, and I now have a voice.” My one chance: why including lived experience is so important

4 August 2021

Dena Pursell, Groundswell Care Navigator for Lambeth, shares her story and powerfully illustrates why including lived experience expertise is so vital.

Above: Dena (centre), recently working with UCLH’s Find & Treat team to support people experiencing homelessness to have their COVID-19 vaccine.

Using my lived experience

I was recently invited to talk at an event to highlight the importance of people, with lived experience joining charity boards as Trustees. I have just completed the ‘Beyond Suffrage trustee training programme’ for people with experience of the criminal justice system.

During one of the training events I shared my story of how I had got where I was today, and was later asked: “how have you managed to stay so optimistic after so many knock-backs?” and “…how are you now able to share your story?” My reply was simply “someone gave me one chance”.

To explain what that one chance was, I thought I’d share my experiences with you first. I think it’s important to understand where someone has come from, the lessons learnt, and skills gained from coming up against so many barriers.

 

Leaving prison

I was sentenced to a seven-year custodial sentence, and after serving five years I was released in December 1994. I was released without a home to return to and without my daughter, who was in foster care.

On my release I was given £2.50 for a cup of tea, a train ticket to London and a letter to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Oh, and it was also two days before Christmas.

My determination to improve my situation led me to my local MP. I found out where he had his surgery and was able to talk to him. He contacted social services who immediately placed me in temporary accommodation, I was able to spend Christmas with my daughter. I was then given a flat; had I been a single person I would have remained homeless.

With a roof over my head and my daughter back living with me, I found I had the strength to turn my life around and forget my past and move on… how wrong I was.

 

Trying to move on

Having an unspent conviction, I constantly faced barriers which seemed impossible to get over. I struggled and with regret my daughter also struggled. I relived the guilt every day, as well as the shame, by constantly retelling my story to DWP advisors, work coaches – practically anyone I came across.

I was discriminated against at interviews (as a result I was awarded financial compensation because I was treated unlawfully at an interview); and I was offered a job and asked to leave when I made a criminal disclosure.

It was soul destroying and I was devastated; I was made to feel as though I were nobody and deserved little respect, despite the strength I thought I had upon my release. I completely lost hope and turned to drugs, over the next decade I battled with addiction – trying to block out my past and salvage some self-worth.

My daughter became a support worker at a homelessness charity, she encouraged me to volunteer. This was the start of me becoming a ‘serial volunteer’. This sense of purpose and motivation to stay busy helped me in my recovery.

I joined Groundswell as a volunteer Peer Researcher in 2019. I loved being at Groundswell and just before the pandemic hit in early 2020, I applied for a job with them as Lambeth Care Navigator, I was delighted to be offered the role.

I have now been ‘clean’ for almost 20 years and am so very proud of this. My role as Care Navigator allows me to encourage and support people to attend their health appointments, I’m working with many people who suffer from addiction.

For me, joining a charity where lived experience is at its core and seen as an essential requirement has been the best thing I ever did (apart from having my daughter). I always felt, I would never be good enough, confident enough or experienced enough to amount to much – because of how I was made to feel for years.

Yet through volunteering and now working with Groundswell, I have been able to build my self-confidence and self-worth. I’m part of an amazing team which encourages people to reach their potential regardless of your past. The Progression team support everyone who comes to Groundswell through coaching, helping them identify their goals and overcome barriers to reach them.

 

All it took was one chance

So back to that once chance; I can tell my story now because I had that one chance from Groundswell to thrive because of my lived experience, not despite it. I am not treated like I should be ashamed of my past, and I do not have to feel guilty.

I have something to offer, an insight which not everyone can claim to, and I now have a voice. My objective is to assist others in finding their voice too, rather than seeing their past as a barrier to their future.

I am hoping to make more connections with organisations supporting people leaving prisons and offer support on release. I am hoping more of these organisations will begin to accept more people with lived experience on their Trustee Boards.

I am fully aware and accept that to apply for a Trustee role I will have to disclose my conviction again 40 years on. The difference is that now this doesn’t define me.

It took a long time to get here and many battles faced, but that one chance has changed everything.

 

Find out more about Groundswell’s innovative lived experience approach