Navigating class as a lived experience advocate

I have a complex relationship with my class background. There are times when I wear it loudly and proudly, and there others when it increases my insecurities. My relationship with my class background and how I navigate it always raises more questions than it answers, which is something I’ve recently started to accept, for better or for worse. It is in this spirit of raw mental and emotional processing that I write this piece, hoping it provides some peace to myself and others like me.

As someone who immigrated to the UK at the age of nine, I was never going to have a stable, clear-cut relationship with my class background because in all honesty, it felt like we were being fed scraps at the bottom of the pile and we were expected to be grateful for it. By definition, me and my family were working-class immigrants for a very long time, however, the use of this identifier was rare because when you’re poor, you don’t need to put a label on it. Fast forward to today and I’m in a very fortunate position and have experienced a level of individual social mobility, working in a profession and industry I would never have imagined. From working as a writer a decade ago, to becoming a lived experience advocate who works mainly as a project manager and facilitator in peer support spaces. I have so much to be grateful for, yet there’s always an undeniable tension that exists between my class background and career in the mental health sector, between my personal identity and how much I’ve needed to change in order to fit in, let alone make professional progress.   

My journey into the mental health space sector was unorthodox. Nothing I did at school (I struggled to get 5 As to Cs at GCSE) or higher education led me to where I am today, there was no grand plan to get here and it has often felt accidental or down to luck and the act of others. At the beginning of my journey, it was my experiences with mental health challenges in my early 20s, and my willingness to be open about them through my writing that carved space for me to become a lived experience advocate. This initially involved doing a lot of talks at events, media outlets and conferences.

At the time, it felt very flattering to think people wanted to hear my story. Moonlighting as a lived experience advocate, I saw first-hand how this newly-formed industry created ways for working-class people like me to access spaces (panels, conferences etc.) and audiences (mental health professionals) I would have never imagined engaging with, let alone have the privilege speaking of in front of. Looking back I can see that I was compartmentalising my pain and sorrow for a very long time, making it possible to wrap  it in a neat package for an audience of willing listeners.

After being ‘on the scene’ as a lived experience advocate for a while, the shine started to wear off for me personally. I started to understand how my class background, which shaped my worldview in constantly accepting unpaid speaking opportunities for ‘exposure’, also played a tandem role in the limited opportunities that were available for someone of my background. I became tired of being trapped in the repeat performance of my trauma being used for ‘inspiration’, while mental health colleagues I met at annual conferences were able to move on, grow and maximise their impact.

The nuances of navigating class in the mental health sector can be so complex. On the one hand, I recognise how being accepting of and grateful for ‘scraps’ has shaped my career, but at the same time I understand how structural inequality, which leads to lack of access, meant that unless I had taken it upon myself to build a career (of which I had no guidance on how to do) I would have remained pigeonholed in my story for many years and become almost irrelevant. While navigating my path to a sustainable future was challenging, another complex area in navigating being working class in the mental health sector, or any other predominantly middle to upper class industry, is the sense of personal erosion I felt about my identity, especially at the start of my journey. I’m the first to admit that my mannerisms and speech change when I am in mental health spaces, and while I’ve developed a better handle on this over the last couple of years, it’s still a very self-alienating experience.

For me, my watershed moment came when an article I wrote on mental health went ‘viral’, and I realised that my identity was fragmented. I had many people from working class communities congratulating me on the article, and was initially deeply proud to have spoken to my own community. It was only when someone commented ‘I love what you’re doing, but I couldn’t understand any of your article because of the big words’, that I started to recognise I had almost become a social chameleon, stranded between two worlds, unrecognisable by either.

It’s safe to say that it’s been a complex journey, full of nuance and questions I never imagined I would have to ask myself. With that being said, I’ve found a way, my own way. This has allowed me to create a sense of ownership in a journey that felt like it was constantly shaped by the feeling that I did not belong. For a long time, I blamed myself for my lack of experience, not recognising that it was mainly a result of lack of access. Equally, I’ve also made peace with the fact that I suffered from the belief that people like me can’t be the ones shaping the needs of our own communities when it comes to mental wellbeing. I guess experience teaches you otherwise, and so does the support of people in your life and your communities. Fortunately for me, I now work in delivering peer support training for men of my heritage so that they can positively impact themselves and other men in their communities. It’s good honest work and it’s also been my saving grace when it comes to navigating class.

The work that I do, which requires me to be on the ground with the people I support, also requires a level of authenticity to engage with people. As a result, I have moved beyond sharing my own stories to people outside of my community, to working to ensure that equal access is created so that future working class kids know their worth and have the self-belief that they belong in more rooms then I did. It’s not been an easy journey, and while it may not get easier, I know it will get better, and that’s all that matters.

Taimour Ahmed (he/him) is a facilitator and project manager, who specialises in curriculum development and delivery for social change projects. He is the founder of Expert By Experience and is currently leading men’s peer support facilitation training at Taraki. Learn more about his work on his website.