This blog launches ENS’s community speaker policy; a policy co-designed with people affected by statelessness that provides good practice guidance on how to engage and work with community speakers. This policy and its templates can be used by stateless changemakers, governments and NGOs to make speaking engagements for community speakers a more supportive and empowering experience. In this piece, Lynn Al Khatib draws on a lifetime of personal and professional experience living with and presenting on the issue of statelessness to explain why this policy is so needed.
What does speaking out on this issue feel like for you?
It has taken me almost 30 years to be at peace with my statelessness. By peace I don’t mean that I am ok with it, I mean that I can talk about it openly without blood rushing into my cheeks and air getting harder to breath. Over the past 4 years, my life has become closely associated with statelessness and activism after I had the chance to talk at an event in Stockholm in 2018. Following this speaking engagement I became a member of ENS, and have since been invited to speak at a number of national and regional events.
For me, speaking engagements have always involved on the one hand, wanting to seize these opportunities and be grateful I’ve been “chosen” to share my personal experience and, on the other hand, also feeling like I owe whoever gave me this chance my voice.
I wanted to influence change, but at events I was consistently expected to share “my personal experiences”. I was viewed by organisers as a representation of statelessness, with the other elements of my humanity and life disregarded - no matter how much more of a person I am, no matter how many panic attacks, how many angry outbursts and how many traumas I’ve absorbed. I was there to represent statelessness, not my whole experience as a person affected by statelessness.
In these situations I told myself - I have to be what they expect me to be in. My story and the way I deliver it is the thing that could show the world that statelessness is an issue that affects people made of flesh and bone, after all: nothing is more powerful than a personal story, right? For a long time I was convinced that in these spaces I am a real example and treated myself as one because this is how I’ve been received, I just wanted my voice to be heard! But then I realized that speaking on this issue doesn’t have to feel dehumanising – and that I’m not the only one experiencing this.
Current practice – what normally happens
Late in 2021, at an ENS community meeting , this topic came up. In this community space I am connected with so many more people like me: members of stateless communities , many of whom work as advocates or speak from an expert by experience perspective . That day’s meeting started with a question: ENS was formalising its internal procedures for speaking engagements, and asking – does this matter to you, is this important? And so, the stories came. Yes, this matters. Yes, this is needed. It turns out, other community representatives shared the same frustration as me with the issues we face when asked to talk about our statelessness, and how we are asked to participate.
One example raised repeatedly was organisations inviting speakers with almost no prior notice. Community speakers are rarely employed full-time in this area of work, and usually have to adjust numerous other commitments to attend such events. Furthermore, speaking about ones personal situation is difficult and having to deal with the logistical uncertainty makes this experience even harder.
Remuneration was another common theme. Community members often rely on speaking opportunities as a source of income covering their time and supporting their work in this area. They often decide to speak at events despite navigating difficult financial situations due to their status. At events where other speakers are being paid, stateless people should be treated exactly the same as other contributors. For transparency and regardless of the size of the event, organisers should be forthcoming with the speakers from the start about whether they can offer renumeration.
Travel was another theme; community speakers shared examples of events where travel was required and not paid for in advance. Organisers saw travel costs as a minor expense that speakers could easily claim back after the event, and did not understand this was not always possible. Some shared stories of international travel booked by an admin department that wasn’t aware the speaker was a stateless person without a passport – the event organiser hadn’t communicated this internally beforehand.
One member told me about an event where they were introduced as a “stateless individual”; their name was not even mentioned. This story made me remember one of my first contributions, where a number of academics and government officials were speaking. I remembered looking at the screen seeing how all those names before me were introduced with a line presenting their work title, and in the end there was: “Lynn Al-Khatib: stateless person”. I recalled how bad this made me feel. Yes, statelessness is the reason why I am here today… but I am much, much more than just a stateless person. By-lines and work titles are important!
The individual speaker policy
Listening to these stories, we concluded with ENS colleagues that yes, a speaker policy is urgently needed. The first part would be a policy for ENS’ internal use, to ensure a standardised, supportive approach is offered across the organisation for community speaker engagements. The second part would be a condensed policy ENS could share with other organisations requesting community speakers at their event. This would be a best practice summary of ENS’ internal approach that other organisations would be encouraged to adopt. Thus, the policy would be a tool for organisations to speak to other organisations.
The final third part of the policy was added at the same meeting, when a community group member requested “can we have a third version for community speakers themselves? This way, before someone emails me a flight booking to Brussels I can say ‘please find attached my speaking policy which explains why I can’t fly” and save myself a lot of heartache.
Here I see the radical potential of community discussions to think beyond established boxes and create tools for change. Policies are traditionally clever forms of bureaucracy that organisations use as ways to push for new practice. In this meeting, we remembered that individuals can utilise this language too. Rather than lengthy, carefully worded email exchanges that require us to manage logistics for event organisers in addition to the emotional labour of negotiating our boundaries, we can attach a PDF that pushes for improved practice in our chosen words. With the help of ENS, community members have found a way to make the process easier for everyone!
Please don’t buy me a plane ticket to speak at your event, I don’t have a passport. See attached my speaker policy for more details!”
What will the policy do?
Now ready for publication, the policy provides an overview of good practice, co-designed with persons affected by statelessness and representatives of stateless communities.
The ENS community speaker policy aims to:
- Include more representatives of stateless communities in advocacy spaces and spaces of influence.
- Provide a more streamlined process to inform community members and activists of speaking opportunities.
At the same time it seeks to ensure that at ENS events (or when referred to organisers by the ENS Secretariat) community speakers:
- Feel safe, empowered, confident and articulate in what they wish to communicate.
- Feel confident to set their by-line and decide the content of their presentation.
- Don’t feel pressured to share their ‘lived-experiences’ when agreeing on speaking engagements unless they choose to do so.
Overall, the hope is that the policy will limit power imbalance. Currently stateless community members are forced to communicate their boundaries (e.g. how much do I want to share about my personal experiences and my legal status) to an institution or person who seems to have more power than them. With some of these outlined in writing, it will spare us the choice between being able to speak and compromising our personal principles and barriers about what we don't want to share. In practice, we believe, it is possible to do both.
Other topics addressed include remuneration, by-lines, guidance on how to approach new speakers, prepare them for events, support them during speaking engagements and check in with them afterwards. As practical resources, the policy offers downloadable annexes for both organisations wishing to improve their current practice and individuals wishing to implement their own policy. The individual policy is a template that offers a range of example by-lines or boundaries that our community representatives have struggled with in the past – you can delete or edit this until it reflects your needs. Should you like support with this process, get in touch with ENS.
In the statelessness sector, it is truly encouraging to see the way representation of lived experience is now prioritised at national and regional events. More and more, institutions are learning that “Power is the monopoly of the right to speak for other people” (Alok V Menon) and that power needs to be shared if we are to achieve change.
Through our reflections in community, we have concluded that having the power to speak for ourselves is a radical step in the right direction. However, everyone needs to re-think who is asked to speak, about what, and how they are represented in spaces of influence. We hope this small tool can fuel improved involvement of people with lived experience in the fight to end their marginalisation.