“Imagine how it would feel if the work you loved compelled you to repeatedly go to your darkest place of pain,” writes Damion Cooper in the most recent issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Cooper, the founder and CEO of the Baltimore nonprofit Project Pneuma, was shot 30 years ago and managed to survive. But now he has to tell his story to donors over and over again in order to elicit funds for his organization. Doing so, he says, amounts to “trauma funding.”

Unfortunately, in an era where “lived experience” triumphs over statistical evidence and logical arguments, Cooper and many others like him have been forced to revisit their personal trauma instead of recounting their accomplishments to win over supporters. Let’s hope his article is the beginning of the end of this nonsense.

Cooper explains what he is forced to relive from that moment in October 1992: 

“I am being stalked unknowingly. Suddenly I see someone shoot me at point-blank range. I hear the booming sound of a gun going off. I feel intense ringing in my ears and a sense of disorientation. I see the fright and fear in my mother’s eyes as she sees her only son seemingly dying in front of her. My sister, who is seven months pregnant, cries out, ‘What happened to my brother?’ It feels like someone hit me in the chest with a sledgehammer. The pain from three broken ribs sears me. A punctured lung makes it difficult to breathe.”

Why does Cooper have to go through this again and again, on command?

He founded an organization in 2014 to support boys academically and emotionally. It has grown every year since, and he says that the group’s practices are evidence-based and their success is measurable. From tutoring in academic subjects to training for public speaking to yoga and martial arts classes, Project Pneuma clearly seems to offer at-risk boys an enormous amount of support.

I can’t say I was familiar with the program before I read Cooper’s article, but the website offers plenty of information on Project Pneuma’s work. As a potential donor or a policymaker deciding which programs to support or promote, I’d be much more interested in the high school graduation rate of its participants or whether the boys that Project Pneuma helps have a reduced likelihood of incarceration or teen parenthood. Unfortunately, I may be in a minority.

As a journalist, I am not unaware that tugging on people’s heartstrings is a way to get attention for a cause or an organization. But in recent years, the idea has emerged that only people with “lived experience” — people who have actually been through a particular trauma, whose skin is a particular color, who have experienced poverty or deprivation of some sort — should have the floor to speak about such matters, or even to be part of the solution to these societal problems. 

This has created a lot of strange incentives. Beyond simply the idea that we should reward victims of trauma — like the young woman who lied on a college application, saying that she had spent time in foster care when she hadn’t — it is the notion that experience is the ultimate arbiter of truth. Indeed, people who have lived through trauma now describe something they call “their truth.”

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Unfortunately, lived experience is often not a very good way of making decisions for large groups of people. Just because one person, for instance, found that yoga was helpful in keeping her off the streets doesn’t mean that we should fund a “yoga for all” program in our public schools. Just because one person was abused in a foster home doesn’t mean that we should never remove children from abusive parents and place them in foster care.

But as Cooper makes clear, insisting on “lived experience” is also bad for the folks who have lived it, those who are placed on a stage at the front of the room and asked to perform their trauma. Tell us what it was like to grow up on the streets. Tell us what it was like to be addicted to drugs. There are always people who, at one time or another, want to share their stories with others, sometimes even writing them down. But to cheapen it all by reciting these stories to those we don’t know or don’t trust? That’s a lot to ask. 

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Cooper wonders: “When will the success stories of the boys we support and our evidence-based programming be enough to persuade donors that we deserve their support? When will Black- and brown-led organizations such as mine be allowed to stand on our own merit like so many nonprofits run by our white counterparts?”

But the problem is not that we are only asking Black and brown people to proffer their sob stories in exchange for donations or other support. This is the standard we now have for everyone. Oh, you have decades of experience in local government trying to reduce homelessness? We would rather listen to the experience of someone who actually was homeless. 

It is time to end the tyranny of “lived experience” and start recognizing the knowledge and accomplishments of leaders and organizations that show evidence for their strategies and proof of their success. 

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.

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