Rethink Who You Call an Expert

Have you ever been called an expert? If you are reading this post, chances are you have. It may have been by a colleague, a boss, a client, a professor…or maybe, by a parent. I’m not sure about you, but I sometimes get an uneasy feeling when I am referred to as an “expert.” People usually mean it as a compliment. In essence, there is some innate knowledge I have from my training or experience that they don’t have.

I recognize that expertise matters. It has value. What concerns is me is the systematic way in which expertise in some areas, such as formal training or credentials, tends to be favored and elevated above expertise accrued through lived experience. At a recent Collective Impact Summit held by Tamarack Institute, Brenda Zimmerman talked about these experts as “context experts” as compared to “content experts.”

We need to see who is “expert” differently when it comes to solving complex social problems, such as reducing childhood obesity or putting an end to violence against women.

When will we recognize that the experts in the room are those who live in the places, deal with the problems, and are working towards the solutions that we so deeply care about addressing through our philanthropic strategies and goals?

I recently attended a convening of about 60 consultants, evaluators, and community leaders to discuss the practice of managing complex community change. The convening was co-hosted by The California Endowment and the Aspen Institute and facilitated by Mark Cabaj from Tamarack Institute and Pat Auspos from Aspen.

This convening made me rethink how I understand the meaning of “expert” in my strategy and evaluation practice. Here are a few thoughts to consider:

  • While traditional “content experts” are extremely well positioned to address complicated problems, people with lived experience are critical experts when it comes to solving complex community problems. Problems require two types of solutions: technical solutions and systems solutions. Solving complicated problems usually benefits from traditional content expertise, for example, to run a food bank, operate a homeless shelter, or develop a new training curriculum. Addressing more complex problems requires a systems-oriented approach. We need to recognize and act on the value of people with lived experience when addressing complex problems. These are people who really understand the nuance of the context in which the problem is occurring: its historical context, the varied perspectives on the problem and its solution, as well as the root causes of “challenges” that need to be overcome. For example, people who have been in prison and turned their lives around are experts on reducing recidivism. Young women who have been unsure about their pregnancy are experts on framing communication about abortion.
  • Experts with lived experience come up with solutions that traditional “experts” would never expect or even imagine. During the convening, participants surfaced many examples of tough problems that were solved with unexpected strategies that surfaced only because people the voices of people with lived experiences were elevated and authentically included in the conversation. For example, a participant who ran a youth center discussed how he had to shift his mindset about how to “engage” young people so that they could have more ownership and leadership on community issues. When the community brought together a task force to deal with rampant underage drinking, youth from the center had a voice at the table. While police officers, public health officials, and nonprofit leaders talked about prevention strategies and evidence-based interventions, young people directed their attention to the local grocery chain. Hundreds of dollars of alcohol were mysteriously disappearing from the chain on a frequent basis. Youth knew how easy it was for their peers to take alcohol from the store without being caught. In the matter of months, the community was able to put measures in place to curb the supply of alcohol, which led to an immediate decrease in alcohol consumption among minors. Without the voice of youth at the table, this particular solution and early win would likely not have been identified with such speed and efficiency or perhaps not realized at all.
  • Who we see as experts has a critical influence on how we approach the evaluation of complex (multifaceted, evolving) interventions in complex environments. As an evaluator, I have always thought my role was primarily to observe, listen to, and draw conclusions from interactions with program staff and experts in a given area – whether public health or community development. When I consider the power of evaluation to provide explanations for why an intervention is working or not and to provide recommendations about what an organization should do differently going forward, I am struck by the gaping hole that not speaking with those with lived experience leaves in an evaluators’ understanding of the nature of the problem, and the vast array of potential solutions.

Of course, there are areas of evaluation that are already doing this well, and some that have made this switch to “who is expert” at the core of how they approach evaluation in the first place. Good examples are participatory evaluation or empowerment evaluation, where those most affected by an intervention are not only part of the evaluation study, but are trained and informed along the way to be full participants in the design, data collection, analysis, and reporting of results.

Whether these approaches are right for a given evaluation context, evaluators still have a responsibility to consider our biases and assumptions about expertise. I encourage all of us – and those who hire us – to make the space necessary to ensure diverse perspectives and experiences are represented in the data we collect.

Some organizations who hire us will demand this from us. Others will not.

It’s up to us to use our “expertise” to move the field toward broadening the definition of expert and elevating the voices of those with lived experience.

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