Unrecognized Experts

by | May 19, 2021 | Formation, Reflections, Systemic change, Vincentian Family | 1 comment

My Mother had little schooling

A century ago, she sailed from Germany as an unaccompanied minor at age 16. She had little formal education. But I never forgot her saying she had a diploma from the “school of hard knocks.” It was her way of saying she was an expert in her own right.

I thought of this in the context of our Vincentian Family. Over the course of more than 400 years, we have been motivated by a mission of following Christ the Evangelizer of the Poor.

Many followers of Vincent have had the benefit of specialized training in one or another field devoted to caring for the marginalized of the world.  Many more have had excellent on-the-job training.

Some Vincentians have become recognized leaders in health care, education, and other ministries integral to being and bringing “good news” to those suffering in our world. Some would even say we are experts or at least specialists in serving people who are marginalized.

However, we sometimes operate from an unconscious mindset. People in poverty can be objects of our ministry rather than also agents or partners in ministry. Without intending it we slip into paternalistic practices of developing programs without the input of those we wish to serve. We miss the opportunity to empower people to collaborate in solutions.

An untapped source of expertise

In our zeal, we sometimes fail to consult with those who have graduated from the school of hard knocks. People experiencing poverty have an expertise that can not be taught in a classroom. They know their situation from the inside. They understand many dimensions of poverty that may not occur to us.

Here is a very small example from a program trying to figure out why their food pantry was under-utilized. When they finally asked the “experts” they learned of an overlooked dimension. The hours of service. They had understandably based them on the availability of volunteers. The pantry was only open at hours very difficult for their target population!  

People who are living on the margins usually have an understanding of things not obvious to outsiders.  They need to be listened to… and empowered. This important for any long-term solution.

“Lived experience circle of experts”

Recently I have explored a movement in Canada that is recognizing what was missing in many of their programs. Their emphasis now is on working to empower those who live in poverty to participate in, and even direct, ministries. They encourage their neighbors living in poverty to express their needs and suggest solutions. Together they become partners in the struggle for justice.

Collaboratively they produced a document “Nothing about us without us: Seven principles for leadership & inclusion of people with lived experience of homelessness. The document itself clearly evidences the voice of “street experts.” 

It is fascinating to read the simple actions unpacking the following seven principles.

  • Bring the perspective of our lived experience to the forefront.
  • Include people with lived experience at all levels of the organization.
  • Value our time and provide appropriate supports.
  • Challenge stigma, confront oppression and promote dignity.
  • Recognize our expertise and engage us in decision-making.
  • Work together towards our equitable representation.
  • Dedicate time and resources to advocacy, and support grassroots social change efforts.

They are guidelines for building authentic relationships between people with and without lived experience of poverty. Systemic change is not only about changing systems. it’s also about changing relationships.

(Visit the Tamarack Institute for valuable insights and resources.)

An examination of conscience

  • Do we think of those we serve as objects or agents of ministry?
  • Do we involve these “street experts”  in our planning and evaluations?
  • Do we recognize systemic change is about changing relationships?

(This post first appeared on Vincentian Mindwalk)

1 Comment

  1. Ross

    In his 1968 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire says that pedagogy should treat the student as a co-creator of knowledge. Pedagogy cannot simply look at the learner as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. As we hear often, the poor can teach, evangelize, us if we allow them.

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