Unlearning: Being an Expert

Sarah Stachowiak
Nov 21, 2019 · 7 min read

I remember feeling when the shift had taken place. When I’d somehow written and spoken enough, had “big” enough clients, and enough professional success that my judgement and ideas received more openness, less scrutiny. In some inscrutable way, I had arrived as an evaluator. I was seen as an expert.

While it’s impossible to totally separate this from how I do my work, I believe a lot of it came from people’s belief in my technical skills. An ability to turn wonderings into questions that could be evaluated, with adequate rigor and attention to things like reliability and validity. The ability to analyze and synthesize data and write things up that could be actionable for funders. There was something gratifying and undeniably pleasing about being contacted as “an expert in theory of change” or “an evaluation expert.” Somehow all the hours of hard work become something almost tangible in how I was seen and treated. And the chance of making a difference through the work increased.

But recently my friend, board member and race equity consultant, Audrey Jordan, talked to me about how to think about letting go of being an expert and better recognizing everyone’s expertise. And to offer technical expertise when it was asked for and needed by community, but not assuming it trumped other forms of expertise that people bring to the table that are necessary and important for achieving positive, equitable change.

What kind(s) of expertise?

This resonated, as do most things Audrey posits to me, but it also challenged me in reflecting on my own evaluation practice. As I’ve mentioned before, most of my work isn’t very close to the people who deserve equitable outcomes. I’m often at the table with national funders who support systems change. At tables where “pedigree” and technical prowess are highly valued. And my entrée to those tables largely comes from my technical expertise, likely combined with my interpersonal approach. It’s no surprise in consulting that how you do the work, your “bedside manner” — the poorly named “soft skills” of interpersonal approaches — matter and can help differentiate your work and lead to greater use and value of the processes and products.

But Audrey’s suggestion to sit as one person at the table with just a specific kind of expertise led me to think more about what other kinds of expertise could be at those tables. I’ve heard this echoed for a while in conversations in the sector about valuing “lived experience,” which is the term du jour for recognizing that our personal backgrounds matter and are important assets for work in the social sector too. Though, as I heard persuasively argued by Jara Dean Coffey last week, I hope we can reframe this as “personal expertise” to have equal footing with technical and interpersonal expertise. For one, we all have “lived experience”; for another, “experience” will never seem equal in footing to “expertise.”

The importance of personal expertise showed itself to me recently when a group of colleagues and I were preparing for an interview for a project about workers rights. It’s exciting work to contemplate, and as a developmental evaluation of community organizing, it would be methodologically and technically interesting, as well as highly values aligned, personally and organizationally. But as we anticipated what we might want to speak to in making our case as a strong partner in the work, we veered away from just talking about our technical and interpersonal approaches and started talking about our own experiences with organizing and low-wage work. These experiences were largely outside of our “professional” work. They often came from volunteer experiences and experiences of family members. It made me keenly aware that some of my teammates, while less deeply experienced in leading complex developmental evaluations, had access to a whole host of knowledge that I lacked that would be critical to having a truly meaningful and successful evaluation.

It’s made me think about what I do have personal expertise in. It’s undeniable that being a parent has given me a set of insights that I didn’t have otherwise. I know what it’s like to live in different parts of the country. In a small town in northeast Texas. To be a woman. To be white. To be a white woman.

These things are inseparable from who I am, but maybe too often I have (falsely) separated them — their strengths and limitations — from the kind of professional expertise I put forth explicitly when I am sitting at those tables as an “expert.” Yet those things are inextricably tied up in how I understand the world. And, if unexamined, risk me thinking that my experience is THE experience and blind me to others’, making my work of lower quality and relevance. If I better consider and interrogate those facets of my experience and how they come into in my work, maybe I could have greater humility around the things that I don’t have the same personal expertise in.

Expertise versus Expert and Relationships and Trust

This conversation also made me keenly aware of the vulnerability required to talk about our personal backgrounds and how they might shape us, which made me reflect on another conversation that emerged during this year’s annual American Evaluation Association (AEA) conference. Dr. Nicole Bowman shared about her work using traditional indigenous knowledge systems and culturally responsive approaches in her work with the Blandin Foundation, both of which acknowledge the importance of relationship and values more explicitly than traditional Western research thinking. Tanya Beer then led those of us in the session in a conversation about what it was in the standard consultant-foundation relationships that got in the way of working in greater relationship, which is a critical way in which culturally responsive work is a different way of working, not just a set of new, shiny methodologies.

My first thought was around those cases where I do have deep and trusting relationships with my clients, where I’m sure I do my best work. But in the cases where I don’t, it often feels like we’re held at an arms-length, that people fear showing their “dirty laundry” or view me and my team with suspicions around our motives as people in a for-profit company who are judging them from the outside (as Julia Coffman has written about).

But my a-ha moment came as the idea of trust, relationships and expertise all came together. Somehow the stance of an “expert”, while gaining me access, can also keep me in the technical realm and out of the sphere of relationship. When I think of an “expert”, I think of someone to admire from afar, someone who is “higher” than others in their field. It also suggests a “rightness” to what we, “experts”, offer that is different and better than others. It’s keeping me squarely within norms of white dominant culture. Perversely, the very thing that has given me more and more meaningful professional opportunities may be the very thing that is getting in the way of working differently now. And over-valuing having technical and interpersonal expertise likely makes it more challenging to benefit fully from the kinds of expertise others are bringing to the table.

Now what?

So what I can do differently, if I want to be more well-rounded in thinking about expertise, more culturally responsive, do better quality evaluation work and step away from this expert role that may be serving me less well? At this time in my career and as the leader of an organization, I have the privilege of being able to try and practice what I’m thinking.

Within my teams and work, I will bring more of my whole self to the table and be more explicit about the ways my sets of technical, interpersonal and personal expertise may leave gaps in understanding. I will invite more kinds of expertise to the conversation, while recognizing not all people will be ready to do so and avoid the risk of tokenization or other negative impacts. This can be true with my colleagues and my clients and happen through the kinds of facilitation I use, the questions I ask, and the way I design evaluations and share back findings.

The tables I sit at will probably still often rely heavily on the head and the technical side of things, but I’ll try and listen for and name when technical expertise is needed, asked for and useful, and not over-privilege what the value of that technical expertise is. I’m going to relinquish the role of expert, embrace wider varieties of expertise and think about how to meaningfully incorporate them into the work. I will exercise ORS’ values of having the courage to let go of something that has some currency while having the humility to stand as an equal partner with many.

Finally, there is always power in naming things. Explicitly recognizing categories can somehow elevate or equalize the attention and weight we give them. Technical expertise. Interpersonal expertise. Personal expertise. I have expertise in all three areas that can help lead to more and equitable change in the world but that could never be enough. So do many others, in a multitude of ways. I hope naming and valuing these facets and being less of an “expert” will help me continue to do more and higher quality work that advances equity.

As always, I hope sharing the wisdom I’m picking up from others and the way I seek to have them inform my work are useful to others. I’m excited to look for and hear how others wrestle with these ideas and play them out in their work.

Thanks, again, to those who have helped shape my thinking, in no particular order: Audrey Jordan, Nicole Bowman, Ph.D., Dominica McBride, Jara Dean Coffey, Tanya Beer, Julia Coffman.

If you found this intriguing, you may also appreciate my prior musings on unlearning neutrality.

Written by

evaluation/data/learning geek, critical friend, thought partner, what-have-you, CEO of ORS Impact

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