Local Knowledge & Expertise

I’ve been thinking about the guiding question for the upcoming February Agora Project conversation concerning how we legitimize (or not) local knowledge within higher education, particularly within the field of community engagement. Two recent experiences stick out in my mind as pivot moments for me (which, thankfully, seem to happen a lot…otherwise, I’d be going nowhere fast).

In October 2017 I attended a Highlander Center workshop as part of the Conference on Community Writing at the University of Colorado Boulder. Highlander workshops “help create and support strong, democratic organizations that work for justice, equality, and sustainability in their own communities and…build broad movements for social, economic, and restorative environmental change.” A great deal of time during the workshop was spent learning about social movements that have led us, as a country, to where we are now. It was also spent talking with others in the room about our own work, aspirations, fears, etc. I remember feeling a bit confused/put off/dismissive because we weren’t being provided concrete tools, foolproof rubrics, or evidence-based program ideas. Instead, we were being guided through connecting with people, understanding social movements, and letting stories lead action. I was disappointed in myself for being dismissive, albeit temporarily, in the lack of “formal” expertise that was shared. For someone who relies upon informality and relationship building as a prerequisite to partnerships (I’ve been called folksy, but I think that was intended as an insult), I was upset at my own reaction.

The second recent experience occurred during the Collective Impact Summit hosted by The Civic Canopy in November 2017. During an informal roundtable with other event participants, a conversation began about how to reach across difference (particularly race) to build relationships and create coalitions for change. I listened to one person talk passionately about her own story and her own expectations for how folks should build relationships based on brutal honesty and transparency. She was the only person of color at the table, and when she was done speaking you could have heard crickets chirping. I realized that I was creating this strange, artificial barrier between my work life and my personal life that prevented me from responding to her story in a way that was real. As someone working in higher education, I felt conversationally stuck, as if I needed to have the “right” answer in order to respond. As a person in real life, I had a story to share that allowed the conversation to move forward. The notion that local and personal knowledge is not expertise is something I have to actively push against, both in my own mind and in the work that I do. I see it in myself, I see it in who is elevated as keynotes and trainers, and I see it in how individuals are professionally recognized or dismissed in higher education.

I’ll leave this post with a resource about local knowledge that includes a chapter on the work of the Highlander Center, in case you want to learn more about what they do. Enjoy!  http://www.cambridgescholars.com/download/sample/63174

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