‘Expert’ Remixed

The highlight of my week was my seminar group for community engagement class. Oddly enough, it was a day that I was presenting which normally would make my knees wobble and my stomach flip flop. But I was so super excited for this class that I could barely wait! I knew that what was going to happen was something that typically doesn’t happen much in society or in universities.

So a bit of background: I had to present on what is called Participatory Action Research. A very simplified version of this complex and messy process is that it reverses the traditional roles of expert and researchees and puts the power back into the hands of the community members. Traditional research has the expert (the researcher) go into a community, define the parameters of research, analyze the data and compile it for publication. The research may or may not effect the community’s life. PAR takes the researcher and reassigns the position from expert to facilitator and makes the community members the experts and enables them to define the research question, methods and output. I think this is brilliant as it turns systems upside down (and I am rather anti-systems at the moment). PAR is also much about the process and not so much on the outcomes, aiming at a transformational experience for both.

However, this type of research has great limitations and this is something I wanted to bring out in my seminar presentation. One of the readings talked about experience as being more transformative than any textbook. So I thought that there is no better way for us to get talking about the ins and outs of PAR than to experience its limitations and complications.

So I invited Bob to my class. I’ve mentioned Bob before on my blog – he is a good friend. He knows how to make me laugh, he has provided me support in times of need, he entertains my cat and he has taught me more about community, honesty, humility and so much more than any book on such topics.

Bob has schizophrenia – and in his words, he is different from most people. He carries around old bags that are his security blanket – each one has a special purpose and there is a certain order in which they are to be carried. His jokes sometimes takes knowing him to understand – he’ll joke about wanting to commit random acts of violence around the city, but really he means random acts of kindness.

Bob also cuts things out of paper (see the pumpkin in the picture above) and he has a talent that I definitely do not have. He has great spatial ability (of which I have absolutely none!) and can make snowflakes of any shape and any number you can think of. Some of his stuff is pretty magnificent. So I invited him to come to my class and teach my fellow students how to make these cutouts.

I have to say, I was a bit anxious. With Bob, you need to expect the unexpected. You never know what he might say and sometimes he goes off on a ramble about topics that I have learned are signals that he is having a bad moment. My anxiety wasn’t eased by his phone call the day before that left me wondering if he would actually show up as he left his phone number and told me he is going out to get groceries.

Well, Bob did me proud. He taught with elegance, he was filled with patience making sure everyone was on the same page and he was beaming. It was beautiful to step back and watch what was happening – how many times does a sixty something old mentally ill person get to teach a group of young and bright students? And what was even more fascinating was how clearly Bob was the expert of his craft – the majority of the students struggled to do the activity.

Bob gave my TA a cut out witch and said it was specifically for him as he’s “nothing but a horrible old witch” – if there was any TA in the course of my academic career who could handle Bob’s quirkiness, this was the one!

Then Bob left. I had my fellow students talk about questions like how would you work with a community of ‘Bobs’ to come  up with research questions and methods? how would you get funding? what if you disagreed with what Bob thought was best? What are some of the challenges for researchers in dealing with people who suffer from severe mental illness? What about some of the challenges for Bob?

My problem with PAR is that it is very challenging to not take the power back that you are trying to give to the community members. Perhaps this is a systems problem – for our systems are not set up for people like Bob to be the expert. Also, I think it is very hard to have completely pure motives as the researcher. Having Bob teach my class was beautiful – and perhaps even transformational for some. But at the end of the day, I get a mark on the presentation and use it to go to grad school and start my career. Bob – who cares about Bob? I mean, I do – he is definitely a good friend in my life! But Bob will go around the city cutting out things and will not see the glory so to speak of all the effort he put into teaching my class… he is a nobody in a sense.

I ended the class by talking about whether ‘power’ is inherently evil’…. Is power necessarily a bad thing? There is a reason we send powerful people to meet with government officials or to endorse certain campaigns. There is a reason why educated people are taken more seriously than the random person that no one has ever heard of.

I found an awesome quote from Martin Luther King Jr. – I apologize in advance that I’m probably taking it out of context as I just found it on some quote page. But it’s message is beautiful and profound.

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

May we become people who not only see the expert in each person we meet, but be able to recognize our own power and privilege and use that power for love and change.


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