Tuesday, July 25, 2017

How do you define "expert"?

I don't remember where or when or who said it, but many years ago, someone said, "The definition of an expert is someone who has been flown in from out of town." I still chuckle when I think of it that way. I have attended many conferences and workshops in my lifetime. I have led many workshops and events in my lifetime. I haven't often been referred to as an expert, but I have been asked and expected to dole out expert opinions on many topics - homeschooling, breast kanswer, the Bible, faith, Spain, travel, packing light, journal writing, just to name a few. I am not an expert on any of those things, but I do have years of experience in all of those things.

I heard part of a segment on NPR yesterday morning that got me thinking about this question -  "how do you define expert?" - and connected it to the Thursday night class my new friend, Patrice, is leading with great distinction. Yesterday's piece is entitled, "Charlotte Talks: Ex-Offenders and Challenges on Transitioning back to Society." In this segment, one gentleman, who is himself an ex-offender, spoke about his experiences and about the difficult transition out of prison and back into the world. A world that is increasingly more difficult to navigate after incarceration. A world that denies those who have been imprisoned, those who have been accused, those who have been charged, the option of public housing, food aid support, school loans, college admission, and many job opportunities.

And on top of that, convicted felons are disenfranchised in many states; they can never vote again. That's right; even after you've paid your debt, after you've served your sentence, you cannot vote. You cannot serve on a jury. You cannot obtain many professional licenses - even if the license you seek is in no way connected to any crime you may have committed. It is legal in every state to discriminate against former inmates in nearly every aspect of their lives. They emerge from prison with debt - for their stay, their uniforms, any back child support, their lawyer fees, and many other fees - but then they are unable to find work or live in affordable housing, even with family members. Because landlords have the right to evict tenants from their homes, even if the tenant hasn't committed a crime. But if a family member or caregiver or friend is accused of a crime or is a formerly incarcerated person, the resident of the home can be evicted. How can anyone be surprised that so many people end up back in prison? Many cannot find a job or a place to live. Those who find jobs often have their wages garnished to cover all the aforementioned fees and costs, and some have 100% of their wages garnished. Did you catch that? Every penny that they earn from their jobs is taken away to pay debts. No one can live that way. No one should have to live that way.

Anyway, Gemini Boyd, the main interviewee on the Charlotte Talks segment, asked a great question of his interviewer. He wondered why his story, his experiences in and with the incarceration system, and his subsequent work to establish BOLT, Building Outstanding Lives Together, a youth intervention foundation, didn't count as those of an expert? Why should he need to have a title after his name in order to offer advice, suggestions, and make an impact in the way our country treats and mistreats its criminals - or those accused of crime? Perhaps, in this case, an expert isn't someone who has been flown in from out of town, someone with several advanced degrees on criminal justice and jurisprudence, but rather is someone who has felt the boot of the criminal justice and jurisprudence system on his neck - and has emerged relatively whole and strong - right here in our hometown.

On the first night of this Educate to Engage series, we drew up a long list of "group agreements," giving voice to the ways in which we would interact with each other during the six gatherings. Here is a sampling of our group agreements - we would not cut each other off when someone was speaking or have side conversations. We would treat each other with respect, and also we would allow for the participants to be experts in their own lives and experiences, especially as it relates to our main topic of conversation - the mass incarceration system.

Last Thursday at the fourth of our six sessions, we were given the opportunity to live out that final agreement. Two of the group participants served as experts on this issue of mass incarceration - because both of them have experienced it firsthand. One of them shared his perspective on education in school and education in life - and how "education" has affected his life, for better and for worse. He talked about the challenges of finding work after having to "check the box," the one on nearly every job application and every housing application: "Have you ever been convicted of a crime? If yes, explain below." He talked about the difficulty of explaining his situation, telling his story, and taking the chance that he won't get hired, that he won't be able to live in a certain place. He expressed surprise at the number of people in the room who claimed to have never had similar experiences.

We live such separate and unequal lives.
Once convicted, many roads, many options are cut off.
Never convicted, most roads, most options are open and available.
In some cases, conviction isn't even necessary.
Simple suspicion is enough to warrant and permit discrimination.
Our nation's attorney general recently reinstated a policy that allows cities and towns to confiscate property from individuals suspected of criminal activity. You don't even have to be charged with a crime to have your property taken by the police, permanently.
What the what???
In the United States of America - the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Yes, indeed.

So this young man took a chance and told us the truth.
His truth. His story. His experience.
He has a college degree, but that doesn't offset or override his "ex-con" status.
He handed out business cards at the end of class -
since many companies won't hire him, he has created his own small business.
Handy man. Plumber. Electrician. No job too small.
He is an expert in survival. In working hard.

How do you define "expert"?
We may not have multiple degrees or titles behind our names.
We are all experts in and experts on our own lives.
We each have so much to tell and to teach one another.
We are each an expert - and we are surrounded by experts.
Imagine what this country and this world could look like if we treated each other that way.

No one with a title behind their name can possibly know that young man's experience before, in, and after incarceration. No one can possible understand his particular challenges, any more than anyone can know yours or mine.

As long as we keep ostracizing, isolating, rejecting, stigmatizing, and perpetually criminalizing each other, as long as we continue to dismiss the harrowing experiences and accounts of injustice told by the poor, the underserved, and the black and brown people in this country, the more separate and unequal our nation will become.

The more we ignore the stories told by people whose perspectives we don't share,
people whose suffering we cannot fathom,
people whose experiences reveal how privileged and protected many of us are,
the easier it is to cling to that definition of expert that I heard so long ago -
someone who is flown in from out of town.

Because if the people who live under the highway,
if the people who live in tents behind the hospital,
if the people who have survived prison and are eager to transition back into society and contribute to society,
if the people who are being evicted from their affordable homes in order to build more condos,
if these people actually are our neighbors here in Charlotte,
if these people actually are experts on how to survive with very little,
if these people actually have good ideas on how to solve these major social crises,
then something might actually have to change in this city we call home.
Justice might actually be done and equity might actually be achieved.

So I ask again, how do you define "expert"?
Whose expert advice do we all need to hear and heed?

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