There are few social justice issues that I do not care about. As my eyes skim the headlines and see protests for the right to LGBT marriage or relief efforts for the thousands of Syrian refugees spreading throughout Europe or yet another report of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, my heart breaks for pain and suffering that plagues our world.
And yet, there are few social justice issues that I am willing to talk about at length. Why? Because I, like so many of us, have fallen prey to what I call the myth of expertise. I look around me and see people who know so much about so many things and I think, “I don’t know anything compared to them. How could I contribute?” So I wait for a big blue genie to come and magically prepare me to join the conversation.
Let me tell you a secret: this genie does not exist. And those people who seem to know so much did not get to that point by waiting for a moment of enlightenment. No, they just dove in and began to learn. They joined book clubs, spent an afternoon researching, emailed an expert, watched documentaries, and attended events.
Here are two reasons why it is important to silence the myth of expertise and join the discussion on topics that you care about before you feel equipped to contribute:
Things get done by those who show up, not by those who know the most. I had a professor in college who used to tell us this, and, over time, I found that he was right. We demonstrate to those around us who we are and what we care about by what we do, not by what we say. Professing to care about an issue without a willingness to ask questions and be present for the discussion demonstrates insecurity, indifference, and possibly even cowardice.
Secondly, it is important to join the conversation before you feel you’ve gained the “necessary expertise” because you’ll learn more about the issue by being in the conversation than by being a spectator. The amount of knowledge you need be successful participant in a conversation is next to nill. Know enough to ask good questions and you’re set; sometimes all you need is the desire to learn.
Two years ago, I began hearing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from friends and family who had lived in the Palestinian Territories in the West Bank and who had experienced the fear and pain of living within this decades old war. At the time, I would have admitted to you that I cared about the injustices happening in Israeli and Palestinian lives, but I was deep in the clutches of the myth of expertise and kept my mouth shut.
But I did show up. And I kept showing up. There was a panel event at our school on the conflict and I asked if I could help organize. Then I discovered that my friends were in a class on Christianity and the Holy Land and I listened to as they recounted what they were learning. My professor asked if I would be willing to help organize a trip to a conference in Bethlehem over spring break. I said that I would and, months later, found myself on a plane to Tel Aviv and headed to a conference hosted by Palestinian Christians and focused on a conflict about which I still felt I knew nothing.
And, quite suddenly, I found myself answering other people’s questions. Quite suddenly, I found that I did know enough to speak up and give voice to my convictions. I hadn’t read books and I’d barely skimmed the wealth of articles written on the Holy Land. I still wasn’t an expert (and probably never will be one). But, by doing something before I felt I was ready to contribute, I not only demonstrated that I truly cared, but I also learned far more than I ever thought I would.
Don’t fall for the myth of expertise. If there is an issue you say you care about, DO something—attend a conference, read a book with a friend, or become part of an advocacy campaign. It matters less what you do than the fact that you’re taking action and showing that you care. I think you’ll find that, even before you feel you’re ready, being part of the conversation is where you’re meant to be.