A Generalist on Expertise (and Squirrels)
As someone who grew up on the vast, treeless South Plains, I'm mesmerized by the thick canopy of trees visible upon descent into Dulles or Reagan or BWI. But last month, wafting over the rivers and deep green foliage in the moments before I landed in Baltimore to attend The Evaluators' Institute summer training program, that feeling was even more intense than usual.
Up until a few years ago, I had no knowledge about who my parents were, what my ethnic heritage was, or even what my original name was. But then, after finally being able to recover information about my parents and with the help of an incredible web of researchers, I went from knowing nothing to nurturing deep ancestral roots and a lush, towering family tree of many branches.
With this knowledge of who I am (in this way) comes a whole new level of critical engagement with the world around me. Knowing so much about those who came before me in my personal shrubbery has reignited my interest in broader American history. But that interest looks different than it did when I was a history major back in Texas thirty-plus years ago. Using the tools of genealogy has encouraged me to approach history differently, to develop expertise of historical peoples and places that are now personal, and personally political, including relationships between early French traders and Shawnee women in what would come to be known as the Ohio River Valley; the sexual lives of women – free and enslaved – in 19th century Bermuda; the forced removal of North American "Woodlands" tribes from the Great Lakes region to Kansas and Oklahoma via the "other" trail of tears; Melungeon ethnic formation, intra-marriage norms and intra-generational "passing."
Not including forced Indian removal and discounting the so-called "nomadic ways" of my Shawnee ancestors, the majority of my extended family eventually made multi-generational homes in just a few key states, none of which I have ever lived in or visited myself: Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Even those who were among the earliest Dutch settlers in what is now Brooklyn, New York, eventually found their way, generation by generation, to places like Mercer County, Kentucky and Benton County Arkansas. And I've come to know these places well (in my own way) by sifting through decades of census data, land titles, old newspapers, vital records, and wills. I once thought of history as a timeline, but now I think of it as another way of seeing place. Maps may be redrawn and territories renamed, but families and tribes always leave something behind that marks their attachment to the land, something that makes it a place.
And so it was that last month, flying over that dense canopy of forest as my plane descended, I couldn't help thinking about the land below me – the places as defined by generations before me -- and the connection that so many of my ancestors had made with it as they traveled across it, fought to stay on it, or settled with or without consent of former inhabitants. As they changed it.
I was reminded of that old saw -- how a squirrel could travel all the way from what is now the upper-most corner of Pennsylvania to what was once my Shawnee ancestors' home in Auglaize County, Ohio, without its feet ever touching the ground.
In Baltimore, inching down the freeway toward Rockville, I repeated that old saw to my Trinidadian cab driver and he traded me back stories of his boyhood in Trinidad, of the red-tailed squirrel who "can do anything he want," examples of which had me laughing in the backseat until my face hurt. I'd never imagined squirrels in Trinidad before. Monkeys, sure. Crocodiles, probably. But squirrels? Of course, he assured me, and armadillos too, like in Texas, where I grew up. Then he told me about the fat gray squirrels in Rockville who he swore could chew down a whole house in just a couple of days. I shared stories about gorp-stealing squirrels at campsites in Big Sur and of the famous Prairie Dog Town of my Lubbock, Texas youth. And about how I almost died but just banged my bike up trying to avoid a nest of baby chipmunks on an Oregon biking trail once.
Forty-five minutes later, after many more squirrel stories, we'd co-constructed a new, richer definition of "squirrel," combining our historical and place-based expertise. A squirrel is a squirrel is a squirrel – except when it is specifically a chunky western gray or eastern gray, a tiny white-tailed antelope squirrel, a chickaree, or a marmot, or a groundhog. My driver and I found a "through line" that allowed us to share and build knowledge about the people and landscapes of Maryland, Trinidad, Texas, Ohio, Oregon, and California – and that through line was, unexpectedly, squirrels.
The next morning, with no more time to think about squirrels, I woke up and headed to my first course, "Strategic Planning with Evaluation in Mind" with the amazing John Bryson. After covering core content, and true to form, John broke us into groups to peer-coach one another in a real-life strategic planning scenario. We numbered off and I joined my counterparts, all of whom worked for large public institutions. And we began to present our real-world problems to the group for suggestions.
During her turn, one of my groupmates divulged that she would soon be leading a multi-division strategic-planning process at a large health organization. In her organization, divisions were separated by disease, and each division was staffed by a number of experts on a given condition (Type 1 diabetes, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc.). The organization already has an organization-wide template in place, and my groupmate was struggling with a dilemma: Should she have each of the divisions she oversees complete a separate strategic plan (as the former manager had done) or, instead, should she bring the teams together to create a joint plan?
Our remaining two groupmates jumped in to say that the solution was clear – it would be simpler and more efficient to have each team complete their own, independent plan under her leadership. I advocated for the more labor-intensive solution of bringing the experts together as co-constructors in the larger project of human health. I pitched the idea of using a learning community format to move the strategic plan process along over a more relaxed period of time than usual.
At the peak of my excited advocacy for learning communities, cross-fertilization, and shared leadership, one of my groupmates stopped me. "Each division is separate," he told me, "because each requires specialized expertise." It wouldn't make sense to muddy the waters, he gently offered. The stronger plan would be the one couched in expertise. (A yellow-bellied marmot, he might have said, though a squirrel, has more in common with the 15 species of Marmota than it does with the almost-300 species of the squirrel family. We learn more by focusing on its marmot-ness than its squirrel-ness.)
But, I insisted, each of the diseases assigned to each division isn't separate. When we use the medical model to make labels, I argued back, we lose sight of the human ecosystem. Type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, etc. share more than any of us might think, both with one another and with influencers outside of the body – racism and transit and housing stability and air quality, among many, many more. (Squirrels, all types of squirrels, play a critical role in our ecosystem, I might have said. Threatened, not to mention adorable, tiger salamanders would die out completely without the burrows ground squirrels dig in otherwise impenetrable clay soil. All sorts of wildlife -- hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes -- rely on all sorts of squirrels as a food source. Squirrels, no matter whether they are thirteen-lined ground squirrels or white-tailed antelope squirrels, contribute to the repopulation of forests, groves, and even desert vegetation by spreading their seeds and nuts. Let's bring all that knowledge together and embrace all aspects of squirrel-ness so that we can really make an impact!)
I could tell he thought I was a little nuts. "No," he insisted. "Separate diseases, separate expertise."
As a generalist (and as a sociologist), I'm always grouping things -- seeing the forests first, and then the trees. I love and overuse the word "ecosystem." I learn so much from pulling back (way back) before I zoom in. Sometimes I forget that other people don't learn that way. In the end, I'm pretty sure I persuaded no one at my table to turn their strategic planning process into a months-long, cross-fertilized learning community in which every member was an expert and a leader. But the interaction has had me thinking a lot.
This wasn't the first time I'd gotten a negative reaction when pitching a messy, loose process as a means toward innovation, but I haven't yet really figured out what the resistance is. When I'm fighting for shared leadership process, for the co-construction of knowledge, and I get push back, what am I fighting against? We're at such an odd time in our relationship with facts and expertise. I think of Americans as being disillusioned with expertise in general, but then again why wouldn't they be? Maybe that's why my fellow researchers and program developers hold on so dearly to the concept. Imagine a nation in which facts about climate change or gun violence held sway for political appointments and policymaking.
And yet … There are something like 278 species of squirrels all over the world, thriving on every single continent except Australia (where there are apparently about a dozen adorable palm squirrels that, having escaped from the Perth zoo, are on the lam in the surrounding suburbs). What could we learn not just about squirrels, but also about biodiversity, our fragile ecosystem, and the future of our planet and all humanity by looking at them across species types and locales? So much! Yet most folks would be more comfortable "digging in" to a single squirrel species, seventh-grade science-class report style. (Granted they'd probably be much more likely to get their paper in on time, not to mention get a better grade, but still …)
Not me and my Trinidadian cab driver though. We were all over the place with our squirrel talk. And obviously it's served me well, or at least kept my brain busy.
Back at home in San Francisco, I was excited to see that the American Evaluation Association program and registration site were finally up a few weeks ago. I chose my pre-conference workshops (Systems Approaches for Evaluation Practice and Intro to Social Network Analysis, woot – see you October!) and reserved my hotel room in downtown Cleveland.
On the hotel site, I clicked on the map and imagined my many-greats grandfather signing the Treaty of Greenville in Ohio, and then later siding with Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet, and his brother Tecumseh as they sought to mobilize a pan-Indian resistance movement against white settlers, my other ancestors among them. I looked at the Ohio map and thought about my Indian and white ancestors literally killing one another at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 and then again at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. I thought of my Quaker ancestors who lived near the Shawnees, a bit green but well-meaning according to histories from both sides of the family, and how those ancestors came to be in Ohio because they were looking from freedom from persecution elsewhere.
I imagined stepping off the airplane in a place now called "Cleveland," to gather with so many other generalist-experts (yes, I do think it's a thing), putting my feet on the land where so many came before me, and wondered if it will be like coming home, though I've never been there before. Then I remembered the little animal paintings I'd done last year, trying to build my Shawnee vocabulary around species that could be found near where my ancestors lived for hundreds of years, recalling that I'd included a couple of small squirrels, based on those noted by Meriwether Lewis in 1803 and other pre-"settlement" accounts.
A squirrel is a squirrel is a squirrel, yes. "Squirrels" is also a through-line for seeing similarities in differences, is a system, is a way of knowing a system, is a way of defining place, is a way of accessing history. A squirrel is an entry point for constructing knowledge about the system we live in, the system that came before us and may well outlive us.
Now I just have to figure out how to get from that to outcomes and indicators.
Laurie Jones Neighbors is an independent consultant and educator who specializes in developing, implementing, and assessing programs and educational experiences in support of equitable political representation and local, regional, and national decision making by low-income communities and communities of color.