I TOLD you that you don’t need to know everything: The case for jumping in

photo credit, Department of Development, via Flickr

Confession: sometimes I read to learn new things, to be challenged, to fundamentally alter my way of thinking.

And sometimes I’m delighted when my reading affirms what I’ve long believed to be true and gives me additional evidence with which to bolster that claim.

This post, I’ll admit, falls into that latter category.

Because one of the most common reactions I get from social workers and other nonprofit organizations, when I talk with them about the importance of their advocacy involvement, (usually right after the “we just don’t have time” and “we can’t legally do that”, unless they already know me, in which case they skip those two because they know what my answer will be!) is “we need to do more research first, so that we’re sure we know what we’re talking about” or some variation. It comes out in first-time testifiers’ worries about what they’ll do if someone asks a question they don’t know, or in advocates’ preoccupation with reading analyses and combing through bills, to the exclusion of taking any action.

And, for the most part, it’s a lot more about fear and hesitation and even, if we’re honest with ourselves, excuses, than it is about actually needing to fill holes in our understanding of the issues on which we would advocate.

Because we know. We know what kinds of supports low-income working families need. We know that people with mental illness need services and access to employment and freedom from discrimination. We know that children need a fair start. We know that our communities need investment. We know that immigrant families deserve our respect, not our villification.

Sometimes we don’t know exactly how we know (more on that tomorrow), which can be hard to explain to policymakers skeptical of anything that resembles practical wisdom.

And certainly we should do all we can to stay updated on true policy innovations, really promising practices, and good outcomes research in our fields. We can be guilty of thinking that we know everything, and failing to engage in the lifelong learning that sets amazingly good social workers apart from merely decent ones.

But I don’t see that much in the professionals with whom I work, or in my students. For the most part, they err on the side of perpetual study, never trusting that they know enough to be a valuable, and valued, voice in the policy arena.

And there is an obvious cost to their silence.

That’s why the research in Blink that discusses how easy it is, particularly in today’s information environment, to be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of available facts, prompted so much head nodding. Gladwell cites evidence from fields as disparate as military readiness and firefighting and art curation to make the case that real expertise requires seeing the big picture, knowing what’s important to pay attention to, and trusting one’s instincts in those crucial moments of action.

Good social workers know this in practice. We know the details that we shouldn’t overlook and the noise that we should. We know when we know enough to move ahead, and we know how to keep listening even as we begin to act.

And those are the skills, and the confidence, that we must bring to advocacy, too.

Because, of course, we’ll never know everything. And, as Gladwell shows through compelling psychological research, the more we learn, the more confused we may become, ultimately rendering competent action nearly impossible.

And the clients with whom we work, the communities we represent, and the profession to which we belong…none can afford for us to stay on the sidelines.

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