“We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know”

Yesterday I attended a Leadership conference meant to provide helpful, tips for social change, social justice, and general leadership. I’d say it was quite successful in that area. Some of the topics discussed were sexual assault and bystander intervention, gender bias in the work place, understanding poverty, leadership strengths and weaknesses, and engaging group members. While there were no groundbreaking discoveries, it was interesting to hear other people’s perspectives on these issues.

One thing that stood out to me, and really made me think, was something said during the workshop on poverty. Have you ever heard someone say something and you think, wow, that’s a really interesting thing to say and you sit there and think about it for a few minutes, trying to apply it to your life and experiences? And then you miss the next few things they say, but it doesn’t bother you that much because you’re still interested in the first thing they said.

Anyway, the speaker on poverty said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” I immediately went into the thought process described above. At first, I agreed with the statement. On one hand, we can’t know about a thing if we don’t know that the thing exists. So from that perspective, yes, I agree, we don’t know what we don’t know.

On the other hand, just because we know that something exists, doesn’t mean that we know all about it. I’m willing to bet that 90% of you reading this don’t know much about quantum mechanics, but you do know that it’s a thing. In this situation, you do know what you don’t know. So here, no, I don’t agree. We do know what we don’t know.

In the workshop, the speaker was trying to say that we don’t understand poverty if we have never experienced it. But to say that we don’t know what we don’t know, in this context, is just an excuse to ignore it. We do know that we don’t know what living in poverty is like. Being a social science student, I’ve studied many aspects of poverty, so maybe I have a little better idea of what it’s like compared someone who hasn’t studied it. But, still, I have never experienced it, so I cannot say that I know what it’s like.

Anyway, if we don’t know that we don’t know something, we can’t do anything to change that something. So, if we didn’t know that poverty existed, we wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. But, just the fact that we do know about it, means that we can do something about it.

In the case of poverty, we do know what we don’t know. To say that we don’t is to say that we don’t know that poverty exists, and, unless you’re living under a rock, i think it’s fair to say that we all know that poverty exists.

Don’t use your lack of experience with something inhibit your ability to affect change on it. Just because you’ve never been discriminated against, doesn’t mean that you can’t do something to change discrimination. Just because you’ve never experienced poverty, doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it.



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