By Adam Rosenblatt, Associate Professor of the Practice in International Comparative Studies and DHRC@FHI Faculty Advisory Board member.

I wrote this essay in 2015, soon after my first book, Digging for the Disappeared, was published. I started writing that book as an anxious graduate student whose classmates and peers were using the names of theorists as if they were old friends. Many of those names—not to mention the theoretical terms and concepts the theorists were known for—were unfamiliar to me. As I say in the essay, part of me wanted to rush and acquire all of that knowledge so I could fit in (and I guess I did, well enough), and part of me wanted distance from the spaces where that knowledge was vaunted over all of the other ways of knowing about justice, about human rights, to which I had been exposed.

I have had the privilege since then of being part of many efforts to “open up” the spaces of scholarship: At a conference at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico, I shared a stage with an activist, a scientist, and a priest. The final day of the conference was set aside for families of Mexico’s “disappeared”—many of whom face death threats if they speak out–to use safely guarded university conference rooms for their own meetings, without being observed by researchers or university officials. It was a simple but much-needed gift of space, something I still sense we could be far more generous—and more justice-oriented–about at Duke. While teaching at Haverford College, my class about the politics of neurodiversity collaborated with intellectually disabled artists from the nearby Center for Creative Works, making art and conversation with each other. We ended the semester with an exhibit on campus that included catalogues about each artist’s work, based on interviews and written by my students. In each of these cases, what worked best was that “expertise,” to the extent it was a relevant notion at all, was fluid and shared concept, passed from one person to another as a microphone or sketchbook was handed over.

It’s not always that easy—and I think that’s much of what I was trying to say in this essay, especially for some students who have been trained to think that someone is an “expert”—in a permanent, static way—once they have obtained the proper credentials. In my research, I see contests over expertise all of the time: in Digging for the Disappeared, there were the rabbis who said it was sacrilegious to exhume a grave of murdered Jews in Jedwabne, Poland, only to be contradicted by another rabbi that Physicians for Human Rights consulted. In my current research, there is the environmentally-oriented, white-led nonprofit that has purchased most of a city’s historic African American cemeteries, saying that they are the best “stewards” for the property and brushing off questions from other volunteer groups who have been pouring their sweat into finding graves, clearing weeds, dignifying the site.

What of my own contributions, my own “expertise”? I look in the mirror, and I think I’ve come to a way since I wrote this essay back in 2015. I am a scholar/activist who gets my hands dirty, participates in networks of solidarity and gets students out of the classroom to join me. And at the same time, I know I still have more to learn, more “trees to plant.”

Read the full article here:

Interpreting human rights among the dead and disappeared.