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ACM TIG Week: Evaluation, risk, and our collective power by Jeremy Foutz

My name is Jeremy Foutz, and I’m an ethnomusicologist, evaluator, and principal at STEAM  Workgroup, working with cultural and informal learning organizations. I’m writing this from the position of a cis white man who, although coming from a family that survived on welfare programs, had/has significant levels of privilege.

This week of posts from the Arts, Culture, and Museums TIG has been a great discussion of effects, impacts, and community engagement in museums and informal learning spaces. Yet, that wonderful work exists in contexts that are still wrestling with the lure of objectivity and perceptions of neutrality. Evaluation is inherently political, and as evaluators we have the responsibility to take risks to nurture and support that work – and most importantly, the people enacting and living those effects and impacts.

Four panels of stills from the movie when Padme and Anakin are having a picnic and the talk gets serious. Anakin, a white teenager  is frowning with the text "So, we're going to be making some changes."

The next frame is Padme smiling with the text, "Changes to the systems to advance equity, right?"

The next frame is Anakin just staring her down, smugly, saying nothing.

The final frame is Padme, as the smile fades from her face, speechless.

I’m writing this post in the wake of a tremendous failure of leadership at the historic Montpelier estate of James Madison, which you can read about here, here, and here. To summarize, the CEO fired several staff members that pushed back against the board’s decision to end power-sharing with descendants of people once enslaved there. Despite many positive changes, this is nothing new in museums, and many of us have similar stories that just haven’t been shared yet. It serves as a(nother) reminder that evaluators have a responsibility to act if our work is going to mean something.

If we ask hard questions of our executives and/or take an axiological stance for advocacy, we face real risks. We may find ourselves out of work and be subjected to emotional and physical harm from stress and burnout. From open conversations with generous colleagues, I’m very aware that some people have already been harmed because of their positionality and identities. But those of us with the space, capacity, and privilege have a responsibility 1) to support one another in this work and 2) to have real talk with our executives, our funders, and others.

We’re in positions of power, even though it may not feel that way. This is especially the case in informal learning spaces and cultural organizations where evaluation and evaluative thinking are rarely able to be prioritized. By our organizational role, we can ask the hard questions and facilitate the difficult discussions, whether we’re internally or externally placed.

If we want to change our organizations and the negative systems that sustain their worst tendencies, we need to accept some tangible levels of personal and/or professional risk. This work may be uncomfortable, and we will probably fail if we don’t do it in community.  For me, it brings to mind the difficult and sometimes dazzling book Frame Analysis by Erving Goffman.

Our questions can both break the restrictive frames and feed relationships at the same time. Whether that means slowing down production schedules, pushing back on board members’ perceptions, or being honest about the barriers to organizational change, we as evaluators have power to support change. We can set fires to help our organizations deconstruct systems that get in the way of the relationship and meaning-making work of our colleagues and communities. Without taking those risks, can we expect change?

Hot Tips

Find communities that will support you – not just with methods and theories, but with applications and personal relationships. As I hear from mentors at the Equitable Evaluation Initiative, show up and show up with your whole self.

Rad Resources

Besides our focused TIG, I’d highly recommend three communities that could be places to both support each other and enact these changes. Be aware, though – these spaces ask and invite real relationships and personal introspection!

Finally, we have a list of resources that the TIG has found helpful in our museum contexts. It’s updated regularly, so please send us suggestions!

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Arts, Culture, and Museums (ACM) TIG Week. The contributions all week come from ACM TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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