I’m Rebecca Braun, a consultant with Alaska-based McKinley Research Group (formerly McDowell Group). My background includes journalism, writing, policy work, and teaching, and I am a relative newcomer to evaluation.
Indigenous voices are reclaiming power across Alaska, but the imprint of colonialism remains painful and ubiquitous. A friend recently asked, “Why do we have to have the white stamp of approval?” She is Alaska Native and runs a program that requires outside evaluation. Her question was not rhetorical, and I take it to heart.
I believe we need to support increased capacity for Indigenous evaluation, and we need to be willing to step aside – but that’s a topic for a different post.
In the meantime, as a white woman evaluating programs run by and for Alaska Native peoples, how can I work as a supportive partner, letting Indigenous people and values lead? I am watching, listening, and learning, and share this post in the spirit of sparking introspection and conversation about how we can approach the work with humility and respect.
- Communicate often and openly to build and maintain trust.
- Ask questions, and listen. The road to miscommunication is paved with untested assumptions.
- Honor the speaking and listening customs of the communities we are working with.
- With Alaska Native communities, I am practicing “wait time” and sitting with silence. It takes effort to overcome my East-Coast-upbringing habit of interrupting.
- Lean on the values of the communities we are working with.
- In many Indigenous communities, knowledge is acquired and shared outside typical Western educational structures.
- Words like “success” may be freighted with judgment, or have different meaning for different people. In parts of Alaska, success might look like participating in a bowhead whale harvest: carrying on tradition; showing strength, courage, and generosity; and feeding the community.
- Carefully consider evaluation metrics to ensure they match a project’s objectives.
- For example, in a culturally responsive math project, an elementary class applied math, problem-solving, and teamwork skills to determine how much leverage is needed to raise a totem pole outside the school. Standardized test scores are unlikely to capture the project’s impacts.
- Share interpretation of information.
- For example, before coming to conclusions about what certain gaps in educational outcomes mean, we can share the data with the client or community, and ask how they interpret the information and what other information or context would be helpful to consider or understand.
- Be open to blurring the line between participant and observer. A lot of relationship building and understanding happens when we share in the journey.
- In Zoom breakouts, for example, I keep my video on and, if appropriate, engage in the discussion (without leading or dominating) to reduce the voyeuristic dynamic. When and whether active participation is appropriate is a judgment call.
- Elevate others’ voices with direct quotes. Sharing people’s own words reduces the risk of mischaracterizing someone’s intent and removes the observer’s “filter” – and it is usually more powerful than paraphrasing.
- Direct quotes may be particularly useful with cross-cultural communication, when English is a second language, or with emotional or nuanced content.
Above all, I am striving to continually question my framework and assumptions – my cultural lens, or as one of my favorite teachers called it, my conceptual goggles. We each see the world through a unique lens; acknowledging this helps us connect more authentically and effectively, opens a window into different experiences, and enriches our work and lives.
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