AKEN Affiliate Week: Approaching Cross-Cultural Evaluation with Humility by Rebecca Braun

Rebecca Braun

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.

Lessons Learned Learning

  • 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. 

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Alaska Evaluation Network (AKEN) Affiliate Week. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from AKEN 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.

1 thought on “AKEN Affiliate Week: Approaching Cross-Cultural Evaluation with Humility by Rebecca Braun”

  1. Jennifer Coplon

    It is interesting how white supremacy “rears its ugly head” with all people different from Caucasians. We do need to listen more, say less, and support the cultures and value of all peoples, including indigenous Alaskans. Thanks for your sensitive and timely blog. Keep up the good work with Lessons Learning.

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