I’m Patricia Moore Shaffer of the Shaffer Evaluation Group, a small, woman-owned evaluation firm that works with education partners — school districts, colleges and universities, government agencies, and nonprofits — to develop programs that address and correct long-standing inequities in education. I’ve been leading external evaluations of educational initiatives in the beautiful State of Alaska for the past 8 years.
In Alaska, I mostly work with small, rural communities accessible only by boat or plane. Coming from the “Lower 48,” gaining trust and credibility was foremost in my mind when I began working with my first Alaska client – a regional university campus located in a small coastal community. During my first site visit, I realized how much the community context must inform the evaluation design and implementation. What makes life challenging for many Alaskans is not the state’s extreme geography and climate; it is what is often absent from everyday life – essential community infrastructure and easy access. Most Alaska communities cannot be reached by road, which makes movement of people and goods difficult and very costly. Jobs in rural Alaska can be scarce, and the COVID-19 pandemic caused a historic drop in total Alaska employment. However, it can still be challenging to fill jobs in high priority fields and equally challenging to retain staff. During the eight years I worked with one client, for example, the organization was led by 5 different directors, and staff turnover affected all parts of the organization.
Hot Tips for Working in Alaska’s Rural, Remote Communities
Get to know the community context for evaluation. Each rural and remote community in Alaska is unique in terms of its regional economy and local characteristics. Research the community before you arrive and spend time getting to know the community when you are on-site. Attend a community event, sit down and chat with an elder, or enjoy a hiking excursion with local residents – these activities will deepen your understanding of the community while helping to build trust between you and local community members.
Promote community participation in evaluation activities. Engaging community members in data collection and analysis grounds evaluation findings in their lived experience. Community-based participatory research strategies, such as Photovoice and storytelling, are powerful tools, particularly when working with populations who have been historically harmed by unethical research practices, such as tribal communities.
Focus on rich data. Working in rural and remote communities often produces small datasets, to which formal statistical methods don’t often apply. Evaluators working in rural and remote communities will be most successful when they plan mixed methods studies and invest in qualitative methods – in-person observations, interviews, and “thick description.”
Be sensitive to the burden of evaluation. Organizations in rural, remote Alaska are often small with significant resource limitations and staffing challenges. Find ways of supporting, not overburdening, organizations engaged in evaluation, such as integrating evaluation capacity-building into your work plan.
Respect Indigenous ways of knowing. Alaska is the most predominantly Indigenous state in the United States according to 2020 Census data, which makes it essential that evaluators in Alaska work to appreciate and respect Indigenous ways of knowing—and understand how they apply in evaluation. The sovereign authority of tribal leaders and community members needs to be acknowledged and reflected in all aspects of the research process, including decision-making about research design, data collection and analysis/interpretation, and publication and dissemination.
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