APC TIG Week: The limitations of using an advocacy frame to understand and evaluate grassroots-led change by Katie Fox

Hi, my name is Katie Fox, and I am principal associate at Innovation Network, a nonprofit research and evaluation organization based in DC. I came to the evaluation field three years ago after spending the previous decade as an organizer, advocate, and funder of various social justice issues. Over the past year, we have all witnessed the power and promise of grassroots-led change as popular movements and organized communities have galvanized widespread support for changing institutions and systems that perpetuate anti-Black violence and racism.  These mechanisms for change have a long, important history in advancing systems and structural change grounded in anti-racism, equity, and justice.

However, the evaluation field is short on scholarship, guidance, and spaces for evaluators to learn about the unique histories, cultures, and practices of grassroots-led change, including social movements and community organizing. In that absence, the evaluation field has, perhaps unknowingly, upheld advocacy and policy change evaluation as the framework for these social change mechanisms. In my short evaluation career, I have heard evaluators refer to community organizing as an “advocacy strategy” and policy change as the ultimate end goal of movement building and organizing.

When evaluators subsume community organizing and social movements under the advocacy and policy change umbrella, we obscure and devalue their unique histories, practices, and contributions. Perhaps most troubling, by centering advocacy and policy change in social justice-oriented evaluation, we are indirectly complicit in the continued underinvestment in grassroots-led change by the philanthropic sector. Mitigating these effects and evaluating grassroots-led change responsibly requires a reorientation and expansion in our understanding of the practices, strategies, and outcomes of social change work.

Lesson Learned:

Social movements and community organizing are fundamentally different mechanisms of social change from traditional advocacy – from the individuals and communities that lead them, to the underlying principles that motivate them, to the strategies they employ, to the end goals they seek. Traditionally, the advocacy sector is grounded in technocratic and meritocratic worldviews that center professionalized, “expert” advocates and policymakers as the agents of social change. In contrast, community organizing and social movements democratize social change, putting impacted communities in the driver’s seat. Community organizers and movements builders seek to not just work within existing power structures but to disrupt those structures and build the agency and capacity of communities most impacted by injustice and inequities to advance change.

Rad Resources:

How Organizations Develop Activists by Hahrie Han: A thorough primer about the practices of community organizing.

The Purpose of Power by Alicia Garza: Part memoir, part handbook from one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter that offers reflections and lessons on the unique challenges and opportunities of organizing and movement building in our current moment.

This is an Uprising by Mark and Paul Engler: A clear and compelling guide to movement building, packed with examples from movements around the world.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting APC TIG Week with our colleagues in the Advocacy and Policy ChangeTopical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our AP 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. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

3 thoughts on “APC TIG Week: The limitations of using an advocacy frame to understand and evaluate grassroots-led change by Katie Fox”

  1. Hello Katie,
    Your post was very informative. I did not know what grassroots meant until I read your post. I think it is important to actually support these types of groups that seek social change independently.

  2. Thanks for a super post! Your distinctions are very helpful. And I have to second your recommendation for This Is An Uprising. It’s such a clear articulation of and update to ideas about social change. Alicia Garza’s book is near the top of my stack. I’ll look up the Han book and leave you with my favorite of late: Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. Thank you!

  3. Roberta Hartman

    Greetings, Katie. Thank you so very much for your post on grass-roots led change. I am a Master’s student in Canada in Education-Evaluation and Assessment. While I am new to the study of evaluation and assessment, I have worked with Indigenous programs for my entire career in Canada’s north. Indigenous communities face a number of inequities and social injustices due to colonization. The continuing impacts ripple through Canada to this day. In the programs I have worked with, there have been communities that have driven the reclaiming of their self-determination through not only making the case for, but demanding their inherent right to self-government, and communities that have succeeded in powerful movements to combat social injustices such as alcohol, drugs and violence in the face of adversity.

    I agree that the field of evaluation has much to learn from these grass-roots movements, and the activists who drive them. I find that these grass-roots movements are what inspire other communities that are facing social injustice and inequities to believe that they too, have the power to right social wrongs. However, these communities lack resources, support and access to tools that may assist in forming their own vision and road-map to action. While grass-roots movements can drive impactful positive change, it seems we are at a loss as to capturing the essence of why these movements are so successful at “disrupting those [existing power structures] and building[ing] agency and capacity of communities most impacted by injustice and inequities to advance change”, as you so insightfully point out.

    One way to seize these opportunities could be to use the tools the evaluation community has to advocate for resources and support to hand the evaluation steering wheel over to these movements. Often times, there are community-based, social organizations that are central to supporting these movements. They will have the relationships as well as the language to teach the evaluation community the pedagogies, the value systems and the driving factors that influenced change, and describe the processes in a language that resonates with other communities on the precipice of action. After all, as we know, the greatest goal of evaluation is to affect the greatest positive change. Perhaps there is a way that the evaluation community can use their influence to affect a more inclusive community-one that values and harnesses these “unique [and powerful] histories, practices and contributions.”

    Your post hit the nail on the head of an important and vital issue that seemingly goes around in circles. There are communities literally desperately seeking the knowledge and lessons learned from these movements, and it may take a wider, more collaborative evaluation community to help inspire the next one.

    Sincerely,
    Roberta

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