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Community Development TIG Week: Community Development is at the Core of Evaluating Place-Based Systems Change by Matthew Closter and David Hanson

Matthew Closter and David Hanson
Matthew Closter (left) and David Hanson (right)

Hi, we’re Matthew Closter and David Hanson, here to share reflections on the role of community development in advancing place-based systems change. As evaluators focused on racial equity, we have extensive knowledge and experience positioning evaluations to center and uplift community voice. Matthew Closter, Director at Equal Measure, has more than 15 years’ experience in fields such as community development, cradle-to-career educational pipelines, STEM, arts education, and population health—and has worked with organizations in the Philadelphia region and nationally. David Hanson, Senior Consultant with Social Contract LLC, manages and provides subject matter expertise on a portfolio of social and collective impact projects that include environmental justice, DEIA, capacity building and place-based initiatives. 

Community development is often left out of the conversation on the place-based systems change agenda. Place-based systems change has emerged as a social change practice rooted in anti-racist, structural, and narrative change approaches. Community development is at the heart of place-based systems change work and should be recognized more for achieving equitable outcomes. “Place-based systems change” is a moniker for community development—“place” is the defined community; “systems” is the compilation of actors, institutions, and policies shaping daily life; “change” is the mechanism for altering life circumstances.

Recent systems change frameworks, like FSG’s Water of Systems Change and Open Source Solutions’ Driving Systems Change Forward, articulate important concepts to address racial and power inequities and how to recognize mindset and policy shifts. Yet the discussions neglect the core and more localized aims: community self-determination and intentional disruption of past racist approaches to policymaking. The over-conceptualized systems change approach avoids the opportunity of residents and actors to shape their own circumstances and achieve their desired outcomes in education, housing, public health, etc. They can express a vision that breaks free of historically racist policies that marginalize and under-invest in communities equitably.

An ongoing place-based project in Philadelphia to reduce gun violence has advanced equitable evaluation practices. In 2022, in response to a deadly outbreak of gun violence, the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice and Public Safety took a new approach to an ongoing and systemic problem by creating the Community Expansion Grant. While many of the grantee organizations lacked traditional nonprofit infrastructure, they were rich in deep, authentic roots and relationships in the affected neighborhoods, and many benefitted from Black or Latine leaders drawn from the same communities. Using a developmental approach, the evaluation team supported the work with curiosity and flexibility, which allowed us to adapt our evaluation and programmatic activities to the evolving circumstances in the city. The goal was to understand grantee accomplishments and challenges, provide necessary support, adjust evaluation activities to meet needs, and uncover how their experiences influence broader efforts addressing gun violence in communities.

Similarly, a place-based initiative in Rhode Island centered around health equity has sought to embed culturally responsive and equitable practices in an understanding of systems change. The mission of the RI HEZ initiative is “to build a healthy and resilient Rhode Island by investing in communities and their capacity to affect change, honoring the expertise of those who live and work in those communities, and challenging the systems and structures that perpetuate health inequities.” The goals of the evaluation are to understand the impact of the initiative and uplift learnings and insights for continuous improvement at the system level. Drawing from contribution theory, systems thinking and CREE, the evaluation team endeavored to ensure that insights developed from data collection accurately reflected the lived experiences of leaders, partners, and community members.

Lessons Learned

If we center community development in our evaluation approaches to place-based systems change, the evaluation methods and outcomes can open a path for greater voice, transparency, and will that shape a community’s desired goals. Culturally responsive and equity-focused evaluation methods are strong vehicles for exploring how community members envision their desired goals for self-determination. They can unlock the power and individual voice of people who live and define the place, systems, and change desired—the essence of community development.    

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Community Development TIG Week with our colleagues in the Community DevelopmentTopical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our CD 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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