My name is A. Rafael Johnson, Director of Creative Evaluation and Engagement, an initiative of Inspire to Change. I’m a novelist, and I’d like to tell you a story of how I came to be an evaluator without training as an evaluator.
In 2010 I taught yoga to a blind orphan in Liberia. I’d arrived as a USAID subcontractor. My NGO was charged with helping rebuild the education system after the end of their long civil war. I reduced the national student:textbook ratio from 5 students per textbook to 4, taught classes of former refugees and combatants, and created a service-learning program. All of this went into the quarterly M&E reports. But in my off-hours, I also worked to get homeless former child soldiers to attend a literacy program, helped college staff learn to read, and became the substitute ‘house dad’ at a home for youth repatriated from the refugee camps. That’s where I met Michael, who had lost his sight.
Each week, a specialist would come in to teach the kids a particular skill. One week, I taught them memoir writing. Another week, the house mom taught yoga. So imagine: 8 Liberian youth, practicing yoga in what was once a grand beach home overlooking the Atlantic coast. The house mom modeled poses and called out instructions. Everyone mimicked her except Michael – the vocal instructions didn’t make sense. I moved behind him, took his hands, and moved them into position. I bent his knees, aligned his feet, adjusted his shoulders. We spent a week learning like this until he memorized the entire routine.
There was no place on my M&E report for this – my off hours work was never captured at all. Up until then, I’d seen M&E reports as an inconvenience, but after teaching Michael I saw those reports as a method to control and exclude the narratives of local people in their own country. He didn’t count, in a fundamental way. The thought that I’d helped depower the very people I’d come to help sickened me. I left Liberia six months later.
Back in the States, I was recruited to join an evaluation firm. I refused. As far as I was concerned, evaluation put people’s lives in little boxes and cut off anything that didn’t fit into a pre-conceived narrative. But I agreed to edit a report and then learned about developmental evaluation, principles-focused evaluation, and arts-based methods. Nora Murphy Johnson and I combined these into something we call Creative Evaluation and Engagement, which works for real people and real situations, and co-creates learning and measures of success with people, not for people. This style of evaluation looks considers the total person, organization, and/or community and works towards telling their whole story – even the parts a funder finds inconvenient. Telling the story of people’s lives in all their messy glory, hands-on, fully engaged – this is the kind of work that feels right to me.
“This style of evaluation looks at the total person, organization, and/or community and works toward telling their whole story.”
P.S. The last I heard, Michael runs a popular beach yoga business.
The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Contribution, Leadership, and Renewal Week where a group of Minnesota-based evaluators reflect on the theme of Evaluation 2019, to be held in Minneapolis, MN. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.