Decolonizing Evaluation Week: Unearthing Evaluation’s Roots by Albertina Lopez, Aisha Rios, Sheri Scott, Vidhya Shanker, Libby Smith, and Carolyn Camman

Hello! We are an interdependent coalition of illegitimate, invalid, alien, non-conforming, under-represented folx committed to collective liberation (in no hierarchical order): Albertina Lopez, Aisha Rios, Sheri Scott, Vidhya Shanker, Libby Smith, and Carolyn Camman. We are six of eight organizers who have been collaboratively contributing our labor to challenge the perpetuation of whiteness in and through evaluation training and publications. We’re doing so amid several personal, national, and global tragedies because we are committed to our communities and to collective liberation, and because we believe that evaluation has potential to serve both.

By now, many readers may have seen our Call to Action that has garnered 560 signatures and 80 comments from more than 20 countries in the six weeks (as of this writing) since it was posted. This surprised us. The response is a testament to the level of dissatisfaction with current systems and processes of publication and training, and with evaluation’s failure as a field to stray from business as usual and act boldly, even in the wake of a global uprising against oppression. 

Lessons Learned

Public and private comments generated by our call prompted us to reflect on several tensions, many of which are artificially contrived. These include tensions between:

  • Avoiding erasure and invisibility vs succumbing to patriarchal, capitalist notions of knowledge as a commodity produced/owned by individual geniuses rather than relationally produced for collective benefit. When do silence and anonymity serve as shields for protection, acts of humility, or tools of protest and when are they imposed by force, indifference, or shame?
  • Tearing something down vs building something new, as if these are mutually exclusive. Creation and growth require death and decay. Sustainable alternatives to oppressive systems require increased understanding of how oppression operates and how to avoid replicating it.
  • Talk vs action, as if language, discourse, and acts-of-speech do not shape our thoughts, imaginations, and material conditions. While our current focus is one book, its wide use limits the imagination of far too many evaluators.
  • Sentiments vs tactics. The need for bold change has been articulated in evaluation’s hallowed journals and conference sessions repeatedly since 1986, with little perceptible change in publications, curricula, and large contracts since then—as evidenced by the forthcoming edition of Evaluation Roots. Those claiming to believe in equity but chastising public protest resemble the white moderates who claimed to support civil rights, but only if it did not inconvenience them. Public protest is an intentional organizing tactic used to apply pressure to those with institutional power who have shown themselves unable or unwilling to transform oppressive systems without external agitation.

Hot Tips

Beyond reading and signing the letter, what would decolonizing publication look like? Some ideas, especially for those who have accumulated power and capital through illegitimate systems:

  • Be willing to give something up and change those systems, so that evaluators that those systems have harmed and excluded are not dependent on your consciousness for “inclusion.”
  • Fund, support, and create opportunities for evaluation scholars and practitioners from excluded and marginalized groups to put the time into writing for publication and mass dissemination. If not subsidized, such work is cost-prohibitive to produce and subsequently accessible only to an elite few.
  • Refuse to profit professionally at the expense of scholar-practitioners who are indigenous and women of color. Cede opportunities to those who are equipped to challenge dominant narratives, offering any support that may be necessary. Encourage other authors who have been the face of evaluation for decades to do the same.
  • Listen to and request dialogue with other beneficiaries of current systems rather than leaning on those who they harm and exclude.
  • Take these actions with a spirit of gratitude, inspired curiosity, and amazement (maybe even joy!) at how the world will look if we disrupt dominant narratives and embrace new visions for our world.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Decolonizing Evaluation Week. All posts this week are contributed by individuals committed to the decolonization of evaluation. 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.

3 thoughts on “Decolonizing Evaluation Week: Unearthing Evaluation’s Roots by Albertina Lopez, Aisha Rios, Sheri Scott, Vidhya Shanker, Libby Smith, and Carolyn Camman”

  1. Hi all,
    Thank you for sharing this article, as I am new to the evaluation community and still have lots to learn. I was directed here by my introductory Program Inquiry and Evaluation course, and I am happy to have stumbled upon this article. I am currently doing an ongoing Program Evaluation assignment that focuses on a program in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada that aims to help refugee families transition into Canadian society with various supports. The quote “Tearing something down vs building something new, as if these are mutually exclusive” stuck with me, as this program teaches refugee children and adults about Canadian culture and norms, but it is also important to still ensure these families are given the opportunity to share and embrace their cultures and home country’s beliefs and practices as well. Another quote that stood out to me was “Sustainable alternatives to oppressive systems require increased understanding of how oppression operates and how to avoid replicating it.” While analyzing the program, I noticed that a lot of the staff members share similar backgrounds to those of the new refugee families arriving in Canada, but there are some staff members who have never experienced anything even close to the refugee families experiences, as they were born in Canada, are of Caucasian background, and their families have lived in North America for many generations. I think these staff members would benefit from focusing on increasing their understanding of how oppression operates, and how oppression may affect these families coming from other countries, in order to avoid unintentionally replicating any forms of oppression while trying to aid these families through this program. Leaders of this program that I am evaluating will prove to be successful by following your advice of being “willing to give something up and chang[ing] those systems, so that evaluators that those systems have harmed and excluded are not dependent on [their] consciousness for “inclusion.”” Lastly, I loved how you ended your article on such a positive and uplifting note: “Take these actions with a spirit of gratitude, inspired curiosity, and amazement (maybe even joy!) at how the world will look if we disrupt dominant narratives and embrace new visions for our world.” I think if program evaluators and program stakeholders are open-minded, grateful for new opportunities, and curious about learning about and making changes in the evaluation process, then systems will be changed in a more impactful way coming from a sense of care and inspiration, rather than feeling like they need to make changes in order to make themselves feel better or to prove something to others. As a newbie to learning about program evaluation, I, too, take away all of these helpful lessons and tips, and would like to make myself more aware of oppression that is occurring in program evaluation, so I do not replicate it myself. I am grateful and inspired to learn about new ways to change the narratives and systemic power held within program evaluation. Thank you for sharing your knowledge, and I look forward to reading any future articles posted by this group!

  2. Jennifer Billman

    Thank you group for all your labor working toward the uprooting of the tree! You are not alone! Unbeknownst to us, Bagele Chilisa and I began putting a panel together to argue for Uprooting the Tree at the same time the Call to Acton was being developed. We hope the panel discussion at AEA21 this week helps advance the cause and invite everyone to join us on 11/10 at 1pm EST. Let’s bring our efforts together to support the co-creation of a new metaphor which doesn’t just graft branches onto a tree planted in a soil lacking ontological diversity!

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