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AEA’s DEI Working Group Week: A DEI Statement that Feeds Transformation In, Through, and Around Evaluation by Jen Heeg, Donna Mertens, Esther Nolton, Vidhya Shanker, and Libby Smith

Greetings from Jen Heeg, Donna Mertens, Esther Nolton, Vidhya Shanker, and Libby Smith. Together, we are developing AEA’s updated DEI statement. In fulfilling Charge #1, we found ourselves resorting organically to cooking metaphors. While not premeditated, upon reflection, we appreciated and began intentionally cultivating the metaphor because it honors types of knowledge and work that evaluation, its antecedent disciplines, and its surrounding industries have devalued and displaced.

What flavor would we like?
A variety of ground and whole spices

We first looked at other institutions’ statements. We decided that we would like AEA’s new statement to impart authenticity and genuine commitment to action, rather than performativity, at multiple ecological levels.

Any left-overs?
A fridge full of food and drinks

We then asked what from relevant documents that AEA had already developed we could reheat or refresh, what we needed to compost, and what we needed to make from scratch:

To Reheat & Refresh
hand holding fresh vegetables and spices

While we found little inspiration in these documents, we identified the ingredients that the new statement could include:

  • Definitions of relevant terms;
  • A hyperlinked timeline of pivotal moments in AEA’s DEI journey;
  • A more narrative account of how we got here including the context surrounding the 2011 Statement on Cultural Competence;
  • A description of our subgroup’s process for transparency and replication;
  • Citations to honor existing work.
  • Vetted resources to facilitate deeper engagement.
To compost

We found that previous documents do not explicitly state their underlying ethical and epistemological traditions or conceptualizations of justice, but use language that reflects thinking from the European Enlightenment, from Liberalism, and from distributive justice, which assumes that societal arrangements are fair. Keeping these implicit suggests that they are universal rather than specific to a particular time, place, and purpose. We propose that the updated statement compost or transform both opaqueness and individualism by:

  • Acknowledging its socio-historical time, place, and purpose—including COVID and recent uprisings against patriarchy, such as #MeToo, and against white supremacy and carcerality more generally since the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others.
  • Specifying its ethical and epistemological lineage and orientation toward justice as drawing from relational epistemologies and ethics of care,  which characterize many indigenous knowledge systems, and transformative justice, which acknowledges that societal arrangements are asymmetrical.
  • Conveying an explicitly systemic analysis that focuses on not just evaluation suppliers/ practitioners, but also demand/ sponsors, as well as other actors (higher ed, publishers, large firms, related industries) that dynamically influence whose knowledge and criteria influence decisions about resource allocation.
To make from scratch
various foods and spices laid out on a banana leaf

We realized that directing the statement to AEA’s current board as its audience would reinforce top-down ideas about accountability and structural change. We propose that the appropriate audience is not just AEA’s current board but future/ prospective/ potential evaluation leaders—all AEA members and the larger evaluation ecosystem. From AEA’s Topical Interest Groups to its board, the more accustomed we grow to producing knowledge relationally, the more equipped we are to make decisions collaboratively, and the more we cultivate deep democracy, beyond elections. We propose that the statement do so by:

  • Drawing from transformative justice, which focuses on regeneration—beyond repair and restoration—from harm. Treating conflict as a source of germination contrasts with white supremacy culture, which avoids the appearance of conflict at all costs, resulting in those with less authority or structural power not being permitted to voice their experiences, perspectives, and interests. Advocates of transformative justice create opportunities for people to practice direct conflict without manipulation and coercion through incentives or punishment.

How could AEA’s statement on DEI feed your transformative work, whatever role you play within the ecosystem? Please share in the comments.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting DEI Week with our colleagues in AEA’s DEI Working Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from working group 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.

3 thoughts on “AEA’s DEI Working Group Week: A DEI Statement that Feeds Transformation In, Through, and Around Evaluation by Jen Heeg, Donna Mertens, Esther Nolton, Vidhya Shanker, and Libby Smith”

  1. The list of resources is varied and rich. After reading this post, I just spent an hour reading different perspectives on relational epistemologies and ethics of care–and I’m so glad I did. Thank you for this post!

  2. Vidhya Shanker

    We’re so glad to see that our efforts at transparency, as part of our commitment to transformative justice and nonviolent communication more generally, allowed readers to learn more about our perspective and interests and that you took the time to read more and engage with us around areas where folx may disagree.

    You’ll notice that every idea listed in the blog entry was clearly noted as a proposal. Again, part of our point of rooting the work in transformative justice and relational epistemologies and ethical traditions is to model making decisions collectively–which we would like to see more of in evaluation and the industries that use its services and products. So our role as Working Group members will involve structuring group processes where AEA members can simply state their interests transparently–like we have tried to model through this post–and engage with each other as equals rather than by asserting positional authority and other hierarchies of rank/ status (whether earned or unearned), resorting to “majority rules,” questioning others’ intelligence/ education/ literacy or morals, violating others’ humanity or dignity through sarcasm, personal attacks, etc.

    Yes, transformative justice is closely aligned with anti-capitalist and abolitionist movements, which are closely aligned with each other. As such, it challenges relations of dominance and subordination, concentrated power, and the idea that anyone is disposable. So within transformative justice, there is always room for folx with differing and dissenting views, and in fact (as we wrote in the blog), conflict can be generative and knowledge can be produced relationally.

    But there is not room for the type of conflict listed above. That’s why transformative justice intentionally involves devoting time/ space/ community to developing skills in nonviolent conflict, because most of us have unfortunately internalized violent (physically, verbally, structurally, etc.) approaches to conflict that take advantage of existing social asymmetries (“might makes right”) and entail coercion and control through carceral logics of carrot-and-stick/ reward-and-punishment/ incentives-and-threats.

    Our process for arriving at an updated statement incorporates recognition that many groups have had to learn to engage with unfamiliar and uncomfortable languages, ideas, perspectives, people for generations. It will intentionally include opportunities informed by the learning from that legacy for all members to do so.

  3. I am not one of the authors and can’t answer for them, but would you be willing to offer your definition of capitalism? It’s not a given that we are always talking about the same thing.

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