EPE TIG Week: Two Social Justice Lessons for Environmental Program Evaluators by Marti Frank

I’m Marti Frank, a researcher and evaluator based in Portland, Oregon. Over the last three years I’ve worked in the energy efficiency and social justice worlds, and it’s given me the opportunity to see how much these fields have to teach one another.

For evaluators working with environmental programs – and energy efficiency in particular – I’ve learned two lessons that will help us do a better job documenting the impacts of environmental programs.

Lessons Learned:

1) A program designed to address an environmental goal – for example, reduce energy use or clean up pollution, will almost always have other, more far reaching impacts. As evaluators, we need to be open to these in order to capture the full range of the program’s benefits.

Example: A weatherization workshop run by Portland non-profit Community Energy Project (where I am on the Board), teaches people how to make simple, inexpensive changes to their home to reduce drafts and air leaks. While the program’s goal is to reduce energy use, participants report many other benefits: more disposable income, reduced need for public assistance, feeling less worried about paying bills, having more time to spend with family.

2) Not all people will be equally impacted by an environmental program, or even impacted in the same way. Further, there may be systematic differences in how, and how much, people are impacted.

Example #1: Energy efficiency programs assign a single value for energy savings, even though the same quantity of savings will mean very different things to different households, depending in large part on their energy burden  (or the percent of their income they spend on energy).

Example #2: A California energy efficiency program provided rebates on efficient household appliances, like refrigerators. Although the rebates were available to everyone, the households who redeemed them (and thus benefited from the program) were disproportionately wealthy and college-educated, relative to all Californians.

Rad Resources:

I’ve found three evaluation approaches to be helpful in identifying unintended impacts of environmental programs.

Outcome harvesting. This evaluation practice encourages us to look for all program outcomes, not just those that were intended. Ricardo Wilson-Grau, who developed it, hosts this site with materials to get you started.

Intersectionality. This conceptual approach originated in feminist theory and reminds us to think about how differing clusters of demographic characteristics influence how we experience the world and perceive benefits of social programs.

Open-ended qualitative interviews. It’s hard to imagine unearthing unexpected outcomes using closed-ended questions. I always enjoy what I learn from asking open-ended questions, giving people plenty of time to respond, and even staying quiet a little too long. And, I’ve yet to find an interviewee who doesn’t come up with another interesting point when asked, “Anything else?”

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Environmental Program Evaluation TIG Week with our colleagues in the Environmental Program Evaluation Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our EPE 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.

1 thought on “EPE TIG Week: Two Social Justice Lessons for Environmental Program Evaluators by Marti Frank”

  1. Thank you so much for your enlightening blog post. After I read your post, it is so obvious that energy efficiency and the social justice world are inextricably linked, but in my experience, it is rarely discussed or considered.

    It brings to mind the island nations that may be disappearing due to climate change through mainly no fault of their own. Do countries that pollute the most owe it to those who pollute the least, if or when a country become uninhabitable? Will those polluting countries accept climate refugees?

    I also liked your example of how a program that aims to address an environmental goal will often have more than one impact. How empowering for a family who is struggling to make ends meet, to make some simple, inexpensive changes to their homes and feel some of the burden lifting off their shoulders. This outcome is above and beyond the environmental impact.
    Intersectionality is a great way to remind program planners and evaluators to think about how to consider all demographics when designing a program to make it accessible to those who need the services the most.
    Again, thank you for your post. I am going to look further into outcome harvesting with the help of your link.

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