Facilitating Trauma-Informed Evaluations: Creating a Safe Space for New Yorkers to Process Their COVID-19 Experience by Elizabeth DiLuzio

Happy weekend! I’m Elizabeth DiLuzio, volunteer curator for AEA365. I recently had the honor of facilitating a participatory evaluation workshop for a group of New Yorkers who provide domestic violence services. The workshop was designed to both teach and give a first-hand experience of participatory evaluation structures by conducting a real-time evaluation. As such, we needed to identify a shared experience so that every attendee could fully participate. While their experience of the NYC government’s response to COVID-19 was the most obvious topic, I was admittedly hesitant. Having been the country’s epicenter of the pandemic’s impact, I assumed the participants were surely going to be carrying trauma from their experience both as NYC residents and as social service providers. In this blog, I share the decisions and trauma-informed practices I incorporated in order to increase my odds of hosting a productive and meaningful conversation.

Before deciding to engage in a conversation about COVID-19 with the group, I began by asking myself the following questions:

  1. What are the benefits of engaging in this conversation? 
  2. What are the potential drawbacks?
  3. Should I host this conversation or do the drawbacks outweigh the benefits?
  4. If I move forward, how can I mitigate the drawbacks?

Once I decided that the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks, it was time to put trauma-informed practices in place to reduce harm. Here are a few I incorporated:

  1. Obtain Consent – This step enables your participants to feel autonomy over the conversations in which they engaged. I ensured every participant was open to discussing their COVID-19 experience through an anonymous poll. If I did not get 100% consent, we would have selected a different topic.
  2. Give Warning – Sometimes consent is realistic. In those instances, trauma-informed practice recommends providing participants warning about the topic to be discussed, preferably before the day of discussion. This will give them time to prepare and/or discretely opt out of the conversation.
  3. Identify Trauma Responses –  Trauma-informed practice suggests that it’s a good idea to take some time to identify the early warning signs of retraumatization. You can adapt the length of the discussion and the method of engagement to the group’s familiarity with trauma and their level of self-awareness. Being that the workshop I facilitated was a group of domestic violence providers, I assumed their levels of familiarity and self-awareness were high and did a quick go-around to share the physical signs that tell us we are having a reaction.
  4. Give Permission to Leave – Before the conversation begins, remind participants that they are free to take a break or leave the conversation at any time. Depending on the participants or the situation, you might want to go into detail about how to exit.
  5. Safety Plan – When grief hits, it can be difficult to remember how to take care of oneself. Even if a participant has the insight to leave a conversation that’s becoming difficult to engage in, they may struggle with the tools to return themselves to baseline. As a facilitator, you might consider providing a few self-care prompts.
  6. Stay Present – Not only is it important to watch your participants for signs of stress, it’s important to keep in touch with your emotions as well. When the group’s energy shifts, or when you feel a shift in your own energy, it’s likely time to pause the conversation. You might consider checking in with how everyone is feeling or simply taking a break. I can remember how heavy our energy felt after the groups shared their memories of the COVID-19 outbreak last spring. The number of people who noted the refrigerated trucks outside of the hospitals was especially jarring for me. I paused, shared how I was feeling, and opened the space for others to share. We then took a 5 minute break before continuing on.
  7. End Thoughtfully – It’s important to consider how you want your participants to leave the conversation. Is there additional safety planning that should be done? Is there a way to leave things on an optimistic or autonomous note? What are the next steps you can share to foster hope and support? Because our workshop theme was participatory evaluation, our final conversation was about action planning. We discussed the things within our control that we could impact and who we could ask for help.

Rad Resource

For these and other trauma-informed practices within the classroom or workshop setting, you could read Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies by Jessica Minahan.

With some careful planning, emotionally intelligent participants, and a bit of luck, we had a successful workshop. At the end, participants noted feeling optimistic and better connected to their colleagues. Along the way, they shared profound reflections on their experience of COVID-19, the evaluation process, and the impact of choosing to engage in a participatory manner.

Now it’s your turn: What other trauma-informed techniques do you incorporate into your evaluation practice? Drop me a note in the comment section below or share with us in the Evaluators’ Slack Channel. I look forward to hearing from you!

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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