FIE TIG Week: Evaluation at a crossroads: Time to choose who we want to be and how we think by Vidhya Shanker

"I think if we stick to those categories of race, class, and gender, we are stuck." - Grace Lee Boggs

Greetings from Vidhya Shanker, an interdependent evaluation scholar and practitioner. With the new year, the inauguration, and the launch of vaccinations, it’s easy to let diverse optics fool us into thinking that we’ve turned a corner and lull us back to business as usual. This liberal narrative of progress—from which evaluation and its surrounding industries are born—descends from the European Enlightenment. As we congratulate ourselves for rejecting hate, we may forget that extreme violence doesn’t come from nowhere. Many recent events that shocked members of our field who were reluctant to name and actively resist systems of oppression had been predicted and in fact experienced by “others,” who were consistently dismissed until this country’s violent foundation was increasingly laid bare.

We are now at a crossroads: Will that new-found awareness dissipate? Be co-opted to advance individual careers/ departments/ organizations? Or be channelled into an ongoing resistance movement for collective liberation?

"You don’t choose the times you live in,but you do choose who you want to be. And you do choose how you think." - Grace Lee Boggs

This crossroads could also be considered the off-season: The systems that evaluation serves constitute precisely the apparatus through which whiteness and cis-hetero-patriarchy have quietly strengthened themselves for centuries, and through which both will continue reproducing exponentially without deliberate counter-action by evaluation.

A year ago, I first wrote about why is #EvaluationSoWhite? and the invisible labor of women of color and indigenous women in evaluation, in honor of Dr. Anna Madison. It took me three months to write the next installment, honoring Dr. Kien Lee, in what was imagined as a series of such posts. Between the COVID-induced home-schooling, elder-care, state-sponsored murder of George Floyd blocks from my home, white nationalist attack on the Capitol, and ongoing vilification of Asian Americans as perpetually foreign terrorists and carriers of disease, only the squeakiest of wheels and most magnanimous of colleagues have managed to eke additional work out of me. Coronavirus both brutally and beautifully illustrates the transformational power of interconnectedness, particularly in relation to groups surviving and resisting ongoing oppression. Nature always reminds us—this time, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, which commemorates a resistance movement of immigrant women textile workers—that structural change cannot rest on any individual’s shoulders.

"In the middle of catastrophe, in the middle of disaster,people—particularly people who have already suffered—see an opportunity to evolve to anotherstage of humanity...." - Grace Lee Boggs

To be sustainable, the deliberate counter-action that evaluation takes must be collective. Moreover, while individuals and institutions must develop their own muscle for understanding oppression, evaluation’s collective counter-action must be led by those who risked our academic and professional careers sounding alarm bells while the field as a whole was doing business as usual. Below are two small ways to ensure that evaluation’s awareness doesn’t dissipate and its counter-action remains rooted in the analysis and liberation of excluded and harmed groups rather than personality-driven or motivated by professional profit and government savings.

Hot Tips:

To ensure evaluation’s counter-action is collective and rooted in the analysis and liberation of excluded and harmed groups:

  1. Join members of the Feminist Evaluation Regenerative Network in repairing the canon by amplifying the contributions of those who have actively contributed to evaluations understanding of oppression since the 1930s but have been omitted from evaluation’s textbooks, Oral History Project, and awards. Accept this invitation to fund, design, collect, and write or otherwise share their stories.
  2. Co-create, sign, and share this pledge refusing to profit professionally from evaluation #wanels, #manels, and other homogeneous opportunities.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Feminist Issues in Evaluation (FIE) TIG Week with our colleagues in the FIE Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our FIE 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. 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.

4 thoughts on “FIE TIG Week: Evaluation at a crossroads: Time to choose who we want to be and how we think by Vidhya Shanker”

  1. Dr. Kathryn Mathes

    Vidhya, I appreciate this very direct and very clear call to action! The message in this piece reminds me of the passionate and poignant writings of Austin Channing Brown, no punches are pulled. As evaluators we DO have to be viligant, reflective, reflexive, mindful, curious, and skeptical. Religiously using our best evaluative thinking skills not only to look “out there” but look “in here” closely studying our own “isms” [learned associations], acknowledging that we [specifically white people] contribute to the perpetuation of systemic oppression and inequity, regardless of intention. Knowing that breaking down deeply embedded structures that harm, marginalize and disenfranchise takes proactive intentionality and a collective effort, I pledge to join evaluation’s collective counter-action.

    1. Vidhya Shanker

      Thank you so kindly–what an honor to be compared to Austin Channing Brown, who showed up in one of my feeds just today (someone was quoting and praising her writing)!

      I’m so glad you took the pledge and hope that you and others will also consider contributing to repair the canon of its exclusion and erasure of women of color and indigenous women, queer folks, and folks with disabilities in evaluation.

  2. Vidhya Shanker

    Thanks for your comment, Sarah! (I was waiting to respond because I believe most people still haven’t received the original post in their email–only some have seen it through social media, thanks to a technological issue that has affected other posts as well.)

    The biggest resistance I’ve encountered from previous colleagues who preferred to do social justice work “out there” but never wanted to look “in here” was always, “We know all this. What are we supposed to do about it?”

    Unless we look really deeply and specifically at how power and control are embodied, enacted, and reproduced through our everyday socio-economic interactions, we cannot repair or reverse the dynamic whose accumulated asymmetry now appears natural–where authority is “automatically” conferred to particular phenotypes and physical representations and denied to others.

    What is called “unconscious bias” and “implicit bias” is actually “learned association” through repetition–more Pavlovian than instinctive. Changing the pattern is far more threatening than social justice programming “out there” for people who derive their authority from inequitable structures. This is where the structural and the personal meet.

    I appreciate your willingness to change the spaces you’re in/ invited to, and more importantly to reflect on how it may feel and be perceived when you share it, and with whom. It’ll be interesting to see what proportion of those reading and sharing the post commit publicly to refusing to profit from homogeneous panels/ forums/ opportunities.

  3. Sarah Stachowiak

    Vidhya, thank you for sharing this and providing concrete actions steps. Based on a tweet you posted awhile back, I didn’t immediately accept an invitation for a gathering of folks to talk about field needs and instead probed on who had been invited. My asking and lifting up other evaluators of color, who really should have been on that list, made a difference in who got invited to be part of that conversation. It was a really small step, and I’m not trying to say, “yay for me”, but I share it to encourage others to ask more questions and think about whether you really need to fill a particular seat at that moment in time. I really credit your commitment and raising of the issue to helping me be more aware and make changes in my own behavior–thank you for your continued efforts to make our field better, less damaging, and more just.

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