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FIE TIG Week: The power of stories and woman to create change: Sophonisba Breckenridge, Edith Abbott and innovative evaluation by Michelle DiStefano

Thank you for pausing during your busy day to read this post, I’m Michelle DiStefano. I am fortunate and humbled to combine my passions and work as the Community Research Associate Director for the Pace Center for Girls (Pace) in Jacksonville, FL. Pace believes in creating a just and equitable future where the young women we serve have power.

This contribution to the Feminist TIG blog posts combines the influence of women and storytelling in a very abridged tale of two of my favorite female evaluators who understood the power of a story grounded in data, Sophonisba Breckenridge and Edith Abbott. The first step in creating an equitable space for women is to acknowledge the influences of women. In addition, storytelling has a long history of being leveraged as a conduit of change in the public and non-profit sectors.

Breckenridge and Abbott were residents of the well-known settlement house, Hull House in Chicago. In addition to their residency at Hull House Sophonisba Breckenridge and Edith Abbott were professors at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy and would later establish the groundbreaking School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. They lived with Jane Addams, dined with John Dewey, befriended Alice Hamilton (a woman who was among the first people to report on the horrid conditions of work in factories) and advocated for safe, affordable, and livable housing for the immigrants who worked in the Chicago Stockyards.

As residents of Hull House, they, like all settlement residents, lived among the people they wanted to help. Breckenridge and Abbott decided that the men of Chicago’s municipal government needed to know about the conditions in which immigrants were forced to live. Like many of their contemporaries, Breckenridge and Abbott believed that governments could and should intervene to improve the lives of the people they represented. To persuade the men, they decided to conduct a detailed evaluation of the conditions.

They walked door to door in the surrounding neighborhoods of Hull House and the Stockyards to collect data on the residents of the neighborhood. Before Upton Sinclair had even conceived of writing the Jungle, Breckenridge and Abbott drew maps of the neighborhoods and compiled detailed demographics of people who lived in each house. They examined and determined where ethnic groups lived. They observed which ethnic groups were more likely to have extended family or friends living together. They calculated the ratio of people to rooms. They drew maps to uncover the patterns in the data.

Map from Housing Conditions in Chicago, III: Back of the Yards, 1911
Map from Housing Conditions in Chicago, III: Back of the Yards, 1911

Each time they collected data, they asked new questions of it. To increase the effectiveness and clarity of the data, the reports they wrote included pictures of the data (or the people) they observed. They put the human face to the numbers and patterns. The result was a story told of families, people, children struggling to survive. The outcome was a change to housing laws, which are the foundations of contemporary housing codes. Breckenridge’s and Abbott’s stories changed the lives of many; just as we hope to do with the stories we tell.

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.

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