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How a Seasoned Consultant Navigates Social-Justice-Oriented Evaluation by Jara Dean-Coffey

Hi, I am Jara Dean-Coffey, founder of Luminare Group and The Equitable Evaluation Initiative, and an AEA board member. Thinking about how to deal with push back in social-justice-oriented evaluation takes me back to the beginning of my career. 

When I started in consulting in California, it was a different landscape. Conversion foundations were emerging, for-profit management firms were seeing philanthropy as a potential market, and the philanthropic industrial complex was emerging. And as for diversity, it was not on the radar screen, let alone inclusion or the pursuit of equity and justice (with the exception of a few progressive social justice funders and collaboratives).

In those days, when I joined a consulting team, I fulfilled two quotas: female and African American. Oh, and back then I would have been considered young – so maybe three. I have always been very aware of what happens when I step into a room and have sought to manage that in a way that advances the work and protects my core. 

Through all of this, I had to learn early on how to navigate push-back successfully. Over time, I’ve created a list of values and questions to ask myself as I conduct my work as an evaluator, a strategist, and someone seeking to push practice. 

What might I share with others seeking to navigate the social justice evaluation waters? A few things come to mind: 

  • Know yourself: I cannot stress this enough. Know what your strengths and your breaking points are. Name the values informing your work. Decide your non-negotiables and don’t negotiate. 
  • Pay more attention: Especially when it comes to what people do, not just what they say.
  • Unpack the “push-back”: Evaluation and social justice have, shall we say, a complex relationship. Unless you can identify what the push-back is about, it’s likely you will not be able to move forward. 
  • Relationships matter: I try to not take money from someone that I would not want to spend time with if they were not paying me. 
  • Determine what is at stake: This is both personal and professional. Evaluation operates in the U.S. in a capitalistic context. Bills need to get paid. The smarter you are about who you say yes to in terms of the work, the greater the likelihood you will be able to navigate whatever may come up in those relationships. 

I hope this framework is useful as you navigate the intersection of social-justice and evaluation. At the end of the day, remember who you are and aim to be as true as you can be in your work. 

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” 

-Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter

Tomorrow, Mellie shares resources to assist with social justice work.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Multicultural Issues in Evaluation (MIE) TIG Week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our MIE 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 “How a Seasoned Consultant Navigates Social-Justice-Oriented Evaluation by Jara Dean-Coffey”

  1. Very wise words about how to personally promote social justice. Are there initiatives the Equitable Evaluation Initiative has succeeded at that the rest of us evaluators can learn from? I have signed up to your newsletter…. Warmly, Jindra of Valuing Voices

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