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Independent Consulting (IC) TIG Week: Why Claiming Neutrality Creates Harm by Naaima Khan

Hi, I’m Naaima Khan. I am an evaluation, strategic planning, and facilitation design consultant with my business, Create Good, based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I have spent the past five years helping my clients, who are social good organizations, collective impact groups and intermediaries, operationalize their commitments to racial and economic justice. And in that time, I’ve learned a lot.

Lessons Learned

As evaluation consultants, we’re often asked to step into a more facilitative role of helping clients make decisions with data. In my additional experience as a strategic planning consultant and DEI practitioner, I see a huge missed opportunity in our field’s perceived conundrum: balancing our influence on clients’ choices with the responsibility to remain “neutral and objective.”

It’s time to challenge the myths of neutrality and objectivity. While neutrality may be legally constructed as a circumstance in which a mediator or “neutral” party does not have a stake in the outcomes of cases involving meditation and alternative dispute resolution, it doesn’t apply to every scenario we encounter as evaluators. That’s because the collection, interpretation and use are not neutral or objective; these processes are all framed through our subjective lenses.

At a recent training on participatory facilitation, I asked how we, as facilitators, can claim neutrality when we inevitably carry our worldviews and biases into any process we facilitate. One of the lead trainers dismissed my question, insisting that she prefers to remain objective and neutral with her clients. Throughout the session, my concerns were largely ignored.

Sure enough, later in the session, during a role-playing exercise where we replicated decision making after going through a participatory exercise with a group, one of my fellow trainees, a white woman, asked. “Why didn’t we analyze the lack of racial experiences sooner? “It’s too late by the decision-making stage.” She referred back to my question early in the session, and whileI appreciated her accompliceship in the moment, the lead trainers still didn’t grasp the concept.

How can you bring racial and economic equity consciousness to a group without interjecting an equity lens (a.k.a without being objective and neutral)?

It didn’t help that I was the only person of color in the training.

Hot Tips

While we shouldn’t use an equity analysis as an excuse to impose biases on our clients’ decisions, we must be clear about our positionality and the power dynamics we hold as well as those at play with and within our client organizations. Consultants being transparent about our biases and considering how to carefully navigate across power dynamics allows clients to make more critical and better-informed decisions based on our analysis of the data.

Rather than pretending we can be objective, we should practice self-reflexivity. Self-reflexivity in evaluation entails critically examining one’s own biases, assumptions, and influence on the research process. It involves ongoing self-awareness and transparency about how personal and cultural perspectives shape data collection, analysis, and interpretation. This practice aims to enhance the validity and ethical rigor of evaluations by acknowledging and addressing the evaluator’s positionality and its impact on the findings.

This means acknowledging and owning our roles in communities, systems, and structures that shape how we collect, interpret, and use data as during our evaluation projects.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting IC TIG Week with our colleagues in the Independent Consulting Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our IC 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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