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Independent Consulting TIG Week: How Rural Folks Shared Their Skepticism Around Evaluation and What We Did About It by Cheralynn Corsack

Hi everyone, my name is Cheralynn Corsack and I am founder and principal of Cheralynn Corsack Consulting, LLC. I help organizations who lift up rural communities to measure what matters and make data-informed decisions. I’m passionate about data that centers peoples’ experiences, giving data back to those who provided it, and facilitating conversations to empower people to contextualize, understand, and use their data to take action.

People are skeptical of evaluators. Even what we call ourselves sounds daunting. We look closely at communities’ work and lives. We measure things they already have a good sense of anecdotally. We ask to hear their stories. And then all that data goes somewhere they often don’t have access to. If people kept asking for my opinions and no noticeable change happened, I would be skeptical too.

Recently, I worked on a project in rural Tennessee, tucked west of the Appalachians and far east of Nashville. My colleague and I drove up there. We were welcomed by higher-ups, given a key card to get through locked doors, and shown a space to hold focus groups and interviews. We put signs up informing everyone of the project and set up the most extensive snack table I’ve ever seen.

Immediately, in the second interview I conducted, I was met by hesitation and skepticism. The man I interviewed explained that people had been there before, “higher ups” and outsiders had already asked questions and made promises. This staff member wasn’t so sure his suggestions would turn into action. I shared a small bit of my values with him, how it isn’t fun for me to see peoples’ stories disappear either and that it’s my job to ensure his experience is heard and to push for changes based on all the things we learn during interviews. And this time, there is a grant supporting leadership to make changes. Lastly, of course, I also explained exactly who his words and stories would be shared with and affirmed that it’s okay if he doesn’t want to participate. 

This interview was the most outward skepticism I experienced over the three days on-site, yet I could feel hesitation heavy in the air during other interviews and pacing down the halls as staff members talked to each other about who we were and why we were there. 

After a long focus group and more than 40 mini interviews, my colleague and I sat down at the bar of a BBQ place as it was closing for the night, each with a pulled pork sandwich and mac and cheese. We talked. We can’t be the people who continue to ask for their experiences and challenges and not get something done about it. How can we tell participants we heard what they said and what’s happening next? We decided on a one-pager – gorgeous and a tad flashy. We’d put it into an email and post it in hallways. 

Lesson Learned

In the future, I’d love to have a conversation with our clients about when they’ve asked folks to share their experiences and suggestions in the past. What did that look like (ex. interviews, informal conversations, surveys)? And then, what happened with that information? Were changes made? Did they share anything back with the people they talked to? This will help us get a better sense of the history of evaluation-type work in an organization and better understand where the people we are interviewing are coming from. It will also start conversations with our client about the importance of collecting data for action and sharing data back with those who provided it.

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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