Is the concept of diversity obscuring your evaluation? by Salima Bhimani

Hello community of evaluators. I’m Salima Bhimani, Founder and Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Relational. Relational offers research and evaluation and consulting and education services to organizations, companies and institutions. My focus as an evaluator and researcher over the last two decades have been on addressing bias, discrimination and barriers faced by marginalized people in communities and institutions. Here I share the centrality of getting underneath the language of diversity so that evaluations can reveal how social inequities are designed into institutions and operate within them. 

Case for consideration:

Recently I conducted an evaluation for a higher education institution. They wanted to understand how to make their curriculum and pedagogies more accessible to the linguistic, gender, racial, ethnic and economic diverse constituencies they serve in more than 10 countries. These constituencies all fall under the same religious community. The institution already had a conceptualization of accessibility. Their understanding foregrounded that everyone should be able to obtain their resources and relate to them.  It was clear to me that their approach to accessibility was intimately connected to how they thought about what diversity means. In this circumstance, their benign conception of diversity was obscuring the connection between the social subjectivities of their constituencies and their relative power, voice and positioning in relation to their institution and the broader community.  That is, there was no analysis of the historical and contemporary dynamics of unequal relations between their constituencies that were implicitly and explicitly defining the curricular content and pedagogical approaches. What was required is an awareness of how their approaches and content were already shaped for those unquestionably thought to be the norm.

Hot Tip: Break open taken for granted notions of diversity

  • A benign concept of diversity flattens difference. It undermines and diminishes histories and cultural forces that design inequities within institutions and which relationally shape individual and group identities, positions, interests and needs
  • A more critical conception of diversity understands how people and their experiences are socially and politically constituted in relation to each other, even within a community with a shared identity
  • Such analysis is foundational to a more nuanced conceptualization of what the curriculum and pedagogies need to be and for whom
  • Accessibility then is directly entangled with social realities and the biases, barriers, and inequities experienced differently within social minority groups
  • Accessibility must be framed with a clear view of how social markers of difference intersect to inform experiences of access

Rad Resources:

As I have written before diversity is often used as a ‘safer’ concept within institutions. Yet, those researchers that have examined the limits of diversity as an institutional marker, make an incredibly strong case for why we should understand the function of its uses. We need be cautious and as evaluators ask whether the use of diversity in fact undermines goals towards equity and social justice.

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.

2 thoughts on “Is the concept of diversity obscuring your evaluation? by Salima Bhimani”

  1. @ Salima Bhimani – As an educator and counselor, my commitment to individualized care and culturally sensitive service is a huge part of my practice. Your article really ignited my thought process on so many levels. Step one started when you wrote, “It was clear to me that their approach to accessibility was intimately connected to how they thought about what diversity means.” It, perception, is uncategorically the worst breeding ground for false frameworks, system, data and more. This is perhaps also connected to the lack of historical context. Next, your HOT TIPS, furthered fanning my fire. Your articulation of the issues and solutions is so lit. To begin, “A benign concept of diversity flattens difference.” I cannot describe on how many levels this resonated with me as a multiethnic woman, who checks off even more diverse boxes on the diversity checklist than the two listed. I really want to investigate this further because upon first thought I think of the bystander effect and how damaging silence can be. All that aside, I think the key piece that you really left me with is how “We need be cautious and as evaluators ask whether the use of diversity in fact undermines goals towards equity and social justice”. People, evaluators, organizations want to be, or at least appear “aware” and “inclusive”. Diversity is definitely not only a safe word, but also one that check a box that impresses the stakeholders, whether implemented or not.

  2. Arnell Garrett

    I absolutely love this! I do a lot of evaluation for institutions that want to diversify their populations but have never thought about the history of segregation within those institutions and communities. Reading your article reminds me that understanding the history of a problem is integral to understanding how to reverse it and should be taken into account in evaluations. Thank you for writing this!

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