Hello colleagues, my name is Emely Medina-Rodriguez, Research Associate for Education Development Center, based in Chicago. I focus on culturally responsive and language appropriate evaluation and community engagement. This blog post centers on Empowerment Evaluation Theory’s roots in the works of Paulo Freire, a Latin American thinker.
Empowerment Evaluation Theory is a powerful tool to foster self-determination in communities that have been historically oppressed. It allows individuals to take ownership of their lives and work towards their aspirations with purpose and intention. Some of the main concepts of this theory respond to the evaluation industry’s practices that have disenfranchised communities in the United States and beyond. The theory has evolved toward understanding democratic and participatory research methodologies. Yet, the roots of Empowerment Evaluation are connected to Paulo Freire’s concepts of democracy, dialogue, and change (Fetterman, 2023). These ideas generate a transformative evaluation practice where community values are centered.
Paulo Freire was a revolutionary educator whose thought went beyond evaluation and research. Nevertheless, his ideas transcend through diverse industries and disciplines. Freire encountered socio-political unrest, a coup, and exile in his personal life, which informed his work, especially his most famous book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970. His work can be divided into four historical stages: activism, coup, exile, and return. His involvement in the Popular Culture Movement of Recife and his time leading President Joao Goulart’s alphabetization campaign inspired his 1970s book. The 1964 coup in Brazil dismantled many progressive policies and sent Freire to exile in Chile, where he expanded his educational theory and praxis with farmers. During his 17-year exile from Brazil, Freire worked inside and outside academia; his work in Guinea Bissau can be highlighted as an example of his commitment to using his pedagogy to work toward liberation and freedom. Returning to Brazil in 1980, he retook his political praxis and academic studies.
His work was profoundly political and based on his lifetime’s historical ebbs and flows. His pedagogy responds to the policies, laws, and social and educational structures that have for too long benefited the elites of each Latin American country and associates in other wealthy countries. These connections between education and politics come from a legacy of decolonization thinkers worldwide, especially those in the global south, such as Franz Fanon, Eduardo Nicol, or Albert Memmi. Classic progressive and socialist thinkers from the global north also inspired Freire, such as Antonio Gramsci, Erich Fromm, and Simone Weil, among others. Antonio Gramsci’s ideas on the education of the working class were translated into a methodology by Paulo Freire.
It is crucial for evaluators to thoroughly understand the history of empowerment evaluation to better contextualize and comprehend the theory’s roots and progression throughout time. Paulo Freire’s connection with the community from a politically conscious perspective encourages evaluators to support the oppressed instead of remaining impartial or objective. The primary objective of empowerment evaluation is not to report back to clients but to follow the lead of those who have identified oppression in their communities, regardless of where it takes them. Otherwise, there is a risk of overburdening communities that have already been overburdened historically. The development of the evaluation goes hand in hand with the development of the oppressed communities they serve. Being a guide is insufficient; evaluators should take a stand with the community and be willing to be a part of the change, even beyond the scope of the evaluation.
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