LAWG Week: Advising for Equity in Evaluation by Emmy O’Dwyer

Greetings, AEA365 readers! Liz DiLuzio here, Lead Curator of the blog. To whet our appetites for this year’s conference in beautiful New Orleans, this week’s posts come to us from the feature the perspectives of the Gulf Coast Eval Network (GCEval) members, where the uniqueness of doing evaluation in the gulf south will be on display. Happy reading!

Hello, I’m Emmy O’Dwyer, the founder and principal consultant of Advancing Communities for Equity. When I began my own consulting firm, I was excited to fully claim antiracism as a value and equity as the lens for my work. I wondered, What projects might I support that help create stronger communities for all? As someone who has primarily focused on strategy development and programs, I could not have imagined myself in a quantitative wonderland of evaluation, raw data, and coding.

A previous client, First Steps Kent, asked that I work with the external evaluation team that had been selected through a Request for Proposal process (RFP) as an adviser on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for the 39 programs it supports. FSK administers $5.9 million taxpayer dollars annually to fund early childhood programs in Kent County, Michigan with the ultimate goal of improving the health, school readiness, and wellbeing of young children. The team would be evaluating the impact of taxpayer investment by examining the impact of those programs on early childhood outcomes. 

I built out my scope to reflect an equity lens, centered on these questions:  

  • How is power operating? 
  • Whose participation, needs, and input are reflected? Who is missing? 
  • What might be the root causes for why certain groups are not reflected? 
  • What structural, systemic, and institutional barriers might be at play, and how can these be addressed or reduced?

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to impact FSK’s pioneering work. Inspired by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, author of Decolonizing Methodologies, I wondered if I might be able to contribute in some small way, to enhance the process to “reduce racist practices and attitudes, ethnocentric assumptions and exploitative research.” It has been a valuable process that has taught me a great deal. 

I have had the opportunity to work with a progressive team of evaluation experts at Basis Policy Research for this process. Here are my three big takeaways so far:

  1. Commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion staff people, and professional development for your evaluation team.  Most organizations are working to build these muscles, and each individual begins at their own starting point. Commit to DEI by prioritizing staff on your team who can support the professional development of the team, and integrate  equity into organizational policy and practice, and into the external work that is produced. The evaluation proposal should reflect a DEI lens on the front-end, including the research questions, process, methods, and outputs. If it doesn’t, bring in some help.
  1. Be flexible and open, co-creating with the community of stakeholders. I was brought in to support the work of Basis Policy Research led by Senior Researcher, Dr. Kiel McQueen, who carries himself with the true spirit of a scientist: curious and objective. He and the Basis team have been open to my questions and suggestions, sometimes those which may upend a well-established practice. For example: Evaluation work often concerns itself with the experiences of those participating. However, equity concerns itself with who may be excluded. How do we approach the process, to identify and learn why families may not be participating? 
  1. Begin and end with community. Evaluation work can reinforce inequities when it does not take into account what participants (not clients) want from the process. Historically marginalized communities are often the subject of transactional engagement, in the form of webinars, surveys, and focus groups. These brief encounters are often translated into new ‘knowledge,’ where we may be assuming to tell a community about themselves, and then move on. How can we co-lead with them, the true stakeholders of the work, who are best positioned to tell us what they need? 

Read the full story on my webpage.

We’re looking forward to the Evaluation 2022 conference all this week with our colleagues in the Local Arrangements Working Group (LAWG). 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 contribute to AEA365? Review the contribution guidelines and send your draft post to 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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