LAWG Week: Leveraging Collective Agency: Empowering Stakeholders to Address Housing Issues in the Mississippi Delta by Olivia Melvin, Monica L. Coleman, and Moira A. Ragan

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, everyone, from a small part of our evaluation team at the University of Mississippi Center for Research EvaluationOlivia Melvin, native Mississippian and project coordinator on regional and international ed- and health-related projects; Monica Coleman, native Mississippian and doctoral candidate in Counselor Education and Supervision; and Moira Ragan, senior evaluation associate and psychometrician by trade. We’re facilitating our first empowerment evaluation as a direct response to the prominence of disempowerment evaluation in mainstream practices.

We have spent some time this year reflecting on the historic, and sometimes pervasive, distrust of research/evaluation in rural, low-income areas in Mississippi borne of failed interventions and the perception of outsiders’ performative empathy. In response, we’re exploring empowerment evaluation as a means of leveraging pre-existing—and often unrecognized—agency in local communities. 

We’re starting with a longstanding relationship between one of our team members and a community development organization in the MS Delta, focusing on addressing housing issues—both lack of access to affordable housing and lack of available housing options, overall. Empowerment evaluation is an ideal method for this work because of its focus on inclusion and ownership among stakeholders. What better topic to encourage buy-in and ownership of the planning, development and evaluation processes than in addressing home ownership?

Rad Resource

We will be adapting Fetterman’s virtual empowerment evaluation toolkit to conduct a hands-on, in-person workshop series. In partnership with the coalition, we will also be providing virtual resources and avenues for feedback to allow the inclusion of those who may not be able to join us in-person. Our goal is to create a space where all interested stakeholders can participate in capacity building for evaluation and strategic planning. 

Our current plan for recruitment targets financial and real-estate professionals, current and former educators, healthcare providers, political figures, community residents and all interested parties. We are still in the planning stages of this process and appreciate any and all feedback from our peers in the evaluation community. 

Hot Tips? We don’t have any yet, so let’s hear yours!

A few discussion questions for those of you who have completed similar projects: 

  • Who would you outline as being key stakeholders in this conversation? What variety of community roles would need to be present (or invited at the very least) to not perpetuate exclusionary community development planning? 
  • How do you increase buy-in for change-making without overpromising potential outcomes of the process? 
    • For example: It is crucial to involve the voices of unhoused people in the community. However, we cannot guarantee that the efforts of this year-long empowerment workshop series will result in short-term infrastructural change in these individuals’ lives. 
  • For evaluators who have conducted empowerment evaluations, what types of roles have you served in these settings (i.e., peer mentor, back-up support, resource provider)? 
    • As evaluators at a university-based center, we have access to many academic resources that the general public does not. How do we work around the barrier of paywalls? 

Please keep the discussion going in the comments so we can learn from each how to better engage and empower evaluation stakeholders!

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.

3 thoughts on “LAWG Week: Leveraging Collective Agency: Empowering Stakeholders to Address Housing Issues in the Mississippi Delta by Olivia Melvin, Monica L. Coleman, and Moira A. Ragan”

  1. Hi
    This sounds wonderful! I will try and add my two cents and respond to some of your questions above.

    Key stakeholders: I think you have most of the key stakeholders invited. Have you included faith-based leaders? They are critical.

    Increase buy-in but not overpromise: My response is just to be honest. Let them know you can not promise anything but you can help the entire community if they work together. Some may get access to housing, others will learn about the process, others may simply learn how the process of working together produces additional outcomes. They can use the same approach to access other resources and accomplish other objectives.

    What type of roles have you served: I tend to serve primarily as a coach, critical friend, and facilitator. I work closely in the community with folks who want to learn how to evaluate their own programs. I invite them to facilitate with me. I often lead at first, then have them lead (and I am there to back them up), and over time have them lead (with me there or not there at all – just available to prepare them and conduct a post-meeting review).

    Concerning technology you already know I tend to use technology that is aligned with empowerment evaluation principles, e.g. easy to use, free or inexpensive, does not discourage people from changing their minds and ratings (as they learn about new evidence), and so on.

    I hope these brief comments are helpful. Best wishes.

    – David

  2. Apologies team! My previous post should have been addressed to Olivia Melvin, Monica L. Coleman, and Moira A. Ragan. Apologies again! If I didn’t already mention it…your work is inspiring.
    Kind regards,
    Sarah Bartram

  3. Dear Elizabeth,

    I hope you and your team at the University of Mississippi Center for Research Evaluation are continuing to make progress with this inspiring initiative. I am currently a graduate student working to complete my master’s in education at Queens University in Kingston Ontario, Canada. Your blog has been interwoven throughout my current course; Program Inquiry and Evaluation. However, I will certainly be accessing your blog to expand and deepen my learning well beyond our course closure.

    I came into this course with little to know prior awareness of program evaluation terminology and the sheer scope of this topic overall. The world of evaluation is vast to say the least and the elements involved in doing it well and accurately are complex, diverse, and multi-faceted. For example, there is no question that effective inputs, outputs, and outcomes can be designed and laid out within a seemingly clearly outlined program theory to illustrate the housing issue of the Mississippi Delta region. However, I believe that a deeper understanding and application of social science theory is going to help ensure that initiatives put forth are designed with understanding and cultural sensitivities.

    I also believe that your evaluation methods and approach is the first step in building a bridge of greater understanding and trust between stakeholders and public/private initiatives. Holding space for stakeholders to provide their feedback communicates respect, commitment to their communities, and lets them know their perspectives are ultimately valued (Mason 2022).

    A question that came to mind when doing some basic background research on this area was:

    • How does the demographic and racial history, identities and relations of this area impact the dynamics of the evaluation?

    Arguably this is of relevance due to the pervasive, distrust of research/evaluation and the perception of outsiders’ performative empathy, as you have mentioned. Also, in accordance with your educational background and expertise:
    • What methods can and will be used to ensure cultural sensitivity when addressing and engaging with relevant stakeholders?

    I have not completed any similar projects but that’s not to say that I won’t be a part of such projects in the future. This is a topic that is of great interest to me as I see empowerment evaluation as providing greater opportunities to build stronger partnerships, bring about policy changes and decrease marginalized communities.

    Kind regards,
    Sarah Bartram

    Sarah Mason (2022) Disempowerment Evaluation and the Risks of Avoiding Stakeholder Feedback, Counseling Outcome Research and Evaluation, 13:1, 3-11, DOI: 10.1080/21501378.2022.2025586

    US Department Of Commerce. (2020a). United States Census Bureau. United States Census Bureau.

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