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LEEAD Fellows Alumni Curated Week: Evaluation: A Dirty Word by Chelsey Branham

Chokma! Saholchifoat Chelsey Branham, Chickasha saya mentali okla humma. Greetings! I’m Chelsey Branham, a Chickasaw from Oklahoma. I own One Whole Village Consulting LLC., a firm specializing in increasing structural equity in institutions through evaluation, strategy, and development. As an associate professor in the Smith College School for Social Work, I teach policy and evaluation from Indigenous and BIPOC perspectives.

We know evaluation is the key to informed decision making, and a first step in developing programs and services. But for many BIPOC communities, especially Indigenous Peoples, evaluation can be and has been a long-standing tool of oppression. It’s been used to portray Indigenous communities as helpless, depraved, or incompetent; pathologize settler-colonial-perpetrated traumas; reinforce harmful stereotypes; and justify harmful, extra-community “interventions” and even genocide.

Unsurprisingly, for many, evaluation is a dirty word; it is often met with resistance regardless of whether the evaluator is an outsider or insider. Some communities refuse to even speak to researchers/evaluators, because Indigenous Peoples have seen evaluation used to justify the removal of children, erosion of federal treaty rights, and dissolution of tribal governments, just to name a few.

Lesson Learned

Practitioners have a burden and duty to bridge this chasm by centering evaluation that honors the voices and knowledges of participants, rather than whitewashed, westernized approaches that invisibilize entire peoples. We must focus on relationship and trust development with the individuals we seek to serve and prioritize those relationships above evaluative plans and objectives. In many cases, we must throw our objectives out the window and be ok with fits and starts, especially if what we planned does not adequately presence the nuances of peoples’ stories–including divergent voices and experiences.

These 7 commitments are a great guide in this journey, which hold that evaluations must:

  1. meet community goals,
  2. presence the specific community’s ontological and epistemological understandings,
  3. center the language and cultural context shared by knowledge keepers–including invisibilized identities,
  4. be conducted by those with responsive training,
  5. ensure sovereignty, communal ownership of and access to shared knowledge,
  6. have community insiders contextualize and interpret findings,
  7. invite community insiders into every step of the process to ensure they are the conveyers of the stories in the data project.

I led an evaluation with a small tribe in southern Oklahoma, and followed the 7 commitments even as an “insider.” My team was challenged to develop an engagement strategy for common familial structures using culturally significant and legible communication. Many of this tribe’s children live with non-parental caretakers like grandmothers or aunties, for whom collection methods like digital surveys, text or email may not be personable, accessible or trustworthy. Instead, they value phone calls, informal chats at the powwow or council meeting or notes in students’ Friday folders. Even in a small department of a small tribe within a rural nation, nuances abound. We must turn towards these complexities as part of the vibrancy and beauty of this nation’s story. This commitment granted access to necessary resources and ultimately cultivation of a new generation of knowledge keepers and native speakers.

Rad Resources

Below are some articles to continue and expand the conversation.

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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