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LEEAD Fellows Alumni Curated Week: How to Shift from a Deficit to a Systems or Asset Approach in our Evaluation Work by Nitya Venkateswaran

Hello! I am Nitya Venkateswaran, from RTI International’s Transformative Research Unit for Equity (TRUE) where I direct evaluations of initiatives aimed to transform education systems using culturally responsive and equitable evaluation (CREE) methods. I also lead TRUE’s Equity Capacity Building Hub, dedicated to enhancing the capacity of researchers to use CREE evaluation and research methods using RTI’s equity-centered transformative research framework. In our workshops, we teach evaluators how to shift from a deficit to a systems or asset approach (see the Rad Resource Table) so that our work does not perpetuate harmful narratives that are at odds with social justice goals. 

Lesson Learned

Unfortunately, a deficit approach is often baked into our work as evaluators because we want to help our clients eliminate inequities by conducting evaluations of their programs, services, or initiatives. We focus on the problems because we want to change them, but this can do more damage than we realized. When people are only defined by their challenges, we tend to see individuals or communities as the problem to be fixed. We don’t interrogate the systems that cause the conditions or the outcomes nor do we recognize the assets of the communities as they navigate systems of oppression. We can shift from using a deficit perspective in any stage of the evaluation, by using a systems or asset approach

Rad Resources

See all the rad resources linked in the table below and ways to shift from a deficit to a systems or asset approach.

Evaluation research questionsFocus on understanding the challenges that individuals or a community face or a negative outcome or inequity.Focus on understanding the aspects of oppressive systems that lead to inequitable outcomes; examining whether a system has changed as a result of an intervention. Focus on understanding the cultural wealth of communities which allows communities to “to survive and resist oppression.” 
ExampleWhat causes Black people to have adverse health outcomes?What aspects of the healthcare system impact access to equitable health care for Black Americans? What aspects of Black social networks help individuals diagnosed with chronic diseases succeed?     
Data collection and indicatorsIndicators or survey/interview questions that ask about negative outcomes, challenges, or experiences with oppression.Self-reported experiences with discrimination or oppression in a particular system; system change (e.g., policy, mental models); measures of structural racism.Asset indicators describing the conditions or outcomes communities aspire to.
ExampleDropout ratesUnderstanding factors that “push” students out of school, such as discipline policies and school cultureGraduation rates
Interpretation and communicationUse language that emphasizes challenges, shortcomings or deficits, or only highlights negative outcomes or factors in a community. Provide information on the systemic factors that cause outcomes and name the actors in the system that cause inequities. Define people and communities by their assets or strengths;. Use person first language and language that is not stigmatizing. 
ExampleFirst generation college students graduate from college at lower rates than students whose parents earned a bachelor’s degree. Students first in their families to attend college face structural barriers that impact their ability to persist through graduation, such as excessive cost of college education and lack of personalized support. Students first in their families to attend college aspire to attain undergraduate degrees and need to navigate structural barriers. 

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1 thought on “LEEAD Fellows Alumni Curated Week: How to Shift from a Deficit to a Systems or Asset Approach in our Evaluation Work by Nitya Venkateswaran”

  1. Nitya – thank you for this post. It resonates with my experience in organizational capacity assessment, and the work Don Clifton has done on strength-base leadership (which Gallup has taken up).

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