My elevator speech only goes to the second floor by Sheila B Robinson

Hello AEA365 community! Sheila B Robinson here, Lead Curator and sometimes Saturday contributor. I’m not good at elevator speeches. It was easy as a special education teacher, my first career. “I work with high school students with disabilities.” Everyone knew what that meant, and nodded in understanding. As we know, it’s not that easy an evaluator!

Arriving in Minneapolis for Evaluation 2019, I took the light rail from the airport to a station near my hotel, about a half mile away. A frequent traveler, I’m comfortable walking with luggage in tow. But the November weather certainly wasn’t “Minnesota nice.” A strong cold wind made it uncomfortable and difficult to roll my suitcase down the sidewalk. So, I popped into a nearby building, took the elevator to the skyway, and set about a more pleasing indoor walk.

An hour later, and no closer to the hotel, I stopped to ask for directions. The gentleman owned a section of the skyway and in our brief conversation, told me about a conference in the area and nearby Convention Center. I told him I too was on my way to a conference, the annual meeting of the American Evaluation Association, which of course prompted the inevitable question: What’s evaluation?

Ever have days where you meet a stranger and enjoy describing the ins and outs of your chosen career, the path you took to get there, and the joys and rewards of doing what you do? Me too. But this wasn’t one of them.

Having already shed my winter coat and mittens, sweat-soaked and tired of hauling 80 pounds of luggage through serpentine hallways and intersections (did I mention inexplicably closed sections and dead-ends that forced numerous switchbacks?), I gave the gentleman the simplest, most relatable response I could manage: “We’re a bunch of research and statistics nerds who collect and analyze data about programs.”

“Wow,” he sneered, “THAT sounds boring.”

Boring??? Are you kidding me? I LOVE what I do! I’ve looked forward to this conference every year for the past decade, spending endless hours preparing presentations, choosing sessions, selecting fresh notebooks for capturing exciting new learning about methods and approaches, scheduling meetings to reconnect with old friends to share stories of the rich, important, meaningful work we do. I get excited to hear how other evaluators imagine the future of our work, how they conceptualize its intersections with countless other fields, and how they reflect on the impacts of our efforts to understand the way the world works and help change it through evaluation.

But I didn’t say that.

I thanked him for directions and walked away.

Back home we had some long team meetings. There was laughter in the room, which turned to excitement, surprise, disappointment, and anger as we reviewed a new set of results. And then there were tears. Not about the data. No. The work is hard. Not all stakeholders are on board. There is pushback. We’re tired. The evaluation work strikes a personal chord. But the lives and well-being of vulnerable people are at stake and we can’t walk away. And then there was gratitude. Gratitude that we have each other to support one another. And hope. There was definitely hope.

But I didn’t say that either to the man in the skyway.

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3 thoughts on “My elevator speech only goes to the second floor by Sheila B Robinson”

  1. First, I’m glad I’m not the only one who got lost in the Skyway.
    Second, I get asked the question all the time as well. For me, most people I meet skim over the question about what is evaluation and ask what we evaluate. To which I try not to say, “everything.” But after rattling off a variety of things, they tend to agree.
    I remember Brene Brown saying that she’d decide whether or not she really wanted to talk to the person sitting next to her on the plane. If she didn’t, she’d tell me them she studies shame. I wonder which our our collective responses to evaluation either encourages or discourages more discussion? Thanks for sharing!

  2. I loved this post! Not only do I completely relate to your travel woes upon arrival to Minneapolis, but I too struggle sometimes to explain what I do and why it is important AND interesting. Thanks for sharing your reflections!

  3. Melissa Chapman Haynes

    I am so sorry for the skyway experience but this is such a Minnesotan story. Deterred by the cutting wind you take the skyways only to get lost (they are helpful but very confusing). You have an experience with a stranger because of that decision, and somewhere within your journey that leads to thoughtful reflection. Because what else are you going to do – outside is brutal and inside is winding but warm. I love it.

    Thanks for journeying and reflecting in Minneapolis! See you in Portland!

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