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Rethinking Evidence: A Learning & Unlearning Journey by Elizabeth Grim

Hello, AEA365 community! Liz DiLuzio here, Lead Curator of the blog. This week is Individuals Week, which means we take a break from our themed weeks and spotlight the Hot Tips, Cool Tricks, Rad Resources and Lessons Learned from any evaluator interested in sharing. Would you like to contribute to future individuals weeks? Email me at AEA365@eval.org with an idea or a draft and we will make it happen.

Hi, my name is Elizabeth Grim! I am the Founder & Principal Consultant of Elizabeth Grim Consulting, LLC; Curator of AEA365; and President of the Eastern Evaluation Research Society (EERS), an AEA Affiliate.

I first became immersed in evaluation when I was in graduate school. As a dual Master’s degree student, I split my time and requirements across the social work and public health programs. 

At one point, I was doing my social work field placement in the school’s evaluation center while taking intro to program evaluation through public health. This meant that I was getting real-world evaluation experience consulting with organizations at the same time that I was learning the textbook version of evaluation. I quickly realized that what I was learning in the classroom undervalued the reality of communities and contexts.

In the classroom, I learned how to draw experimental and quasi-experimental designs with Xs and Os, write evaluation plans, and conduct statistical analyses. There was no room for error or adaptation. I was frustrated. This was not my version of or vision for evaluation.

In the field, I learned how to engage partners, ask powerful questions, be responsive to context, create engaging materials, and facilitate conversations. This approach made space for exploration and emergence. Much more my style!

As I reflect on my graduate school experience, the classroom version of evaluation sought to seek truths and communicate facts. “Evidence” was limited to statistical significance and peer-reviewed research. Contrastingly, the field version of evaluation sought to seek understanding, unearth perspectives, and communicate learnings. “Evidence” included community context, stories, and experiences.

As I reflect on my more recent professional experience as an independent consultant, I know that tensions like these are inherent to our work in complex systems. There is no one-size-fits-all or plug-and-play model. “Evidence” has many definitions, sources, and origins.

Lessons Learned

Rethinking evidence (also the theme of the EERS22 conference) requires us to go beyond asking questions and thinking differently. It requires a shift to actively working against the status quo.

To do evaluation in service of and in partnership with communities, we must continuously question what knowledge, approaches, and evidence are valued, prioritized, elevated, and communicated in our work. We must rethink how we talk about, define, and gather “evidence.” 

This shift requires us to question hustle culture and artificial timelines to allow for relationship building and emergent learning. We must challenge white dominant narratives, which can impose efficiency and effectiveness at the expense of equity.

Rethinking evidence requires unlearning and introspection, becoming comfortable with discomfort, and holding space for tensions.

Rad Resources

  • Creative Evaluation and Engagement: Volume 1: Essentials. This book by Nora Murphy Johnson and A. Raphael Johnson provides strategies and tools evaluators can use for learning and adaption in service of transformation and justice.
  • EERS22: Rethinking Evidence: The Eastern Evaluation Research Society will hold its virtual conference on April 25 and 26, with the theme of Rethinking Evidence. Join evaluation colleagues to creatively and audaciously rethink evidence in our work.
  • Equitable Evaluation Initiative (EEI): Tension Series. This series of blog posts describes tensions that emerge when applying the EEI principles to do our evaluation work differently.
  • We All Count. We All Count offers resources and tools to explore how data science can shift to be more in service of equity.
  • White Supremacy Culture: This piece by Tema Okun outlines characteristics of white supremacy culture that show up in our work and organizations. Okun offers antidotes to each characteristic, which introduce ways to dismantle these dominant narratives.

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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