Speaking Truth to Power – in AEA spaces by Martha Brown

My name is Martha Brown, president of RJAE Consulting. This blog sheds light on the need to Speak Truth to Power (STTP) in AEA face-to-face and virtual spaces when racism, male supremacy, and other oppressive forces act to silence others. How do AEA members silence others? Here are two examples.

First, soon after subscribing to EVALTalk in 2016, I noticed sexism, misogyny and racism frequently present in the discussion threads. For instance, an African evaluator commented that requests for assistance and information made by African evaluators are often ignored. Many people were upset and sought to remedy the situation in various ways. A few men entered the conversation, exercising white male privilege in full force. First, they denied that racism was the problem. Worse yet, one man blamed the African evaluator for not doing more to be heard. According to Jones and Okum, a symptom of white supremacy culture is “to blame the person for raising the issue rather than to look at the issue which is actually causing the problem.”  Yet so many of us stood by and said nothing.

At Evaluation 2017, I attended what was supposed to be a panel presentation by three women. However, for the first 10 minutes, all we heard was the lone voice of a man in the front row who seemed to think that what he had to say was far more important than what the three female panelists had to say. Privilege normalizes silencing tactics, as “those with power assume they have the best interests of the organization at heart and assume those wanting change are ill-informed (stupid), emotional, inexperienced” (Jones & Okun, 2001). Yet not one person – not even the session moderator – intervened and returned the session to the presenters.

If others have similar stories, please share in the comments. No longer can we permit anyone to degrade, diminish or dismiss someone else’s work in AEA spaces. When it happens, we must lean into the discomfort and shine light onto the dark veil of sexism, racism, elitism, etc. right then and there. If we don’t, then we are complicit in allowing the abuse of power to continue.

Personally, I can no longer carry the burden of guilt and shame for allowing myself or my fellow evaluators to be silenced while I say nothing. Enough is enough. A new day is dawning, and it is time to speak truth to power in the moment when power is attempting to silence someone. Will you join me?

Rad Resources:

Virginia Stead’s: RIP Jim Crow: Fighting racism through higher education policy, curriculum, and cultural interventions.

Jones & Okun’s: White supremacy culture. From Dismantling racism: A workbook for social change groups.

Gary Howard’s: We can’t teach what we don’t know.

Ali Michael: How Can I Have a Positive Racial Identity? I’m White!

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.

8 thoughts on “Speaking Truth to Power – in AEA spaces by Martha Brown”

  1. Olga Lucia Herrera

    The name is challenging as it’ll keep some who really need it from reading it. But it’s a really good piece and a necessary conversation. I am keeping it to share with our local school district. If any one comes with a better name, please let me know. I could not think about it, but then again I am comfortable recognizing problems and calling them what they are called. Starting the conversation, is a first necessary step so thank you for doing so.

  2. Vidhya Shanker

    Thanks for superb timing and excellent resources, Martha!

    Anyone for whom this posting resonated should feel free to join the discussion on AEA’s list-serv, EvalTalk, if they haven’t already done so. There’s plenty of truth being spoken and plenty still yet to be spoken there–a lot of it has been in just the last 2 months.

    Don’t waste time being shy like I did, either–“your silence will not protect you.”

  3. Hi Martha,

    Thanks for sharing. Re: the complaint by the African evaluator on EVALTALK, I immediately attempted to “look at the issue which is actually causing the problem” but received no response from this individual in order to go into further depth. Perhaps we should follow up with him now?

    Best,
    Chad

    1. Vidhya Shanker

      They may not trust any of “us” (I was not on EvalTalk for that period, and it’s hard to recognize genuine interest via electronic and written communication) enough to respond, and may have unsubscribed. But I think it’s worth trying if you still have their email address.

  4. YES YES YES to all of this. As someone trained in program evaluation via a social work graduate program, I was shocked when I first entered the professional evaluation world. Entering all spaces with cultural humility and the knowledge that our expertise is not the only expertise and our thoughts/ideas are not the only valid thoughts/ideas will do a great deal to move our profession forward.
    I still remember when Michael Quinn Patton pushed back on an all male panel commenting about the female experience. He used his privilege and credibility to challenge the panel’s consensus. It is our responsibility to not just give women and people of color seats at the table, but equitable voices at the table. And always remembering, if the table doesn’t work for us (all) then the table cannot represent us all.

  5. Thank you for the reminder and the real life examples that increase my awareness level. I will join your call to action and I pledge to be courageous enough to do something the next time I see this.

  6. Hello,

    I enjoyed the post. The timing was great. Just yesterday at the first date of the Summer Eval institute I was chatting with some female colleagues at lunch. They shared with me how during their first session (which they said was good), they noticed that in a room almost entirely full women, it was 2 men that took up almost all of the discussion and question space. They shared that these men were not necessarily asking questions, they were dialoging back and forth with one another while the whole room was present, and each time the floor was opened up for comments and questions, they were the first to talk and left no time or spcae for others to engage. My very smart gender studies expert friend made the observation, “can you imagine talking for 10 minutes during a conference when the presenter asks for questions”? My answer was a resounding “no”, I would never feel comfortable taking up that kind of space. My other thought was, “why didn’t the presenter rein those people in”? – Power dynamics and privilege are hard to address in the moment as a confrontation usually serves to engrain the defensiveness. I hope one day we will be closer to addressing these issues in real time rather than hiding behind writing.

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