The Invisible Labor of Women of Color and Indigenous Women in Evaluation by Vidhya Shanker

I’m Vidhya Shanker from Rainbow Research, where we are exploring what structural change really means. I’m sometimes asked, “Why are there so few people of color in evaluation?” I flip the question: “Why is evaluation so white?” And answer: “Because our labor is actively erased.”

Of the 35 recipients of the Paul F. Lazarsfeld Evaluation Theory Award since 1977, 28 evaluators listed in the sacred Evaluation Theory Tree published in 2004, 22 evaluators featured in the related Evaluation Roots book published in 2004, and 16 evaluators featured by AEA’s Oral History Project since 2003, not one has been a woman of color or indigenous woman.

This omission can lead us to conclude that for the last 40 years, no women of color or indigenous women have been academically trained as evaluators, conducting formal evaluations, and engaged in scholarship on evaluation—let alone engaged in evaluative thinking and critical inquiry that are considered outside the boundaries of evaluation. Or that their work is fringe.

The evaluation work of several women of color and indigenous women allows us to do the work that we do every day. This post aims to repair the miseducation of evaluators of all ages and experience levels, especially numerous graduate students from communities of color and indigenous communities who have expressed to me their sense of isolation and shock that they are not necessarily the first or only person in evaluation to represent the groups with whom they identify. Today’s post focuses on Anna Marie Madison, recently retired professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Dr. Anna Madison had been a member of the two professional associations—the Evaluation Research Society and Evaluation Network—that merged to form the American Evaluation Association in the mid-1980s. During the term of Bob Covert, AEA’s second president, she led the precursor to what is now the Multi-ethnic Issues in Evaluation Topical Interest Group. It started as the Minority Task Force and became a Topical Interest Group that focused on recruiting and providing professional development and networking opportunities for members from groups that continue to be excluded from philanthropic and government evaluation contracts. The TIG also educated the larger AEA membership about systemic bias. Madison edited and wrote about participant groups’ self-determination through evaluation in the first and only volume of New Directions for Evaluation to directly address evaluation’s role relative to structural racialization. Additionally, she systematically assessed the journal’s coverage of issues related to under-represented groups.

Rad Resources:

Hot Tip: All knowledge comes from somewhere. Find out where and honor your ancestors: cite them, nominate them for awards, write about them, and include them in your syllabi.

Hot Tip: “Structural change” means that evaluation as a field, and the industries it serves, changes their socio-economic relations—meaning the flow of resources—with disenfranchised groups. “Resources” include the currency of citations, and “changing the flow” requires transparency about processes for decision making and criteria for selection.

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.

7 thoughts on “The Invisible Labor of Women of Color and Indigenous Women in Evaluation by Vidhya Shanker”

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I will definitely look into the authors and articles you mentioned above. Please feel free to share the Principles of Learning poster. It’s from the First Nations Education Steering Committee.

    Hych’ka

    Lindsay

  2. Hi Vidhya,

    Thank you for sharing your perspective on the systemic racism that faces people of colour working in the Evaluation field. I am an Indigeous woman, a high school teacher, and a graduate student at Queen’s University, taking a course on Evaluation Design. When I read your article, I started to think about holistic design and an Indigenous assessment strategy. I am sure these exist, however, I’ve had difficulty finding them. I’m assuming this is due to the selective history and problematic citational structures you mentioned. In our class, we have read about logic models, theories of change, data collection, etc; however, I have not seen anything modeled after an Indigenous worldview that could be a more valid and accurate measure of success or need in Indigenous programming. Are you familiar with ways evaluators could incorporate First Peoples Principles of Learning into evaluation strategy? Thank you for your thought provoking article.

    http://www.fnesc.ca/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/PUB-LFP-POSTER-Principles-of-Learning-First-Peoples-poster-11×17.pdf

    Lindsay

    1. Dear Lindsay–

      What a beautifully simple/ simply beautiful rendition of First Peoples Principles of Learning–I see resonance with other indigenous knowledge/values traditions that I know.

      While I can’t swear that there are evaluators who have channeled these specific principles into evaluation strategy, I can swear that there are many, many indigenous evaluators who are channeling indigenous knowledge/values frameworks more generally–as well as culturally-specific knowledge/values traditions—into evaluation approaches. These include (in no particular order) Andrea L. K. Johnston, Marguerite DeSpain, Nick Metcalf, Nan Wehipeihana, Joan LaFrance, Katherine Tibbetts, Nicole Martin Rogers, Mark Parman, Carolee Dodge Francis, Andrea Guerrero, Julie Nielsen, Fiona Cram, Nicky Bowman, Katie Johnston-Goodstar, and many, many others–most of whom you will not find in the US evaluation canon/curricula/syllabi, like you said, for the reasons you said. (I had intended to write about some of them in a subsequent AEA365 entry–thanks for hastening that.)

      But you can find many of them and others in the fall 2018 (as I recall) issue of New Directions for Evaluation, the current issue of the Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation, the Indigenous Peoples in Evaluation Topical Interest Group of the American Evaluation Association, EvalIndigenous (part of the UN’s Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples), and lots of other places that the good folks I’ve listed above could likely tell you more about.

      Should you be the indigenous scholar/activist to channel the First Peoples Principles of Learning, specifically, into an evaluation approach, you may find ideas in Principles Based Evaluation, which was conceptualized and written about as such by Michael Quinn Patton.

      Would it be OK to share these principles? Please let me know.

      Vidhya

  3. https://aea365.org/blog/the-invisible-labor-of-women-of-color-and-indigenous-women-in-evaluation-by-vidhya-shanker/

    Vindhya,

    I am a graduate student at Queen’s University currently completing a course in program evaluation. I am a white woman and I really appreciated your article. Often throughout this course we have discussed how it is valuable to have an evaluator who understands the industry in which they are evaluating. I believe that it would be extremely valuable to have an evaluator who can relate to the participants within a program; especially ones that rely on interviews or self-reported surveys for data collection. How can one accurately depict or account for a world view that they do not poses? Regardless of how much I educate myself I cannot fully embody the world view of an indigenous woman or woman of colour and understand that I would not be an ideal candidate for this type of evaluation. Interestingly, many of the programs, that have been discussed in the course, are striving to serve the very communities and individuals that you have shown to be underrepresented or non-existent amongst evaluators. In the chapter of Nobody Knows My Name, about Butler Browne, that you shared, Anderson and Jones observe that “throughout her educational career, she found an advocate…who supported and encouraged her, as well as provided the connections she needed to advance” (p.76). In your opinion, how can the evaluation community, and white women in particular, be that advocate for indigenous women and women of colour?

    1. Vidhya Shanker

      This is an excellent question because it acknowledges the types of power that white women exercise, as a class (not necessarily individually)–and how–relative to indigenous women, black women, and women of color (and, incidentally, indigenous men, black men, and men of color).

      To be clear, I did not say that such communities are under-represented and non-existent among evaluators. I said that the field of evaluation has actively erased such communities from its history and canon. Furthermore, not only can you never educate yourself enough to fairly represent erased and silenced communities, but attempting to do so (by you or me or anyone else outside a particular community) further displaces the knowledge and leadership of such communities. It dispossesses communities of our own indigenous/ local knowledge production. So how can you advocate for indigenous women, black women, and women of color?

      The first thing that white women can do is acknowledge that they exercise power. The disavowal of power among even white women who hold positions of formal authority reinforces both patriarchy and white supremacy.

      The second thing that white women can do is acknowledge the types of power that indigenous women, black women, and other women of color exercise, and the ways that we each do so. Our exercise of power typically does not look like white women’s exercise of power–if it does, it is largely a result of forced assimilation into white supremacy and patriarchy. Or it is a result of our internalization of other systems of oppression working in conjunction with white supremacy and patriarchy. Recognizing the types of power that we wield (I discuss how we wield them next) means recognizing the value in what we have to offer the world and not just what we may need (e.g., “barriers to success”). This changes the power dynamics with us from those that are characterized by superordination and subordination to those that are more symmetrical. Asymmetrical power dynamics often look like extraction, enslavement, and exploitation. But they also often look like charity.

      Seemingly symmetrical power dynamics that fail to change longstanding–and exponentially increasing–inequities and injustices resulting from historical asymmetries are merely transactional. Symmetrical dynamics that repair harm and restore justice, however, are transformative. They are characterized by interdependence and intersubjectivity. Interdependence means relations of ongoing reciprocity. Intersubjectivity means white women need to relinquish control over structures, processes, and outcomes as well as the expectation that indigenous women, black women, and women of color must learn and adhere to them in order to do our jobs, be taken seriously, etc.

      When we are our whole selves, all of us (of any racial or gender or other identification) bring with us the knowledge and interests and practices of our ancestors and communities and families, to which we are still bonded. If a woman of color appears “passive” to a white woman, it could be that she has been raised to value humility and collective leadership as opposed to “rising to the top”. Instead of interpreting it as a weakness, interpret it as a strength that you, the organization, and society at large can learn from. If a woman of color appears “direct” to a white woman, it could be that she has been raised to value the truth as opposed to “polite conversation”. Neither needs to be mentored or molded into patterns of conformity to stratified structures and pervasive denial that characterize both white supremacy and patriarchy in order to be taken seriously.

      That brings me to the third thing that white women can do. White women can listen to indigenous women, black women, and women of color. White women can believe us. And not just when we agree with them. But also when we agree with indigenous men, black men, and men of color. And when we disagree with (sometimes prominent) indigenous men, black men, and men of color. And when we disagree with each other–because we do and will continue to do so. We can still be believed, within the context of our positionalities.

      Believing us means crediting and citing our knowledge and contributions when it changes your understanding or practice. It means putting what we say into practice instead of just co-opting our words and returning to business as usual.

      Believing us means revealing with full transparency the hidden processes and rules of the game that white women are playing by (even if they did not necessarily create them) in business as usual–as I said earlier–not so that we will conform to them but so that we can collectively transform their oppressive nature. It means trusting in the possibility of something other than what is right now, even if the current state affords them a position of precarious privilege.

      Believing us means believing that both our oppression and our liberation are directly tied–through opportunity and kinship structures–to the oppression and liberation of indigenous men, black men, and men of color (regardless of individual gender and sexual identity and orientation). Just as white women are tied to white men through opportunity and kinship structures, regardless of individual gender and sexual identity and orientation. And so advocating for us means advocating against state-sponsored and -sanctioned infantilization, exploitation, marginalization, and violence directed against us not just as individuals but as parts of families and communities. It means advocating for us in relation to our fathers, brothers, friends, partners, and sons with your fathers, brothers, friends, partners, and sons..

      Believing us means not just attending to the individual and organizational level changes listed earlier, then, but also learning how larger societal forces of white supremacy and patriarchy impinge on everyday understandings and decisions (business as usual) about how/ where/ when change happens as well as how work and people and time and money and space are organized. A million seemingly innocuous norms and everyday workplace practices and procedures reinforce the current state of extreme racialized and gendered inequality because they have never been questioned, let alone re-imagined.

      But we all have moments of choice–some of us more than others. I hope you identify your moments of choice and choose to disrupt patterns of white supremacy, cis-hetero-patriarchy, capitalism, and ableism/ productivism. Doing so will inevitably produce in you (as it does in all of us) feelings of anxiety and fear rooted in uncertainty about the future and shame about the past. Create a reflective group of white women around you who can support you in naming and working through those feelings rather than recoiling to business as usual or expecting support from indigenous women, black women, or women of color, who must expend our energy elsewhere.

      That is how you can advocate for us.

      1. Thank you for clarifying your point about representation. I found your remark that trying to educate myself about other populations “displaces the knowledge and leadership of such communities” very thought provoking. I never meant it with that intention more that I think it is valuable and important to educate ourselves about other cultures, societies and group that are unlike ourselves. As a Canadian I take great pride in embracing, supporting and celebrating cultural differences. I believe that I have much to learn from people that are different than myself and I am eager to learn in order to be able to support them and celebrate with them.

        I really appreciated your points on how I can effectively support indigenous, black and women of colour. I was really struck with your point, “recognizing the types of power that we wield means recognizing the value in what we have to offer the world” since I felt that this summarized my goal better than I had myself. I do not have any intentions towards demonstrating “white saviour” mentality. I want to be a cheerleader on the sidelines for these women.

        I will listen to these women and, the rebel in me loves this, identify my moments of choice and disrupt norms.
        Thank you so much for your thoughtful response and answering my question. I feel that I have been given a lot to think about.

  4. Vidhya Shanker

    Friends, colleagues, and comrades:

    I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that 8 years later, after complaints, in a 2012 revised, more international edition of Evaluation Roots and corresponding tree, Nan Wehipeihana was added. You can now find her on the valuing branch of the tree. The tree has undergone various revisions since then, as well, including by other scholars.

    As deserving as Nan’s advancement of the field–especially her advancement of developmental evaluation in the interest of Maori self-determination and sovereignty–is of its place in the canon, she would be the first to say that it’s too little, too late for just one indigenous woman/ woman of color/ black woman to represented.

    Vidhya

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