For over a year, our organization has been inviting uncomfortable but necessary internal discourse around race and power. These difficult conservations are allowing us to better understand how we can truly become an antiracist organization by transforming our work culture, company policies, and evaluation practice.
Spurred by these conversations, our team recently reflected on the barriers evaluators of color face that undermine authentic truth telling, particularly in the philanthropic field.
Despite variations in methods and frameworks, evaluators approach evaluation as a form of evidence-based truth telling that’s most effective when those truths can be shared directly and honestly. We are often asked to make the ‘business case’ for funding programs in severely vulnerable communities that have intricate systems working against their best interests. This ‘business case’ is code for the superiority of quantitative data over storytelling and lived experiences of the communities who are most impacted by these interventions.
Despite the commitment to equity through participatory and inclusive practices, evaluation firms and philanthropic organizations pose a barrier to authentic truth telling. This happens when evaluators of color aligned with social and racial justice frameworks find themselves with the inefficient, yet familiar, need to code switch to be heard, understood, and seen as credible within the white dominant evaluation space.
As evaluators of color, we discovered early in our careers the steep barrier to speaking openly and assertively about our lived experiences, and understanding of the root causes of social injustice in the programs we evaluated. The senior evaluators guiding and supervising us valued keeping everyone in a comfortable state, thus, we avoided frank or uncomfortable discussions within the politicized boards or leadership of our clients, and within our own teams.
This approach results in evaluators developing products with vague and overly simplified frameworks for achieving equity and social justice. Because systemic and institutionalized racism, oppression, disinvestment, and imbalances of power are never addressed, our findings are rarely meaningful or useful, and don’t provide the full picture. As a result, impacted communities never truly get the resources they deserve nor do our findings support the on-the-ground community organizing, advocacy, power, and movement building needed to create change and transformation.
Raising deeply uncomfortable questions to philanthropic clients and fellow evaluators not only brings professional consequences, but tacitly pushes evaluators of color out of the field – especially since we don’t feel seen or heard and, as such, are adding to the oppression and racism seen in communities of color.
It is refreshing and self-affirming when we can show up authentically as evaluators and not expend the physical and mental energy of code switching. This was the case when an opportunity arose to work on an evaluation and learning project with a racially diverse MLE team at a philanthropic funder. The project’s objective was to understand how effective the funder’s equity-centered theory of change was to support programs aimed at amplifying the power of communities and to advance systemic solutions to racial and economic inequities. Frank discussions about racial and economic equity would be central to the success of the project.
We quickly found ourselves openly revealing our lived experiences, nuanced understanding of racial and economic inequities, and MLE expertise in a way that felt authentic and valued. Rather than jumping into a coded conversation, both the funder and our team talked directly and personally about white dominant culture in our work, and the biases in definitions of evaluation rigor which all serve to sustain community injustices. While each of us represented different identities and lived experiences, we realized that this ease of communication, lack of inhibition, and feeling of trust and belonging came in part from our shared racial diversity and openness to learning. Furthermore, the rapidly changing pace of the pandemic opened a long-awaited opportunity for qualitative data and community wisdom to be taken more seriously – something many BIPOC evaluators have long argued for.
The energy spent code-switching impedes effective MLE work, minimizes our valuable lived experiences, and shortchanges the systemically oppressed communities we seek to serve. Being in a situation of not having to code switch, not having to ignore the constructed inequities that philanthropy itself has been a part of building, allowed us to bring a nimbleness that resulted in some radical and honest findings about where evaluation can become more self-aware. Fully showing up as evaluators of color, and leaning into our lived experiences and values, has helped us become more flexible, efficient, and effective in our work.
We recommend reading Decolonizing Wealth for critical reflections on the philanthropic sector and following the works of evaluators such as Jara Dean Coffey and those featured on AEA’s Decolonizing Evaluation week for more on how we do this work better as a field. We also invite you to lean into our lived experience and consider how code-switching is a form of internalized oppression that is holding us all back.