Crosspost: Centering lived experience: Unlocking the preconditions for equity-rooted evaluation

  • By Arturo Garcia Jr., September 20, 2023

Kresge Strategic Learning and Evaluation Officer Arturo Garcia moderated a session at the 2023 Learning Conference of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), exploring the preconditions for centering equity in evaluation. Garcia was joined on the panel by Kresge Strategic Learning, Research and Evaluation (SLRE) Director Anna Cruz, former Kresge Senior Program Officer Stacey Barbas and evaluators Vedette Gavin of Verge Impact Partners and Jessica Mulcahy of Success Measures. Together, they shared their lessons learned from working together on a developmental evaluation for The Kresge Foundation’s Advancing Health Equity through Housing (HEH) initiative work. In this blog post, Garcia shares highlights from the session and takeaways from the rich discussion among participants.

Sharing lessons learned from equity-rooted evaluation The decision to spend time discussing equity-rooted evaluation among foundation peers at GEO’s 2023 Learning Conference came out of lessons learned from a developmental evaluation of Kresge’s Advancing Health Equity through Housing (HEH) initiative.¹ Our evaluation consultants, Vedette Gavin and Jessica Mulcahy, really pushed the thinking of our Kresge Strategic Learning, Research and Evaluation (SLRE) team and Health Program around centering the learning of HEH grantees and ensuring they benefit from any evaluation efforts.² We all agreed that we wanted to center lived experience and community. We all wanted the grantees to guide the evaluation and learning projects, letting go of our power and assumptions, and allowing the projects to go where they needed to go for the sake of community and for grantees.

These shared values took us beyond the evaluation itself as we centered and allowed the relationship and trust between all of us to lead the work. This intentional, values-driven approach to the evaluation eventually led us to the next phase of the work, which was the formation of a learning community.³ The seeds grew and grew and grew. Before we knew it, we realized it would be great to share what we learned from this process with the field. So, Anna, Vedette, Jessica, Stacey, and I all came together to share our perspectives from our work on the developmental evaluation at GEO’s 2023 Learning Conference. We wanted to go beyond surface-level conversations. We wanted to dig deeper.

Preconditions for equity-rooted evaluation The preconditions for equity-rooted evaluation start with learning and evaluation professionals really doing the individual internal work of figuring out what are their professional and personal core values and philosophies that they want to center in their practice. What are the non-negotiables, and what are you willing to let go of. That has guided me personally and professionally as I lead and/or advise evaluation and learning efforts at Kresge and work with external partners. I have also seen and felt that approach working with Anna, Stacey, Vedette and Jessica throughout the developmental evaluation. We’ve been good at holding ourselves accountable to those values to ensure grantees are included to inform and guide the developmental evaluation and learning community.

For us on the Kresge SLRE team, putting equity and justice at the heart of an entire learning and evaluation practice is one of the major preconditions to doing equity-rooted evaluation. At Kresge, equity and justice have been at the core of our evaluation practice from the beginning. These values align well with the Equitable Evaluation Framework, but they also go beyond that for us. That’s what has guided us where we want to go, the practices and tools that we want to explore or incorporate, and those that we want to learn. It’s even helped us center our own multiple identities – encouraging our identities to show up within our learning and evaluation practice, as well as leaning into our lived experience coming from similar communities that we’re supporting through Kresge’s grantmaking and social investing.

During the session, a great question was asked about what do we do when people, institutions or systems fail us? This question gets at the historically unhealthy power dynamics between foundations and grantees and community members. A participant pointed out that there’s also this larger systemic problem with racism and capitalism that looms large, as evaluators and foundations are trying to have relationships with grantees and communities. So, while partners may not have a negative relationship with a foundation, there’s still all these other systems, actors and traumatic events that are happening within society and community that could also, not necessarily damage, but inhibit the relationship you want to have.

Let’s stay in touch Sign up for our newsletters SubscribeIt’s also important to really take the time to just sit with community and have regular conversations with them beyond formal work meetings and processes; to be in communion with partners to really dig into the things that they’re experiencing – allowing that to be the grounding to move your learning and evaluation work forward. Having those strong, authentic relationships has really helped strengthen programmatic strategies and learning and evaluation efforts. It creates better understanding of community context and grantees’ work. It also helps the foundation refine grantmaking strategies and provide better technical assistance, while ensuring learning and evaluation is better aligned with grantee priorities.

Another precondition to equity-rooted evaluation is unlearning. Many of us come from academic backgrounds. We have a lot of schooling behind us. That’s been useful, to a point. However, what is talked about a lot within the Equitable Evaluation Framework and other spaces at the intersection of justice, equity, evaluation and research is the undoing or unlearning of that very academic, very institutional, very formal approach to learning and evaluation, which at the end of the day is rooted in white supremacy cultural views and practices. There’s great work by Albertina Lopez at the Center for Evaluation and Innovation (CEI), interrogating the historical roots of evaluation. We need to undo and unlearn a lot of that and really get back to what it is that community values and needs.

There are multiple narratives and truths that live within any one community; a lot of intersectionality, complexity and figuring out how does all of it intersect and coexist. How do we build in more time into our evaluation projects to be able to dig through that, working together as a collective rather than in silos? And how do you pick apart these ideas of efficiency, replication, scale, validity and reliability that have been ingrained in our academic training as evaluators? Each of us must unpack all these things for ourselves and figure out their place within a community context – all to be more beneficial to community and grantees.

Lastly, another precondition for equity-rooted evaluation is the need to consider the current context in the sector and society – recognizing how evaluation and learning fit within that context and then shaping the approach and methods based on that context. There’s a lot of stuff going on politically and socially within the United States, as well as in the wider world. How can we start to bring that context into the evaluation work that we’re doing, having a broader view and a more human-centered, inclusive approach to what we’re doing. Bringing this context into our evaluation work is another way we advance deep equity-rooted evaluation.

I’m sure there are additional and important pre-conditions that others can name, but these were the ones that surfaced for us during our conversations that we wanted to highlight.

Equitable Evaluation Framework as a valuable tool for centering people, community and relationships in evaluation Kresge was an early adopter of the Equitable Evaluation Framework (EEF). EEF is a really great accessible tool to be able to talk to people about the importance of centering equity in evaluation and what that means. We have been using it as a tool and guide to really start thinking about and talking through some of the challenges and orthodoxies that exist in evaluation.

EEF has a list of orthodoxies – longstanding practices and assumptions in evaluation that need to be questioned in order to move equity forward in the work. Some of those orthodoxies include the foundation defining what success looks like; the foundation being the primary user of evaluation; and trust and relationships are not the starting point. We realized that we’re tackling and pushing against a lot of these orthodoxies that the Equitable Evaluation Framework has pointed out for the sector.

It’s helpful to be able to point to those orthodoxies in evaluation work at foundations, being able to say, “here’s this orthodoxy, here’s how we’re thinking about it, here’s how we’re pushing against it and trying to change it,” all so that our evaluation practices are more equitable and inclusive.

Addressing tensions in centering people, community and relationships in evaluation Again, the Equitable Evaluation Framework is a good starting point for naming tensions and sticky points that might surface from challenging orthodoxies in evaluation. It’s also been really great as a Kresge learning and evaluation practice to be in relationship with other national peers as we participate in multiple spaces, such as the Equitable Evaluation National Funders affinity group and the GEO Strategic Learners Network. You’re having conversations with other foundation learning and evaluation staff, seeing what other folks are dealing with, and how people are trying to get through similar challenges. You’re celebrating successes collectively. It has also helped us see where we want to push our practice further, what we want to put our energy towards, and what we want to let go of more. For example, our team has deepened our commitment to using evaluation and learning as a tool to advance racial equity and justice in all the spaces we occupy.

Other helpful resources can be found by going back to the very roots of participatory action research, community-based participatory research, popular education and political education used by community organizers and in liberation theology. A lot of this is the grounding for more participatory, inclusive, equitable types of evaluation practices. It also seems to me very much at the core of the Equitable Evaluation Framework. EEF didn’t just come out of nowhere. It has been built on generations of people and work from multiple fields. And as a result of the Equitable Evaluation Framework, we’re likely going to get other new ways of thinking and acting. We’re going to continuously create and iterate new things on the shoulders of other great work.

Another helpful practice for centering equity in evaluation, which speaks to the importance of relationships, is being in authentic, honest conversation with grantees and community residents. It’s important to be on the ground with them, whether it’s in their offices or out in the field with their work, if that’s even possible. Having that grounding, you’re able to see in real time the things that grantees are going through; the things that residents are going through. Having those experiences, those observations, you get to incorporate all that into your evaluative practice.

You start to figure out like, oh, we’re asking grantees for all these things, or we’re asking for specific metrics; a lot of the times population and quantitative metrics. Our metrics sometimes don’t necessarily align with what grantees or what residents want. Is there a different way that we can do or think about this? Are there different questions, different information that we can gather, or an easier way to gather the information? Is there data and learnings they are already collecting or absorbing that we can leverage and use for our learning and evaluation? Being in relationship with your grantee and community partners creates the space for a different way of thinking and doing.

Another thing I would mention is not being afraid to let go. In the EEI National Affinity Group and other spaces, we talk about the need to let go of our own assumptions of learning and evaluation, as well as to let go of power and not to be afraid of that. It is very hard to let go of those things and to have projects be informed and led by grantees and residents, because you don’t know where those projects are going to go, where we’ll be pushed, what is going to come out of them, and what conversations are going to materialize. But it’s freeing to let go. It’s also heartwarming and satisfying to see grantees and residents take up that space and lead.

Lastly, it’s important to make time to interrogate for yourself what things are coming up for you in the work and in relationship with partners. As an example, one thing that has been coming up for our team lately is an embodiment practice within learning and evaluation. As we’re doing this work, how does it come up in your body? How does that come up in your feelings? What do you notice in your body? Does your body tense up when there are difficult challenges or hard conversations? How can we have a more reflective awareness of our reactions in relation to our work? Secondly, how do we start to incorporate embodiment practices to help us work through what we’re learning alongside grantees? Adding breathing practices, stretching or meditation can help better serve grantees and residents. Radical (Re)imagining has a great podcast where Libby Smith and Dawn Valentine share about embodiment practice.

The need to share, learn and act in fresh ways The main reason why we put this GEO panel together about equity-rooted evaluation was to get beyond surface-level conversations. We wanted to dig a little bit deeper. We really wanted to get at some of the underlying themes that are coming up within our learning and evaluation practice. We also wanted to just get people to act now – start doing and practicing in fresh ways. At conferences we often feel like we’re theorizing or conceptualizing within these conversations, but we’re not taking bold action on the visions we have for our evaluation and learning practices and for our institutions. Let’s get this out there, and let’s just start getting people to do – because it’s in the actual doing that we’re going to learn how to have a stronger and bolder practice. We’re going to fail here and there. That’s okay because we’re going to learn and grow from that – making iterations and moving into the next thing. So, let’s keep learning, growing and acting.

¹ Kresge’s Advancing Health Equity Through Housing initiative supports 29 organizations advancing innovative community-generated multi-sector solutions to improve health outcomes, housing affordability and quality. Since launching the initiative in 2018, Kresge has awarded more than $9 million to 32 organizations. The foundation also provides technical assistance for communications, policy tools and strategies. Through Advancing Health Equity Through Housing, the foundation seeks to identify and accelerate community-driven practices that connect the housing and health sectors and recognize multi-sector partnerships that preserve and increase the supply of stable housing to improve health, well-being and health equity in low-income communities.

² The HEH initiative includes an evaluation and learning component grounded in an equitable evaluation and participatory approach, promoting equity throughout the process and among those involved. NeighborWorks and Verge Impact Partners conducted a developmental evaluation (DE) for the first three years of the grant (one-year planning grants and two-year implementation grants) to support the ongoing relationship building and learning of the initiative. The developmental evaluation project focused on helping the foundation and grantee partners to understand: 1) the connections between health and housing and which are being successfully leveraged; 2) what a community-driven approach looks like and what is needed to sustain the work; and 3) the level and types of support grantee partners need to strengthen and sustain the work.

³ Key learning questions included understanding how change happens (pathways to change), and the role of philanthropy and opportunities for investment and leadership. As a result of the developmental evaluation process, Kresge and grantee partners were eager to learn with and from one another in an 18-month continuous peer-to-peer learning experience – a learning community. Currently, our evaluation partners are leading grantee partners through a process of co-developing the framework, objectives and timeline for the Learning Community.

This post was originally published by the Kresge Foundation.

Arturo Garcia Jr.

Strategic Learning & Evaluation Officer