A Dialogue Between Two Evaluators of Color in Philanthropy
Maurice Samuels, Senior Evaluation Officer, and Liz Oo, Evaluation Officer, talk about their experiences as evaluators of color. Their conversation touches on lessons for the field, including more inclusive evaluation methods, meeting communities where they are, and challenging racism through evaluation and learning.
How did you enter evaluation and what role did your identity play?
Maurice: I fell into evaluation. I was introduced to it while pursuing my master’s in education and became fully and formally immersed in the field during my PhD program, which focused on evaluation theory, methods, and practice in education. Before pursuing my PhD, I was a high school mathematics teacher, and the primary reason I decided to pursue a career in evaluation was to bring about the changes needed to improve the education of Black, Latino/a/x, and Indigenous students. Evaluation theories and approaches that value social justice, culture, context, inclusion, participation, and equity resonated with me the most. I was introduced to evaluation by a Black man and had a couple of Black men that were instrumental to my development as an evaluator in graduate school. While I have been fortunate to have several people shape my career, it was important for me to see and be involved with men that looked like me.
Liz: I went to school for city and regional planning, driven by a desire to help communities be healthier, more sustainable, more livable — and particularly communities of color, lower income households, and immigrant communities, all communities I identified with, as a 1.5 generation immigrant who lived in cities most of my life. I wanted to study the policies and programs that affected these communities: What were the outcomes of these policies and programs? Who was affected, and who were excluded? Did the interventions do what they were designed to do? What worked and what did not, and why?
Generally, I came into the evaluation practice because it leverages things I like: asking annoying questions, playing with spreadsheets, making maps, talking to people, and learning. Evaluation has the potential to tackle hard truths. There is so much potential for evaluation to tackle racism — which is rooted in untruths and that have no founding in evidence.
How do your identities impact your work? Has your racial and ethnic identity created challenges?
Liz: My identity has explicitly and directly impacted the work I have chosen to do. Since grad school, I have always worked for a nonprofit or government, in service of social good. I often think about the intersectionality of being a woman, a person of color, and someone who looks really young. When some people see me in charge, or leading, they are not shy about saying, “Let me tell you how it’s done.” But I know how it’s “done.” I wonder why — is it because I am a woman, I look young, or my race? I am often the only woman or person of color. When I do not feel seen/represented, or feel like my contributions or judgement aren’t valued, I begin to question, “what am I doing here? I’m not making a difference.” It has been a journey of finding my voice, of speaking up, of becoming more resilient. This career path and taking on more leadership roles did not come naturally or easily, but I have a lot of advocates and teachers in my corner for whom I am immensely grateful.
Maurice: Historically, the field of evaluation has excluded voices of individuals and groups that have been marginalized. As such, my identity has made me sensitive to whose truth is being told and how it is being represented in an evaluation. Over the last 20 years, there have been a number of pathways programs, initiatives, and networks such as Graduate Education Diversity Internship, Equitable Evaluation, Funder & Evaluator Affinity Network that have focused on diversifying the field of evaluation and centering racial equity in evaluations. An ongoing challenge is how does the field continue to diversify with more BIPOC evaluators and keep, recognize, and value them. How do we undo many of the behaviors and practices that were put in place by a dominate group? This is an imperative given the current complexities, circumstances, and harsh racial and ethnic inequities that are present in our systems.
What unique opportunities, roles, and importance do you see for BIPOC evaluators in philanthropy?
Liz: Evaluations are stronger if the people or community being evaluated are engaged along the process, and evaluations involving BIPOC communities tend to be more robust when BIPOC evaluators play a significant role in the project. Lived experience provides a profound understanding in a way that other forms of learning cannot. Deep, inherent knowledge of the context, the strengths, and the challenges can help inform the questions being asked and the assumptions being tested and add nuance to findings in a way reading a textbook or doing a literature review cannot. That is why representation is so important, both in the evaluation team and in the evaluation activities.
Moreover, there is a problem where evaluators derive confidence, or rigor. People tend to value numbers and undervalue perspectives and feelings. Qualitative data can provide a richness and depth of information that quantitative data cannot. Both forms of information are valid. Collecting information, especially qualitative information where you need to be talking and engaging with people, has real world challenges: language barriers; childcare or work; physical access; trauma; fatigue; trust. These challenges are particularly stark among BIPOC communities. When BIPOC voices are the least heard or least represented, it feels particularly important for all evaluators to work to overcome or mitigate these challenges, in order to not just represent but amplify these voices.
Maurice: I see this as a time for the field to conceptualize and implement evaluations that are in service of culture, context, equity, and justice. We must acknowledge inequitable systems and the conditions that led to the marginalization of BIPOC groups. For evaluators in the field of philanthropy, this means being intentional in centering evaluations on people, giving underrepresented groups agency, and leveraging assets of the communities to improve their well-being. It is time to challenge and interrogate traditional ideas of rigor and objectivity.