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Why is evaluation so White? Perspectives from evaluators of color

Listening is core to who we are at the Irvine Foundation. We prioritize listening to grantees and the community to inform our work and how we partner. One of our recent efforts listens to people of color who work in evaluation.

Evaluators play an important role in helping funders understand and respond more effectively and equitably to the needs of the communities we serve. The fields of philanthropy and evaluation will be more effective – and more just – when people with diverse perspectives and experiences are involved with and leading evaluation. Yet, the field of evaluation is predominantly White, leading many funders to wonder why there are not more people of color involved in evaluation efforts. It raises the question of who is left out of our evaluations, whose interpretation of the data is reflected, and whose voice matters most.

With support from Irvine, Engage R+D hosted a series of listening sessions with California-based evaluators of color who work with philanthropic clients. The resulting brief, Listening for Change: Evaluators of Color Speak out About Experiences With Foundations and Evaluation Firms, lifts up the voices and experiences of evaluators of color, lays out the challenges they face in their careers, and offers suggestions for how to address these barriers.

There is much that evaluation firms and funders can do to ensure evaluators of color can thrive – from recruitment to retention to ongoing listening, learning, and culture change. Suggestions for funders include:

  • Prioritize – and adequately resource – professional development for staff of color
  • Fund capacity building for evaluations firms to engage in their own DEI work
  • Build evaluation capacity within communities of color

Before Irvine, we both spent part of our careers at evaluation firms, so we see this issue from both the evaluator and client sides. As an Asian American woman and a White woman, our differing experiences in many ways illustrate those shared by participants in the brief:

Fontane’s perspective:

I am a first-generation Chinese American. I grew up in San Francisco in a single-parent household where my mother raised my brother and I the best she could, with limited English and no prior work experience. Growing up, I was acutely aware that I was different – different even from my other Asian-American friends whose families spoke English at home. Those differences were, at times, all consuming: from what others thought of the food I brought for lunches and potlucks, to my lackluster vocabulary, to the unfamiliar ebb-and-flow of American conversation and humor.

Who we are impacts the work that we do as evaluators; it is the lens through which we see the world, through which we decide what matters and to whom. In my career as an evaluator, I have found my experiences, upbringing, and ethnic background to be both an asset and a challenge. I have wrestled with the tensions between the values of my Chinese upbringing and who I am asked to become in a White-dominant professional culture. I have struggled in a field that has othered me from the dominant culture while also discounting my experiences as a person of color – people see me as neither White nor a person of color, and I feel like an imposter either way.

Kim’s perspective:

As a White woman growing up in a white dominant culture, I felt comfortable in most spaces. My father, a first-generation immigrant who experienced the American Dream, told me if I worked hard, I would succeed in my career. Though I was an “accidental evaluator” like many, I was told my voice mattered and easily found mentors, resources, connections, and opportunities to thrive along my career path as an evaluator. Looking back, though I was aware of my privilege, I did not realize the degree to which the color of my skin played a role.

As a leader, I have a responsibility, both within Irvine and the broader evaluation ecosystem, to ensure more evaluation leaders reflect the diverse perspectives and lived experiences of the communities we serve and can thrive in their evaluation careers. This involves continuing my own work to surface my biases and blind spots so I can create safe spaces to listen to, acknowledge, and address challenges faced by our own staff and evaluators of color with whom we work, including organizational culture and practices that need to change.

Meeting the Challenge

The challenges evaluators of color face are pervasive and rooted in the very system of how merit, value, and leadership are defined. But they are not insurmountable.

We hope the brief and Engage R+D’s accompanying blog post will help funders and evaluators reflect more deeply about what it will take to create an ecosystem in which evaluators of color thrive. And in the coming months, the Funder and Evaluator Affinity Network will publish a set of recommendations co-created by funders and evaluators to further help the sector begin the critical, long overdue work to dismantle the tired narratives about talent and the oppressive practices and systems that exclude the critical perspectives of our colleagues of color.