Q&A: Washington Evaluators in conversation with Dr. Chera Reid

In August, Washington Evaluators (WE) published our statement of commitments to antiracism. A document that we drafted as a follow up to a solidarity statement we published following the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade whose names are now included in the generations of Black Americans who have been harmed and killed at the hands of police and other racist, armed individuals. Our commitments – which focus on embodying antiracism principles and practices in evaluation– seek to take our initial words and thoughts of solidarity into concrete action moving forward as a membership organization.

WE’s Emily Bango recently spoke to Reid about the history of evaluation, why it matters to pursue an anti-racist stance, and how we can orient evaluation in service to equity and justice.

Emily Bango: How have you seen racism and inequity show up in evaluation work? Are there any salient examples you can share with us that can put this topic into focus today?

Chera Reid: Neutrality often is implied in evaluation. But when we look into the institutions and systems that created evaluation, we can see that we’re not and never have been neutral. We are and have always been human. At times we have distanced ourselves from other humans under the guise of objectivity. Racism and inequity are in the roots.

john powell at UC Berkeley, who directs the Othering and Belonging Institute, reminds us that a root cause analysis requires us to do just that, look at the roots. He uses the analogy of an apple tree. Often, we look at an apple and say the individual apple is good or bad. In order to address the need and see a lasting change, we need to look at the tree’s roots.

I’ll share an illustrative example: The federal government has long treated being poor as a behavioral problem. The assumption has been that systems work and are fair, but some people don’t seem to be connected to the systems such that they are experiencing “self-sufficiency.” The interventions are about changing behavior. For example: welfare to work.

The Year is 1996. Bill Clinton is President. The economy is booming. The U.S. passed significant welfare reforms with work requirements: It was called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). By the year 2002, at least 50% of families receiving welfare and 90% of two-parent families were required to be working or in work preparation programs. Evaluators were needed for monitoring and accountability. Questions were asked about whether programmatic interventions were working or not.

We assumed that we got the problem right, that the focus on families with low-income and low-wealth were the problem, rather than interrogate our institutions and systems. Perhaps we would need to adjust the “dosage” of the intervention, give people a different amount of medicine. Or a different duration, a longer or shorter course of treatment. Notice the clinical language. Is this the way you would want your family talked about at any time for any reason?

Coming back to hope, several of Clinton’s advisors quit back in 1996 in protest when PRWORA was signed into law. The hope is in the struggle. We need to shift our gaze, away from a primary focus individual accountability, toward a focus on institutions and systems. We need to interrogate power.

Emily Bango: Our commitments to antiracism work include the following: listen to our BIPOC community members, learn to identify our own complicity in the system, grow to increase equity, and share antiracist methodologies and practices. Do you have thoughts on how we can – as a membership organization – embody these commitments?

Chera Reid: Keep coming back to your “why.” Why are these the commitments? As a membership organization, what are you here to do? Start with purpose.

One mistake I’ve seen well-intentioned people make is to separate and marginalize equity and inclusion. Put WE’s commitment to antiracist practice on the top line as part of your mission and values. Make WE’s commitment to antiracist practice core to your organizational identity. Antiracism is practice, and it is ongoing.

Emily Bango: Can you speak to any elements that may be missing from our commitments that you consider essential?

Chera Reid: Anti-racism asks us to address racist policies and practices directly. And it asks us to not stop there. It’s about race explicitly but not exclusively. Anti-racism asks us to interrogate capitalism and patriarchy.

I encourage WE to consider the business model for consultants to philanthropy and to nonprofit organizations. To what extent does the way we participate in contracting, and the very foundation of the consultant-client contract relationship, uphold capitalism? On patriarchy, what are assumptions about the nature of knowledge? Whose knowledge is assumed to be valid?

Emily Bango: As a white woman, it is my understanding that my primary role is to listen to the experts, educate myself, and speak up when witnessing moments of injustice. Do you have suggestions for the ways in which I, and other allies like me, can get more involved in contributing to positive changes in the field?

Chera Reid: Getting involved is less about expertise and more about stance. Are you curious? Do you take a learning stance? Are you open, as you said earlier, to learning and unlearning? Can you unlearn, really stay with it, when you hear something that makes you uncomfortable?

White people can come together with other white people. Learn and unlearn together to help you advance the work. And learn and unlearn together so that people of color do not have to carry all the water. It is the responsibility of white people to educate themselves, not for white people to expect whoever is deemed an expert to teach and tell everything.

Emily Bango: What suggestions do you have for BIPOC, especially Black community members, that want to get involved in evaluation work? What resources are available to tap into the expertise in the field?

Chera Reid: Be clear about your “why,” what you are showing up for. People will try to tell you that you are neutral as an evaluator. You are not neutral. You are human. It’s important to acknowledge this and reflect on our bias.

To the question of expertise, we may be told that expertise is in the field, held in certain bodies. That is not true. Your lived experience, if you permit it, is an asset. Believe that what you are bringing—skills, qualities, lens—are assets. Everyone has a lens.

The Summer 2020 volume of New Directions in Evaluation is an excellent resource. Our team at the Center for Evaluation Innovation is studying the readings together. The contributors ask about the role of the evaluator in social change. Is inciting social change something evaluators can do? Should do? Melvin Hall places evaluation in key moments in our country’s history. Dominica McBride, Wanda Casillas, and Jennifer LoPiccolo make a call to action in their chapter, “Inciting Social Change Through Evaluation.”

Emily Bango: What are common misconceptions you’ve seen when it comes to “diversity, equity, and inclusion’ in evaluation work?

Chera Reid: Before I came to the Evaluation Roundtable, I worked for seven years at The Kresge Foundation, including five as inaugural director of strategic learning, research, and evaluation. We were early adopters of the Equitable Evaluation Framework. From this experience, I saw that many of us came looking for a tool, a new method. Equitable Evaluation is a practice and a way of being, not a new method or toolkit.

When we hear ourselves rushing to a tool, we could pause…. take a deep breath…. check in on the quality of your breathing…where is the expectation of a tool, delivered today, coming from? How long has evaluation been built on binary assumptions about good and bad?

This conversation originally took place during an event hosted by Washington Evaluator members on November 5th, 2020, and this document which derived from the conversation is cross-posted at https://washingtonevaluators.org