If we are going to make change together, we need to get real about recognizing power and privilege.
A young Black girl holds her mother’s hand while looking into a shop window. The reflection portrays her as an adult in a revitalized neighborhood with a greener, well-maintained street with access to healthy food and a bike-friendly pathway.
When I was growing up in the East Bay area of California, I asked with a child’s curiosity why some people were incredibly wealthy and others living nearby were so poor. At that young age I did not have the tools to fully understand what was happening, but I instinctively recognized that such differences were wrong. Only in college, when I fell in love with sociology and its deep exploration of how people and society interact, did I begin to refine my questions and search for answers.
To this day, I can still hear my mentor’s words: “We do this research not for the academic accolades, but to represent the voices in communities that are not being heard.”
Questioning Core Assumptions
Representing those voices has been my passion since founding the Mirror Group in 2017. Like most evaluators, our team is dedicated to learning whether a program, initiative, or strategy is meeting its goals, and how it could work better.
But our approach goes beyond a traditional framework because we believe truly useful evaluations require an equity lens to identify and eliminate structural racism. For us, that begins by asking hard questions about the design and impact of a program. At every step, we challenge ourselves to reflect on power dynamics and the way they shape narratives and influence decisionmaking, and to inquire: “Why do we do things this way? What history led us here? According to whom? For whom? How do all the partners experience the results?”
Answers that drive progress emerge only when those who are most impacted by the work are centered in every phase of its development. Too often, program design, implementation, and evaluation begin and end to serve the interests of the funders. We certainly respect the imperative to steward resources wisely, and the Equitable Evaluation Framework™ positions us to go much further to reshape structures and institutions and promote systems-level transformation.
Above all, it needs to be genuinely inclusive. Trace the roots of most evaluations and a White, male-dominated frame emerges. Shaking up longstanding convention requires engaging partners within a much larger ecosystem—not only those who fund, develop, and run programs, but also the individuals, families, and communities who are affected by it and the advocates and changemakers working to name structural racism and trying to dislodge it.
When we question established norms and mindsets and highlight issues that have been overlooked, we must often say things in ways that some people find disconcerting, even threatening. We are asking folks to interrogate all of their assumptions, rather than accept them as given. That is not easy to do. Not long ago, I was part of a conversation in which one person wanted to talk about the racism she had faced and another perceived her concerns as a personal attack. To ease the resulting tension, we had to make room for a candid exchange about organizational structure, team decisionmaking, and the uneven weight assigned to certain voices. Leading that kind of dialogue reminds me that participatory evaluation is not for the faint of heart.
Evaluators as Firm But Loving Partners
The evaluations we conduct build on our commitment to bringing the right people together at every phase, listening closely to them, and being very clear about our role as supportive outsiders with insider experience who promote relationships that serve equity. When we begin an evaluation, we talk with our partners about who we are and what we bring to the work and ask probing questions about the results they hope for and what they think success could look like. Next, we engage in a discovery process to make sure we understand the program we are evaluating by asking, “Do you see what we see?” “Did we get this right?”
Then, we are ready to design the formal evaluation and choose our data-gathering methods, again pausing to check in with our partners. We have found journey mapping, imaging, and voice capture to be effective tools for collecting information. Depending on the initiative, we may do some capacity building so that community members can share responsibility for conducting and implementing the research and evaluation. Sometimes, we will use interactive techniques that help us cultivate the wisdom of the group.
The process of analyzing the data, writing up the findings, and disseminating the results is similarly structured to involve the diverse range of partners. We do not just take the data and return with a polished final report. Instead, we ask our partners to help us make sense of what we have learned together. We might ask them to serve as reviewers or coauthors and seek their counsel on how best to make the findings actionable. Perhaps we will produce a 30-page report for a client but make it part of a larger package that also includes a two-page summary with visuals, a webinar, or a podcast focused on concrete next steps.
As evaluators, we see ourselves as firm but loving partners. Sometimes, that means saying things that people find difficult to hear, but we always speak multiple truths from a place of respect and a belief in the good intentions of all players. If we are working with a foundation, we will ask that not only the program officer, but other members of the grantmaking team, as well as representatives from the offices of finance and communications, be involved. So much of philanthropy has been shaped by unquestioned rubrics and familiar networks. If we are going to make change together, we need to confront that limitation, elevate the dialogue, and get real about recognizing power and privilege.
We continue to seek the best strategies for reaching people who can translate knowledge into action. Witnessing that happen more often is immensely rewarding, with new spaces opening up to Black, Asian, and Latinx men and women, Indigenous populations, and LGBTQ+ communities. It is also exciting to work with RWJF as its commitment to equitable evaluation evolves, and especially to see the Foundation encourage wider adoption of these practices. In many corners, there is a growing appreciation for the authority of our stories, more willingness to employ innovative methodologies, and a deepening understanding of how the past shapes the contemporary context.
A long journey lies ahead as we continue to make the invisible visible, but I am convinced this work will lead us ever closer to equity.
About the Author
Mindelyn Anderson is the founder and CEO of Mirror Group LLC. For 23 years, Dr. Anderson has researched social inequality and stratification, race and migration, education and social mobility, and health.