In an ideal situation, MLE can help to drive social impact and question deeply-held, outmoded foundational beliefs, helping organizations to stay agile and adapt to new challenges so that they can align around key outcomes that serve their mission statements. But the practices on their own have limitations: Without viewing evaluative work through the lens of equity, we run the risk of using the insights we glean to accidentally strengthen the systemic and structural barriers that already exist and limit possibilities for marginalized communities.

In the aftermath of the event, NationSwell asked the three panelists — Dr. Albertina Lopez of the Center for Evaluation Innovation, Dr. Daniela Pineda of Informed Insight, and Dr. Amber Banks of the Center for Trust and Transformation — to go deeper on how organizations can meaningfully track change at the systemic level and build trust within their communities through compassionate, equitable MLE practices.

Below are some key insights from the panelists:

NationSwell: Why do you think MLE is important for change-making work?

Dr. Albertina Lopez, senior associate the the Center for Evaluation Innovation: Evaluation is a problem-solving tool, and problem solving is necessary for change-making work. Evaluation — with the quantitative and qualitative measuring that goes with it — helps us learn in a systematic and intentional way rather than defaulting to the natural, biased way our brain works, which is generally to bring in information that is aligned with our existing beliefs and to reject that which is not — things like confirmation bias. Evaluation can help us to see a more expansive set of strategies so that we can select those that meet the demands of justice. We can use evaluation to unpack answers to questions like, “To what extent does our work align with how the community defines the problems and solutions?” in order to help us plan for forward-facing, strategic questions like, “How can we devote more resources in 2022 to the racial and gender justice work that communities are leading in the places we touch?”

Dr. Amber Banks, founder and CEO of the Center for Trust and Transformation: Reflective practices are critical for social change. The essence of measurement, learning, and evaluation activities is to create space to understand whether we are making progress toward our goals. Learning and evaluation can help change-makers determine if their efforts are having the desired impact and adjust course to either accelerate or enhance impact. Justice requires an evolution of the field/practice of evaluation as well. Evaluation must also shift toward asset based frames that honor the truth and abundance of who are most impacted by injustices not centered around those already in power. Accountability that centers on the responsibility of institutions to evolve toward more liberatory practices is critical.

Dr. Daniela Pineda, founder of Informed Insight and Lead for the Social and Economic Justice Research Collaborative: Whether you are working on a data dashboard, facilitating a learning session, or conducting an evaluation, MLE tools and practices are  powerful resources for helping us all to keep each other accountable. They clarify problems and help to define what success looks like.

When we are in the midst of “doing the work,” taking time to collect data or participating in an evaluation can feel like a luxury we don’t have. But I urge you to think again. MLE tools can be used to tell our stories, quantify and describe systemic inequities, and describe success. We cannot afford to skip out on these activities. Being able to name the changes we seek is powerful because it helps to focus on what matters.

NS: What does it look like to practice MLE in a way that serves equity and justice?

LOPEZ: At the Center for Evaluation Innovation, we partner with philanthropy on strategy, learning, and evaluation efforts to advance racial equity and justice. We largely work with people who are advancing policy and system changes, and so are practicing the use of evaluation to contest power and to help move it to those who have been historically oppressed by structural racism. What this looks like in practice is applying the Equitable Evaluation Framework™ principles in how we plan and implement the work and using the power-building framework to narrow in on what we evaluate.

BANKS: When we think of MLE we think about processes and methodologies but the most important part of learning and evaluation is relationships. Centering relationships can provide a foundation for listening, co-creation, shared ownership, and trust building. It is also important to honor the negative experiences many communities/individuals have had with evaluation being an extractive, punitive process. Intentionally designing and implementing humanizing approaches that are rooted in asset based frames and create opportunities for multiple voices and perspectives are critical for equity and justice. Ultimately, generative learning is grounded in trust and an ability to be vulnerable with what is working and not working. It also requires acknowledging that evaluation/data has been used historically to harm communities of color and communities impacted by poverty. Serving equity and justice means upending the power imbalances in evaluation and expanding the invitation to co-creation, multiple truths, and a re-orientation around the purpose and value of learning for impact.

PINEDA: The good news here is that there is not a manual or a single toolkit that will tell you how to ‘do’ equitable MLE. And the even better news is that there are so many entry points for any of us to use MEL tools and practices to serve equity and justice.

In my practice I have had the privilege of working with organizations that are taking steps to make their evaluation practice  more equitable.  Centering equity and justice is about our values as practitioners, the way in which we partner with others, and what we want to accomplish with those partnerships. I have partnered with organizations that have gone back to the drawing board to discuss what they mean by community engagement. Serving equity in those conversations was as much about being realistic about what type of input they were seeking from community partners as much as it was about facing their internal barriers to sharing control with community members. As a learning partner, I’ve designed processes that account for power dynamics, build input from different types of experts, and shine a light on how the myth of objectivity can privilege research methods that at worst reify structural inequities. All of this work is ongoing because serving equity is not like flipping a switch; it is a practice.

NS: What is your vision for the future of MLE?

LOPEZ: My vision is justice. Justice is why we measure, evaluate, and learn, and how we work. What does it look like to have justice as both principle and standard? First, we need to know what justice is. The Oxford Dictionary states that it is the “maintenance of what is just or right by the exercise of authority or power; assignment of deserved reward or punishment; giving of due deserts.” So, if we are to serve justice, then we must know what power we have to exercise so we can meet its demands. We can look at our power positionally (e.g., what influence does your organizational role give you?) and personally (e.g., what skills and relationships do you have?). Once we have an idea of what our power is, we may wonder when to use it and how to do so in the complex, unique situations we encounter daily as change-makers. Love is the way. Justice requires love, as I learned from the influential moral philosopher Paul Tillich in his book, “Love, Power and Justice.” This means we are using our positional and personal power lovingly by, as bell hooks proclaims in her book “All About Love: New Visions”: “… mix[ing] various ingredients—care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.” In our future, MLE is serving justice and we are loving in our power.

BANKS: My vision is that we will center learning over evaluation. This learning will value narratives and not just quantitative data. Numbers only tell part of the story and transformative change requires embracing stories, complexity, and tension. We will honor that the narratives included in evaluations belong to the communities being served and that deficit based narratives are a form of violence against communities of color and those impacted by poverty that perpetuate inequities. We will center how evaluators and others in positions of power are in relationship with community partners and we are clear about why we are collecting data, what data will be used for, and who gets to define success. Ultimately, “evaluation” as we know it will be driven by those who are closest to the work and centered around learning, reflection, and asset based frames.

PINEDA: The future is bright. Just in the last few years we have seen a huge shift in the field as more change-makers are calling for and expecting their MLE partners to center equity in their work. I also see more colleagues working to rethink how they work. I want to take for granted that all researchers own their biases and have abandoned the myth of objectivity. In the near future, I want MLE practitioners to redefine what it means to conduct rigorous research and evaluation; to privilege  marginalized voices; and to value the knowledge of those who are most acutely affected by structural inequality over those who have more privilege and hold power.