An Interview with EEI Director Jara Dean-Coffey

Since launching EEI last fall, we’ve been sharing Emerging Learnings from our Practice Partners. This month, we sat down and chatted with EEI Director Jara Dean-Coffey to share some of our own learnings as well.

We hope this honest look into what’s happening behind the scenes at EEI encourages you to reflect on where you are in your work, take stock of the progress you’ve made, and determine where to go from here. As always, thank you for growing alongside us as we navigate what it means to work for the changes we wish to see in the field.

In 2018, we shifted from being a 1-year project to building a 5-year initiative. What has that shift been like? What does it mean to be planning for five years?

To be frank, it’s weird. It’s been less about planning for five years and more about knowing that you aren’t planning for forever. We're trying to build a container that is robust enough to feed and channel the energy and interest of the field. At the end of the five years, we will let the field take it from there, or we can evolve if the field decides there is still a role for the initiative to play.

Do you feel it creates a sense of urgency to know there’s a 5-year timeframe we’ve given ourselves?

What it creates is an intense attention to being adaptive and porous. It’s this interesting place of having enough of a structure that there is a home for EE-related work, while being porous enough that as the work evolves, opportunities, individuals, and efforts can move in and outside of it.

I use the word “porous” because when I think of EEI, I think of it more as an organism that has a membrane, versus it being a static structure. EEI feels very alive. It’s something that’s still evolving, still very nascent. As other things come in contact with it, it shifts and changes. And yet, at the same time, it can’t be so amorphous that people cannot find a way in and access and integrate what we learn, develop, and share in their work.

What are the tensions you’re currently feeling?

The primary tension is finding the balance between urgency, the philosophical shift required, and the technical implications. Look, we live in a racist country, and there are a lot of people who want to live in a different world (which is great), but this is more than a notion. It’s not that easy and it’s not going to happen overnight.

I believe that we will get someplace new once we have a better understanding of how our history has brought us to where we find ourselves now. I think we are still unpacking that with regard to information and evidence in research and evaluation.This is messy, complex work, and it’s a marathon; it’s something we have to be in for the long haul.

I don’t know that I know what it'll look like when we get there, wherever “there” is, but I’m very comfortable being in this emergent space. I recognize that not everyone is comfortable in that space, so I view my role as supporting people to identify places where they feel like they can make concrete, behavioral, and tactical shifts that don’t short-change the larger paradigm shift that needs to happen.

So what is happening with EEI?

There are multiple things in play:

  1. Divorcing EEI from Luminare Group (how we are referring internally to the amicable split)

  2. Putting in place systems and structures for the new standalone entity sponsored by the Seattle Foundation

  3. Building out the EEI Team, with a focus on the partner and resource development roles

  4. Continuing to engage with existing partners (all types) and influence conversations around evaluation in multiple spheres.

During 2018, we learned a great deal. There was such generosity and curiosity. As a consequence, we are refining what it means to be a practice and field partner, knowing that there are different considerations depending on where you are in the ecosystem. For example, there are different power and resource considerations if you are a funder, a consultant, or a nonprofit. We’re trying to figure out what that looks like, and we’re doing that in partnership with field and practice partners (current and potential) who have said they want to be part of this paradigm shift. We’ve loved having them help us figure out what this can look like. We may have raised the question about evaluative practice, but the solutions rest with all of us. There have been ideas brought to the table that we wouldn’t have come up with ourselves, and it’s exciting to feel real partnership and co-creation emerge as the new norm.

What are you looking for in the next few years to tell you that EEI is affecting the field?

There are some particular things that we’re trying to accomplish in the next two years that we think lay the foundation for the next five years. We know from various disciplines and experiences what it takes to build a field. And there are certain indications of stickiness and traction that are important.

A few examples of what this includes:

  • A cohort adopting EE, that regularly connects, learns, and shares experiences and materials both internally and externally

  • Teaching cases and case studies about EE to help advance adoption

  • Resources to support development of EE practices provided and learnings shared

  • Champions and advocates of EE that exist outside of the EEI Team

And finally, what are you most excited about right now?

What I’m most excited about is that there are unexpected (maybe just for me) partners surfacing who have been really explicit in saying, “We want to help make this work. We want to build this with you.” I don’t feel like we are in this alone. I really feel like what's possible with EEI is far more than what I could’ve imagined. I also see it as a continuation of the work of others who came before and made it easier to raise some of the questions that the EE Project work surfaced.