Getting (and keeping!) Some Traction on Equity Evaluation

By Christine Velez and Jenn Esala, The Evaluation Center


ABOUT THE EVALUATION CENTER

The Evaluation Center provides research and evaluation services to clients from municipalities, state and federal organizations and agencies, Pre-K-12 public education, higher education, and non-profit organizations.  Located within the School of Education and Human Development at CU Denver, the Center operates as an affiliate entity within a major research university.  Our vision is to improve lives and communities through research and evaluation.  Our mission is to strive to advance value and understanding of evaluation through collaboration with our clients to support evidence-informed programs, practices, and policies.  We firmly support the precept that evidence empowers and strengthens programs and ultimately, the individuals they serve.  


It all started with a webinar… and it started way before then too.  

Our organization has always been committed to the principles of social justice and culturally responsive evaluation.  As individuals we believe that we have a responsibility to move to action wherever we see injustice. That was our foundation and also our calling.

One day in early spring, our Executive Director called us all together to watch a webinar by Jara Dean-Coffey on Equitable Evaluation. That was a pivotal moment.  We all watched and responded with a resounding, collective “YES!” We knew that was our path to further integrating our values into our work. Soon thereafter, two members from our team (Christine and Jenn) were selected to participate in an Equitable Evaluation Design Lab alongside 27 other Colorado evaluators.  That was our first step into something we couldn’t have imagined.

The three-month design lab challenged us to re-imagine our role as evaluators.  How can evaluators work in service of and contribute to equity? That is quite a profound question and one that requires examination and the constant re-evaluation of the way we have always done things.  And that, my friends, felt like a daunting task. Where would we even start? During the Design Lab summer, we talked, questioned, planned, and pushed ourselves to change the way we think and see the world.  This experience and the collaboration with other evaluators gave us the traction we needed to start our journey.

Through this process and since, we have:

  • Nurtured an organizational culture of equity

  • Structured equity into our regular staff meetings

  • Built an equity approach into funding proposals

  • Foregrounded equity in our recruitment processes

  • Set the foundation for an equity workgroup and strategic planning process.  

We are proud of our team and grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the design lab. In this post, we reflect on what worked for us to get traction on equity evaluation and what might work for organizations more generally. That is, how might our experiences getting traction be relevant to you?

We use Kurt Lewin’s 3-Stage Change Management Model to describe our experiences in this process. This framework suggests three phases in effective change: (1) unfreeze, (2) change, and (3) refreeze. In practice is feels much like it sounds: a call to action, movement, and settling into the change that has taken place.  

UNFREEZE!

In the “unfreeze” stage, you strategically note, acknowledge, or point out that things simply cannot go forward as they always have. This call to action might be precipitated by opportunities that present themselves or a change in the climate or context in which we work. We offer two reflections on how our leadership effectively unfroze us and how we readied ourselves for it.

Seek and Seize Authentic Opportunities to Unfreeze

→ Our tip: Keep your eyes open for authentic opportunities to show why it is that your organization cannot go forward without pursuing equity work.

You can certainly create moments of unfreeze. But, we were lucky enough to seize an authentic opportunity to unfreeze.  Our initial “unfreeze” moment was our executive director calling our team together to watch Jara’s webinar and then prioritizing staff time and professional development opportunities that would provide us with the chance to become leaders in equity evaluation.  This change was framed as essential to our mission of social justice and to our success as an organization. Interestingly, this big unfreezing led to a multitude of other mini-unfreezing moments. Our leadership team fully supported our application to the Equity Evaluation Design Lab. We were curious as to how equity evaluation would fit with our emphasis on social justice; we knew there was so much more we should and could be doing. This opened up conversations about individuals’ passions for social justice in their vocations, a desire for more connections to the community, the need for more diversity in the workforce.  When people are meaningfully and authentically unfrozen from a routinized way of working -- new ideas, meanings, and purposes flowed.

Honor your organizational culture and equity throughout the process

→ Our tip: Know how your organization communicates and makes decisions; build an equitable process that honors these organizational realities.

When you unfreeze, be sure you are ready!  You want to be sure you have a good sense of organizational culture to be able to manage the uncertainty and potential fear (and keep it focused as energy, momentum, and excitement).  We found that among the most important things to know is how a group makes decisions and how they prefer to communicate. Our group likes to make decisions together and to communicate in large group meetings with a lot of discussion and reflection.  To support this, we approached our equity evaluation work through a consensus model. We made all decisions together and offered opportunities for anonymous consensus voting. This specific approach worked very well for an equitable process – all voices were heard and impacted the decision.  That said, a consensus model is not going to be right for all organizations. The bottom line is that you need to know your organizational culture and build a process that honors that culture while also honoring equitable processes. If it is possible for your organization, we highly recommend a consensus model.

CHANGE!

Once you are in the processes of developing and fostering an equity evaluation approach in your work and workplace, you are in the “change” phase.  Everyone is unfrozen, moving, and unsure as to how things will change and the impact it will have. This phase is exciting and also can be overwhelming.  Ideas are flowing. Tensions may be brewing. Power is exposed. Change is happening! We offer three ideas to help keep your sanity and to keep traction on your equity work.

Don’t go it alone

→ Our tip: Identify and partner with an equity buddy to champion the work.

The Equitable Evaluation Design Lab was structured so that two people from each organization participate and bring back learnings to (and from) their organizations.  We found working as a team of two to be essential to building traction. For one, we were able to provide each other support when the process was more challenging. We bounced ideas off one another and came up with even better ideas.  And, we were able to “cover” for each other when one of us was on vacation or simply too busy. We agree that having a partner who is also an equity champion in the organization was one of the most important factors in keeping up momentum on our equity work.

Set Expectations and Celebrate Small Wins

→ Our tip: Clarify that this process is new, difficult, and slow; then, celebrate when you have wins despite those challenges!

Organizational change and practice change (the fundamentals of how we think about and do evaluation!) is going to be an incremental process and take significant time.  Truly, we are learning that it is a lifelong commitment. It was critical that we set this expectation early on; it helped keep morale up when the going got slower than we wanted! Also, the purpose of the design lab was to help invent (or design … ) what equity evaluation looks like.  So, 90% of our job during this change process was to remind folks that we are creating something. There is uncertainty (and excitement!) in creation.  We set the expectation that the process would be uncomfortable and often unclear; we balanced that with the message that we are adventurers in this new evaluation landscape. Setting the expectation helped us stay calm in the face of uncertainty and disagreement.  This is just a part of creation!

Once those expectations were set, this positioned us to celebrate small wins!  For example, building equity approaches into new proposal narratives and budgets was a major success.  We also changed our graduate assistant recruitment strategy to include a pool of students from underrepresented groups on campus.

Continuous learning and discussions about equity are integrated into our weekly staff meetings. Expectation setting appropriately frames the outcomes, and celebrating the small wins continuously reminds us that we are forging a path that is essential and valuable.    

Build in ways to “up the enthusiasm”

→ Our tip: Find small ways to make the equity work, equity fun!

All of this talk about work, slow progress, and uncertainty is stressful and sometimes painful.  Hard work needs to be balanced with excitement and ongoing learning. We are talking games, challenges, prizes, treats, etc.!  What does your team enjoy? Build that into the equity work. One way we did this was a 21-day racial equity habit building challenge (check out http://www.debbyirving.com/21-day-challenge/ ).  We challenged our team to engage with equity (read, listen, watch, notice, connect, engage, act, or reflect) every day for 21 days with a mystery prize to be revealed at the end of the challenge. By day ten, the office was buzzing with conversations about equity.  The prize was a donation to a local charity in our name and each person receiving a funky chocolate bar (e.g., birthday cake and cereal flavored chocolate). Light fun will keep the energy up and the work more pleasant.

Bring in external voices

→ Our tip: Be sure to leverage all of the amazing work out there on equity.

The equity challenge highlights the importance of bringing in outside voices, perspectives, and knowledge. Internal work is essential, but navel gazing and reinventing the wheel are strongly discouraged. Our work in equity was informed, enriched, and enlivened through readings, blogs, podcasts, other colleagues in the field, shared viewings of webinars and more.

REFREEZE!

Our organization is currently at a point at which we want to lock in those meaningful changes and assure they are internalized and institutionalized.  We are in a moment of re-freezing. This is the moment where we solidify our hard earned changes into ongoing practice and enduring organizational culture. We offer two ways that we are currently refreezing our changes.

Institutionalize

For an organization, a critical component of refreeze is institutionalization.  The “unfreeze” and “change” bring cultural, ideological, and everyday practice shifts. Then, refreeze etches those changes into documents and organizational processes. Two of the most “living” ways we are doing this is through the establishment of an equity workgroup and the development of an equity strategic plan, both of which will reinforce and continue to drive our equity work.

Reflection and Celebration

We are holding an equity evaluation year-in-review session this month to map our journey from those first moments of unfreeze through to today. This is an opportunity to take a deep breath, relax for a moment, and acknowledge how far we have come. In this reflection process, we will emphasize those meaningful changes that we hope to freeze into our organization. At the same time, we will acknowledge that this is a breath, a celebration, a moment of consolidating that will restore us for the next unfreeze we are already imagining.  Equity work is now an ongoing part of who we are, and we look forward to many seasons of growth.


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

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Jenn Esala

Jennifer Esala is a Researcher at the Center for Victims of Torture. Her work serves asylum seeker and refugees in the U.S. from over forty countries around the world. She strives to build equity into every component of evaluation and research to better serve and help empower this population. 

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Christine Velez

Christine Velez is a Senior Evaluator with more than 23 years of experience in program evaluation, a first generation Latina, and a native Spanish speaker. She is at her best when bringing to the forefront the cultural, historical and political context in which the initiatives are implemented and how these might challenge conventional ways that success is defined.  

Christine can be reached by email at Christine.Velez@ucdenver.edu