Jara Dean-Coffey, MPH
Originally published on equitableeval.org on August 25, 2021
“I write from the perspective of an evaluation practitioner who works with foundations across the United States. I seek to change the conversation about how we conceptualize and utilize evaluation in service of something more than data and information and to move us toward a fuller expression of values and a more robust commitment to a world in which race is not a key determinant of conditions, experience, opportunities, and outcomes. It is important to note that my perspective is one that integrates both my professional and personal identities. Professionally, I am an evaluation practitioner who has worked with foundations across the country for the past 25 years, often working closely with their nonprofit partners to strengthen their evaluation skills. Personally, I am a middle- aged, African American, cisgender, heterosexual female who grew up outside of Philadelphia, PA, went to an all-girls preparatory school, and am one of two children of still-married, college-educated professional parents, who are happily retired on to the seventh hole off a golf course in Arizona. During the course of my career as an evaluator, my role has evolved from being the diversity hire (the one person of color on a primarily White evaluation team) to being part of a small pool of evaluation professionals of color invited to submit proposals. I share these details because they shape how I see the world and my role as an evaluator. I am objective but not neutral: I believe evaluation has the potential to be an instrument that contributes to the world in which I want to live, one in which my race is not an indicator of, well, anything (Dean-Coffey, 2018).”
Since I wrote this, I continue to be explicit about my positionality as a way for people to understand my intentions, experience and background. It is by no means a full expression of who I am (or who I have been or will be), but instead an entry point for making sense of what I might have to offer. I would also now describe myself as a Black cis gender woman — as I think (hope) we continue to evolve if we are lucky enough to age and in doing so our understanding of ourselves and the language we use does so as well.
So what is positionality?
Positionality describes an individual’s world view and the position they adopt about a research task and its social and political context (Foote & Bartell 2011, Savin-Baden & Major, 2013 and Rowe, 2014). The individual’s worldview or ‘where the researcher is coming from’ concerns ontological assumptions (an individual’s beliefs about the nature of social reality and what is knowable about the world), epistemological assumptions (an individual’s beliefs about the nature of knowledge) and assumptions about human nature and agency (individual’s assumptions about the way we interact with our environment and relate to it) (Sikes, 2004, Bahari, 2010, Scotland, 2012, Ormston, et al. 2014, Marsh, et al. 2018 and Grix, 2019) are colored by an individual’s values and beliefs that are shaped by their political allegiance, religious faith, gender, sexuality, historical and geographical location, ethnicity, race, social class, and status, (dis) abilities and so on (Sikes, 2004, Wellington, et al. 2005 and Marsh, et al. 2018).
One reason (among several) that I am as transparent as I am is to counter a deeply held belief in the evaluation field that objectivity is critical to good evaluation and thus who you are does not matter in this work. You are simply seeing what is to be seen as it exists (positivist or post-positivist) and who you are in the witnessing and interpretation of said phenomenon has no bearing. That simply is not true.
This is certainly true in much of the evaluative work many of us are engaging with in the 21st century. I would also say it was also true in the past, but we are in the present and that is where I choose to remain focused so that our futures may differ from their current trajectory.
I believe our distance from the work/people/issue/community has often led to us not seeing/feeling what is happening, but also not understanding the nuance and complexity that exists in the human experience, let alone the planet or universe. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why evaluation continues to find itself accompanied by words like mandatory, extractive, not sure of its usefulness, burdensome, costly —you get the picture. It is rarely an endeavor that all parties are excited to engage in or are thrilled about what comes of it. These words are used less if the evaluative methodology is one that is inclusive, participatory or population focused often bringing to bear context, culture and beliefs systems that welcome as opposed to turn away but why is that not the default? Why do we still privilege a mindset and worldview that limits what is possible for us to know? Power.
During my work as the Director of the Equitable Evaluation Initiative, I constantly and continuously invite those who participate in our Making the Case Collaboratory (2018 - early 2022) to take real stock of who they are and what it is they want their work to be in service of and how that is reflected in how they show up, where they show up and for whom and to what end. We talk about agency, influence and power at the individual level and ask folks to be honest and get real about their lives and what that means in relationship to their work and in our case the practice of the Equitable Evaluation Framework™ (EEF). This exploration continues if folks (and their organizations) join as EEF™ Practice Partners, which is an expression of Equipping for Transformation.
It is amazing what happens when people are invited to be their full selves. After they acknowledge that they have kept hidden or dormant a part of them that feels, seeks, knows more than what they have brought to bear (as the current dominant paradigm either rewards or punishes depending on your aptitude to comply), there is a lightness, a curiosity, a depth that reveals itself. There is wisdom brought into the space. Tangible. Transformed. There is more on this to come. In the interim, the ask—no—the invitation is this:
be your true selves in this endeavor; one where that which we put forward as evidence and truths affects the lives, paths and possibilities of others and that of this human species and our planet.
¹ Dean-Coffey, J. (2018). What’s Race Got to Do With It? Equity and Philanthropic Evaluation Practice. American Journal of Evaluation, 39(4), 527–542. ² Holmes, Andrew Gary Darwin. “Researcher Positionality - A Consideration of Its Influence and Place in Qualitative Research - A New Researcher Guide.” Shanlax International Journal of Education, vol. 8, no. 4, ³ Holmes, Andrew Gary Darwin. “Researcher Positionality - A Consideration of Its Influence and Place in Qualitative Research - A New Researcher Guide.” Shanlax International Journal of Education, vol. 8, no. 4, ⁴ Holmes, Andrew Gary Darwin. “Researcher Positionality - A Consideration of Its Influence and Place in Qualitative Research - A New Researcher Guide.” Shanlax International Journal of Education, vol. 8, no. 4, ⁵ Scriven, M. (1997). Truth and objectivity in evaluation. Evaluation for the 21st century: A handbook, 477. ⁶ Markiewicz, A. (2008). The political context of evaluation: what does this mean for independence and objectivity?. Evaluation Journal of Australasia, 8(2), 35-41. ⁷ Kean, M. H. (1981). Compromising Positions: The Objectivity of Evaluators. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 3(4), 87-88. ⁸ Alvesson, M. and Sköldberg, K. (2009). “(Post-)Positivism, Social Constructionism, Critical Realism: Three Reference Points in the Philosophy of Science,” In Reflexive Methodology: New Vistas for Qualitative Research, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 15-52