When we focus on one side of the proverbial pancake, we often create barriers to well-informed assessments. This one-sided approach has the unintentional consequence of forcing our work into an artificial silo in such a deleterious way that we may miss important cultural context and nuance.
For example, when evaluating an educational success program, if we neglect to disaggregate gender self-identification or racial and ethnic demographic data (when such data are available), we miss an important opportunity to examine systemic issues affecting individuals in different and profound ways. As well, if we conduct an assessment of community health, yet exclude economic and political analysis, built environment factors, and the presence of indigenous anchor institutions and leaders as central areas of inquiry, we are sacrificing important context.
Let’s drill down further and examine the economic inequities facing so-called opportunity youth (youth ages 16-24 who are out of school or the workforce). According to the Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions, it is estimated that there are now 5.5 million opportunity youth – also commonly referred to as disconnected youth – in the United States. Unless we are attentive to factors such as reliable transportation access, trust in employer institutions, social networks, job preparedness, prior interactions with the legal system, and family supports, among other factors, we will lose sight of critical factors in the lives of youth. Piecemeal fixes resulting from under-informed assessments may leave communities, funders, and policymakers without viable and sustainable pathways to youth and family success.
To further illustrate these points, I was struck by a piece published in the Washington Post, following the death of Freddie Gray. The reporter offers a comprehensive look at the systemic failures at critical junctures during Freddie Gray’s life and tragic death.
At one point in his life, Mr. Gray was an opportunity youth. He lived in a community marked by tough systemic issues, such as staggering unemployment, poor access to sustainable living wage positions, the absence of fresh foods, and the lack of affordable healthier alternatives to fast food restaurants. The reporter also discussed how environmental factors, such as early exposure to lead toxins, may have affected Mr. Gray’s brain development. Additionally, by the time Mr. Gray reached his 18th birthday, he had received several out-of-school suspensions, which contributed to missed critical in-classroom learning time.
The story of Freddie Gray clearly illustrates why it is so essential to apply a mindset that considers the mosaic of lived experiences and deeply rooted systemic issues in a community. When evaluators miss these factors, and neglect opportunities to identify more holistic evaluation designs, we perpetuate system failures.
Let’s be clear, multi-dimensional approaches to evaluation may add time, further complexity, and costs. And approaching our work in such a comprehensive manner may require us to sharpen our abilities to work across disciplines, understand cultural awareness, integrate lived experiences into our thinking, and strengthen respect for cultural assets. But the upsides far outweigh the costs, and the outcomes are stronger.
At the heart of CREA’s mission is an unapologetic commitment to understand the character and influences of diverse cultural norms and practices when designing and conducting evaluations. That’s why the need for evaluators to work across disciplines ought to be shouted from the roof tops. Years of experience confirm that we simply cannot sweep in and out of communities without considering our cultural biases (intentional and unintentional), riding solo without including partners working in other disciplines. Further, we must stretch ourselves to tap deeply and respectfully into new wells of expertise and knowledge, on an ongoing basis, to understand and consider both sides of the proverbial pancake.
Renée Byng Yancey is Vice President of Equal Measure, a national evaluation and philanthropic services firm based in Philadelphia. She is also the National Program Director of New Connections: Increasing Diversity of RWJF Programming. Equal Measure is the National Program Office for New Connections. Prior to joining Equal Measure, Renée served as Vice President of Partnerships with the Council on Foundations.