Meet the Vantage Team: Aisha Rios

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How evaluation allows me to fuse my passion for people and social justice


How evaluation allows me to fuse my passion for people and social justice

By Aisha Rios

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I am a people person. I love meeting new people and learning about their past experiences. You know that person who chats up a storm with the person sitting beside her at a coffee shop or the cashier checking her out at the grocery store? Yep, that’s me. My appetite for getting to know people and understanding what makes them tick – their values, passions, past experiences, and dreams for the future – drives me on a daily basis. When you know this about me, it comes as no surprise that I gravitated toward anthropology first in undergrad and later during graduate school. After all, anthropology can be most concisely defined as the study of human beings! 

Aisha Rios, PhD | Evaluator

Aisha is our resident ethnographic guru, specializing in how to integrate qualitative sources in unexpected ways.

You may be wondering what anthropology has to do with evaluation and how I ended up being an evaluator. My path is far from unique in the field of evaluation. Ask many evaluators how they got into evaluation, and you’ll hear things like, “I fell into evaluation” or “I’m an accidental evaluator.” I would characterize my path to evaluation in a similar manner but with a twist: serendipity led me along the path, but ultimately aligning values sealed the deal. 

The fact that we represent a wide range of backgrounds and experiences means that we are always learning from, and being challenged by, one another to embody our values as an organization.

Throughout my career, I have committed myself to understanding and sharing people’s stories, especially those of activists, advocates, and nonprofit staff. I have had the privilege of interviewing people who address gender-based violence, support holistic services for older adults, and advocate for HIV and STD prevention programming –  all of whom fight differential systemic experiences based on gender identity, sexuality, age, race, and ethnicity. I saw a path in evaluation to fuse my passion for people with my desire to support social justice work in my own way.

Prior to joining the team at Vantage Evaluation, I worked on public health evaluations for the federal government as an external evaluator. The first conference I attended in that position was at the Minnesota Evaluation Studies Institute (MESI). The conference theme that year was “Social Justice Amidst Standards and Accountability,” and Donna Mertens presented the keynote. Across sessions, I talked with evaluators, researchers, and program staff about tensions related to evaluation as a tool for accountability and the power evaluators wield to either combat or reinforce and reproduce social inequities. If this sounds familiar, you are absolutely correct. Our values at Vantage and how they guide our work directly line up with these conversations at MESI.

This was an eye-opening experience for me because I realized that a nuanced understanding of culture, community, and social and political context are integral to effective evaluations. Moreover, the social justice lens many anthropologists bring to their research and activism resonates with the work of many evaluators.

I could envision the values I wanted to embody as an evaluator and the kind of work I wanted to do, but I didn’t know where I could do it. It took several years after this experience to find my home at Vantage Evaluation. I still remember reading the job posting and learning more about Vantage’s work and approach to evaluation as learning- and improvement-focused, rather than an arm of accountability. I was ecstatic. The opportunity felt too good to be true!

Fast forward to today, and I’ve been with Vantage for a little over a year. I feel privileged to work with such a talented and passionate team. The fact that we represent a wide range of backgrounds and experiences means that we are always learning from, and being challenged by, one another to embody our values as an organization. Our orientation toward learning and improvement for ourselves, the purpose-driven organizations we serve, and the field of evaluation gives me the space to follow my passions and work collaboratively to drive the impact that we strive to produce.

Aisha Rios