Letting Go of Being the Expert


How an equity lens can shift your view of the world, and yourself

How an equity lens can shift your view of the world, and yourself

By Laura Sundstrom

The Equitable Evaluation Initiative is a national movement to conceptualize, implement, and utilize evaluation in a way that is consistent with and promotes equity, focused on three main principles:

  • Evaluation and evaluative work should be in service of equity
  • Evaluative work can and should answer critical questions about equity
  • Evaluative work should be designed and implemented commensurate with the values underlying equity work

Equitable evaluation started in the philanthropy field, based on similar conversations that field was having about equity and grant making. In a nutshell, there are ingrained orthodoxies in the way that foundations and nonprofits work that create barriers to equity work. These orthodoxies create the “common sense” foundation for evaluation and include things such as who defines what success looks like, who the expert is, and what is evaluated. The folks at the Equitable Evaluation Initiative do a much better job explaining what equitable evaluation is and how and why it started - check it out!

What does it take to incorporate equity into our work? What would that look like? Is that even something we want to do? These are the questions we set out to tackle this past summer as part of the first Equitable Evaluation Design Lab with other Colorado evaluators (thanks to the Colorado Health Foundation and the Colorado Trust for sponsoring this experience!).

We think of equity as both a means and an end. As an end, we are working towards a world where one’s identity cannot predict their outcome. But equity is also the means in which we reach that end. Equity is working in a way that promotes the dignity and worth of individuals without recreating harm.

When we were presented with the opportunity to participate in the Equitable Evaluation Design Lab, we jumped! We saw a clear connection between our values and equity. Equity issues affect the world around us and thus we cannot avoid engagement with them (See the Big Picture). These issues affect us personally and thus affect our relationships with one another and our work (Be a Whole Person). Everyone has something to contribute to these conversations and should (Prioritize Contribution). This is a new area for us and the field and we want to learn more (Strive to Improve)!

Two of our team members, Elena and myself, participated in the Equity Evaluation Design Lab cohort, along with evaluators from 15 other organizations in Colorado. This opportunity allowed us to engage with and be challenged by our peers around issues of equity and evaluation. We all started at a different place with our understanding of equity and its relationship to evaluation and were able to grow together throughout this experience. The projects that each organization took on over the summer mirrored these differing starting places.

We took on two projects over the summer, an equity Learning Club with our team (where we spent three months digging into the foundations of inequity, how evaluation intersects with inequity, and what we can do about it) and developing strategies for discussing multicultural validity with clients (watch for future blog posts on what these projects entailed and our lessons learned!).

Our goal in this work was not to become an equitable evaluation firm, using evaluation as a tool to break down inequities. We’ve put a stake in the ground to transform how purpose-driven organizations think about and use evaluation. While equity certainly fits under that umbrella, to focus exclusively on equity would eliminate the other efforts we care deeply about. Moreover, there are other evaluators who specialize in using evaluation to dismantle inequities, who have dedicated their lives to that approach, and who have far deeper expertise in this area than we have developed.

We spent the summer (and beyond) investigating and discussing what it looks like to incorporate equity into our work. We came to the conclusion that much of what we already do supports equity, but there is still more that we can do. We started making small shifts in our work and testing new strategies to support equity in our work. As we have started to think more intentionally about the equity implications of our work, I have learned:

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  1. It takes a lot of personal work. I went into this cohort thinking I had a good understanding of equity issues and how I interact with the world. I was wrong. Dismantling inequities takes constant learning and challenging yourself to be uncomfortable and confront your own implicit biases. You cannot separate your personal self from your professional self.

  2. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. There is no checklist to follow to make your evaluation equitable. It is an iterative process to incorporate this lens and equity considerations throughout an evaluation and our practice.

  3. Learning is an action. Building your awareness of implicit bias and structural racism, make you more aware of how these issues intersect with evaluation and our work with each other and clients. This awareness is the first step in starting to change.

  4. Have humility in a field where we are taught to be experts. As evaluators, we are taught and hired to be experts. But applying an equity lens to our work forces us to let go of having to be the expert all the time. As a profession, we have to learn to value and promote other forms of expertise, such as community expertise and historical expertise.

It takes a team. Engaging in equity conversations increased our rapport, trust, and helped us consider different perspectives.
— Laura Sundstrom // Evaluator

And finally, it takes a team. Going through this process and engaging in these conversations as a team increased the rapport and trust among our team members, as well as forced us to consider different perspectives and experiences as people shared their viewpoints. For example, our teammate Aisha Rios shared, “Coming together as a team to talk about equity was extremely valuable to me as a person and an evaluator. Creating space for these challenging conversations where we work is especially important when we work with nonprofit professionals in evaluating their programs, which themselves face barriers to supporting clients and communities, such as homophobia, racism, sexism, ableism, and more.”

How do you incorporate equity into your work? We are excited to share what we learned through this process and some of the strategies that we developed here on the Vantage Point blog over the next few weeks! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to see the full series. And don’t forget to connect with the Equitable Evaluation community or on social media using #EquitableEval.


Laura Sundstrom, MSW | Evaluator

Laura specializes in building evaluation capacity, helping clients understand the “why” behind evaluation tasks, and leaves an impressive trail of evaluation skills wherever she goes.

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