How Evaluators Can Be Like Rock Legends

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What speaking truth to power means to us

What speaking truth to power means to us

Vantage Evaluation Guiding Principles

  • Embrace your zeal. We love what we do and we aren’t afraid to let it show.

  • See the big picture. We keep an eye on how our individual work connects to a larger purpose.

  • Be a whole person. We recognize and celebrate the porous boundaries between work and life.

  • Lean on your teammates. We reach out and ask for help when we need it.

  • Strive to improve. We grow and learn, and push those around us to do the same.

  • Prioritize contribution. We give help (both inside and outside the company) whenever we can.

  • Accept good enough. We work within the constraints of things we cannot change, and don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.

By Aisha Rios

Attending the American Evaluation Association’s (AEA) annual conference is a priority for Vantage and directly relates to our values as an organization. In preparing to attend AEA and reflecting on our experience as a team afterward, our values guided how we approached sessions and thus helped shape our overall conference experience – attending presented an opportunity to embrace our zeal and passion for evaluation and strive to improve our practice. Moreover, coming together with nearly 3,000 other evaluators helps us see the big picture in terms of the contribution we are making within the broader evaluation community through our work with purpose-driven organizations.


Inspiration to speak truth to power

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“An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

Her body of recorded work and groundbreaking compositions like “Mississippi Goddam,” “To Be Young Gifted and Black,” “Backlash Blues,” and “Four Women” defined her role in orienting both black and white audiences to the liberation struggles of the Civil Rights Movement.

This year’s theme, Speaking Truth to Power, left us with a lot to process as a team and individually. An overarching takeaway for me centered on exploring our willingness as evaluators to challenge others and even be challenged by others. This experience went beyond the conference walls. As I explored the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Tuesday afternoon, I was struck by the similar responsibility of musical artists in speaking truth to power. A quote from Nina Simone stayed with me throughout the week: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” What did Nina Simone mean by this? Her body of musical work highlights the role she played in helping connect audiences to the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. So, her words “reflect the times” signal not just mirroring what is happening within a historical moment but challenging critical thought about those social and political events.

AEA President Leslie Goodyear presented an inspiring opening plenary that explored the origins of the phrase “speaking truth to power” and asked us to reflect on who inspires each of us to speak truth to power. She provided a glimpse into the words and actions of brave and powerful people throughout the 20th and 21st century who have prioritized challenging the status quo, including Bayard Rustin, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ray Allen, and Mr. Rogers.

Recognizing power from the outset

The conference sessions themselves provided a space for us to dialogue with others about strategies for speaking truth to power in our evaluation practice and reflect on what this means for our work as evaluators. Power was dealt with explicitly and implicitly across many sessions – the power evaluators do and do not possess across and within evaluation settings was highlighted, which showcases how messy and complicated power is. Power is not a thing possessed by one person or one group but instead circulates throughout evaluation settings. In some scenarios, an evaluator occupies a position of power – for example, possessing the authority to present evaluation findings that contribute to tangible programmatic or funding changes. In other scenarios, an evaluator may have less authority – perhaps the evaluation findings highlight disparities and not everyone is ready to address them.

The role power plays in defining truth and knowledge was also captured across sessions, which challenged us to think critically about our expertise and best practices. The selection and use of methods is far from a value-free process, which becomes very clear in the context of conversations about the merits of qualitative and quantitative methods. The demographic categories we use reflect one worldview and not others, which includes a tension between fluid and discrete domains. Even the selection of effective data visualization strategies is culturally embedded – one visual may be a best practice in one setting but unintelligible in another.

These understandings of our evaluation practice are challenging to receive. Many of us strive to achieve expertise and gravitate toward the identification and use of best practices in our work. To acknowledge that those practices and knowledge are embedded with power can absolutely feel disorienting.

Balancing power with humility

Anything we can do within evaluation settings to support honest communication between stakeholders is especially valuable when there are differential power dynamics at play.

One possible response to this disorientation is practicing humility and honest dialogue. We can speak truth to power in specific evaluation settings by acknowledging the power we possess as evaluators and creators of best practices and knowledge. When someone acknowledges their own power in a group setting, this opens up space for others to speak honestly about their own power or lack thereof. This could create a meaningful ripple effect when working on evaluation teams with diverse stakeholders with different degrees of influence over the evaluation and program or policy being evaluated. Anything we can do within evaluation settings to support honest communication between stakeholders is especially valuable when there are differential power dynamics at play, which is often the case.

Infusing what we’ve learned

So, as we get back to “business as usual” what can we do take bigger steps towards speaking truth to power – both individually and collectively within evaluation teams and organizations? It might start with dialogue and reflection. For those who are lone evaluators in organizations, are there other evaluators in your community you can reach out to and have a conversation with about speaking truth to power? Perhaps your local affiliate to AEA (here in Colorado we have the Colorado Evaluation Network) provides a community of practice for its members. If you work on a team with other evaluators debrief with them about what you learned and reflect on your own power and privilege, including how you can incorporate what you have learned into your evaluation practice.

For nonprofit staff, what are some ways you can have conversations with your colleagues and even program recipients about power differences within your community and how these affect your own work and program recipients’ experiences? Just as this year’s conference served as a catalyst for plenaries, sessions, and conversations in Cleveland, let’s keep the momentum going and continue this dialogue back at home! What are some tangible actions you can take to continue these conversations with your colleagues, friends, or family?


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Aisha Rios, PhD | Evaluator

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


Kindle Morell