Evaluation has a key role to play in racial equity work

Evaluation has a key role to play in racial equity work

As a woman of color, evaluator, and nonprofit leader for more than ten years, I am encouraged to see a growing number of foundations and nonprofits embrace efforts to advance racial equity and justice.

At this uncertain moment in our history, we have an opportunity to heal, restore, and create a more inclusive and abundant future for all. It is an opportunity, however, that could disappear as quickly as it emerged — if we don't seize it.

As we have learned over the last six months, efforts to address racial tensions and inequities and promote healing and narrative change are desperately needed. Those efforts can and should be evaluated.

The good news is that foundations and nonprofits can build on work that is already under way. Through its $24 million Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) initiative, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is one of the foundations leading the way in investing in and evaluating such efforts.

Last year, my firm worked with a client to evaluate a TRHT program whose objective was to ease racial tensions and promote healing and narrative change among young people through book groups. In the process, we learned some surprising things.

A number of participants had "aha" moments — like the European-American youth who came to realize that saying the n-word, even in a song, was problematic. But there was another, more common outcome: Adult book group leaders were among those who most benefited from the program, with many saying the program helped them recognize their own implicit biases and understand what systemic racism really looks like at the level of the individual.

That unexpected outcome highlighted the need for more training and support for adult group leaders. Based on our findings, in year two of the program the client was able to enhance both the value it delivered and to foster more healing and peace-building in the community. Our big takeaway was this: nonprofits and foundations working to advance racial equity can be more effective by rigorously evaluating those programs.

Foundations and nonprofits should also foreground long-standing inequities in their evaluation efforts — inequities that often obscure root causes underlying the problem we are trying to address. A skilled evaluator can help surface such complex dynamics.

For example, when BECOME was asked to evaluate a first round of grants awarded by the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities in support of innovative approaches to neighborhood safety in Chicago, we started with a literature review of violence prevention programs in other jurisdictions.

In the process, we discovered that interventions such as job programs or social and emotional skills training focus on the immediate needs of individuals. But adult violence also is linked to factors more distant — such as redlining or trauma due to heightened exposure to violence. Community violence too often is the legacy of policies that, over time, forcibly segregated communities by race and income, tilting the playing field against Black, indigenous, and other people of color. No matter how well designed an intervention might be, if it fails to address such root causes, it is unlikely to succeed.

One of the key findings we were able to share with the team at the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities is that interventions delivered in a consistent fashion and coordinated with other actions had the most impact. That kind of approach is now a feature of the current iteration of the Chicago Fund for Safe & Peaceful Communities initiative.

Last but not least, we have learned that evaluation is most effective when it is culturally responsive and engages multiple stakeholders — especially those likely to be impacted by the intervention — in the process of developing questions, designing solutions, and recommending next steps based on lessons learned.

The resulting combination of learning, engagement, informed design, and collaborative implementation is much more likely to lead to programs that deliver safety and security, health and well-being, and education for all.

To create a society in which thriving communities of color and economic opportunity for all is the norm, we need to take steps now to address the root causes of poverty and racial injustice. Evaluation can help us do that.

Dominica McBride, PhD, is the founder and CEO of BECOME, a nonprofit organization that uses evaluation as a tool to advance social justice and thriving communities.