Travel the World without Ever Leaving the (Relative) Comfort of Your Windowless Conference Room!

I'm playing hooky from school this week and in DC for the American Evaluation Association annual conference – Evaluation 2017. Today I had the pleasure of participating in a full-day professional development experience with two amazing evaluators from Madison, Wisconsin – Mary Crave and Kerry Zaleski – in a workshop titled "Determining Merit and Significance: Whose Voice Matters?" Both  Mary and Kerry work for the University of Wisconsin Extension, including internationally. Mary's international work is primarily in the context of equity and empowerment for women farmers, girls and youth, and she currently leads three programs in Ghana affiliated with UW-Madison’s Global Health Institute. Kerry's current work focuses on harm reduction and opioid use; previously she worked internationally through the Extension on programs in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Guyana.

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Because I came to evaluation from participatory community development, the tools we worked with weren't new to me – but the examples that we worked with were and I really would not have wanted to spend my day doing anything else. While I sometimes don't find international examples useful (often because they are in the context of huge international institutions) the program-level international examples resonated with me. Plus, we had a lot of fun, and my jet-lag needed some fun.

Part of the fun (and a lot of the learning) was definitely due to my three tablemates, two of whom work internationally on human rights and empowerment and the other who works for a US county – Mecklenburg – that was in the spotlight three months ago, when we watched white supremacists and neo-Nazis carry their torches through the streets of its county seat. (Charlotte was in the news again yesterday as the voters responded to the political climate by electing their first-ever Black woman mayor.) My tablemates were quick to laugh and play, but they were also passionate and brilliant. Each activity we worked on together really increased my brain power.

Photo: Melissa Key

Photo: Melissa Key

In sharing with us tools such as pairwise ranking and c-value (c for community) rubrics, our facilitators used illustrations drawn from their work with girls in the African countries in which they work. One example focused on evaluating a program that provided menstrual kits with reusable pads to young women as a means to increase school attendance, and included a discussion of the capture of amazing co-benefits that resulted from the program, including reduced menstruation stigma and increased self-esteem. 

Another girl-centered example elucidated the barriers to integrating a 4H program in cultures with unequal household labor roles, by gender, and included solutions for explaining these barriers to parents through a "gallery walk" so that parents could mitigate these previously invisible barriers on behalf of their daughters.

I'm pretty sleepy today, the food in the hotel is not that hot, the weather is colder than I thought it would be, and I should have brought a coat and perhaps also some socks (typical Californian), but these glimpses into others' professional lives truly do feed my work. Everyone I engaged with today is passionate about doing their best work in support of oppressed populations, and the day flew by.

Now I'm taking a bit of a siesta before another session early this evening – "Pathways for Advancing Careers and Education (PACE): Evaluators and Program Leadership Discuss Early Impact Findings of Career Pathways Programs." At this session, I'm hoping to pick up some useful information for the Post-Secondary Success Community of Practice I recently launched on behalf of The James Irvine Foundation so that I can share it back with organizational participants from uAspire, the Southern California College Access Network (SoCal CAN), and Students Rising Above.

The session is highlighting the work of several initiatives included in the Pathways to Advancing Careers and Education (PACE) project, a major national effort to evaluate the effectiveness of nine career pathways programs using an experimental design. We'll be hearing from three interesting programs: Pima Community College (PCC) in Tucson, Arizona, which received a Health Profession Opportunities Grant (HPOG) to design and implement a healthcare career pathway program; Carreras en Salud at Instituto del Progreso Latino, a program that trains Latinos for employment in healthcare occupations through a community-based organization located in in southwest Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood; and Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement (VIDA), located in Texas's Lower Rio Grande Valley, whose primary goal is for participants to graduate with an Associate’s degree or industry-recognized certificate in high-demand occupations and achieve employment in their area of study earning a living wage. I can't wait to hear about PACE's 18-month participatory design for determining the impact so far of these three programs.

After that, I'm going to cozy up with "a glass" of Merlot and read some fiction – and then start again at 8am tomorrow.




Laurie Jones Neighbors is an independent consultant and educator who specializes in developing, implementing, and assessing programs and educational experiences in support of equitable political representation and local, regional, and national decision making by low-income communities and communities of color.