Evaluating with an open mind and a humble heart: Reflections from the Canadian Evaluation Society Conference

Diana Gresku is a former BC Healthy Communities’ Research & Evaluation Specialist. 

Image: BC Healthy Communities’ former Research and Evaluation Specialist Diana Gresku (L) poses with Sharon Bala, author of The Boat People and the facilitator of Bridges to Empathy, one of the sessions at this year’s Canadian Evaluation Society Conference.

From a young age, I was taught to separate work from my personal life. Especially in the field of evaluation and research. I’ve always tried to bring empathy and respect to the way I carry out my work, but still, I focused on producing ‘objective’ results and maintaining ‘professionalism.’  After attending the Canadian Evaluation Society Conference this past week in Halifax, a beautiful coastal city, with a small hometown feel, I realized I need to approach my work with more humanness—bring more of myself to this work. And this is actually okay. In fact, I think it’s needed more than ever.

For four days, I attended workshops, hands-on sessions and panel discussions on a variety of topics—from qualitative analysis, realist approaches to evaluation, strategic planning and evaluation, and evaluation with and for Indigenous communities.

I learned that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to evaluation. Every project, program, client and community member is unique. Of course, we can come to each evaluation project with our excitement, ideas, experiences and skills, but more importantly, we must bring empathy, respect, an open mind and humility to each interaction we have.

What does this look like in practice? How can be humbler and more open-minded? In evaluation we are taught to measure success and outcomes, tracking indicators over time using ‘evidence-based, Western’ methodologies. The focus in evaluation is on the external. Yet, I’m realizing more than ever, that we must look inwards and undergo a process of self-reflection in order to understand personal and systemic biases that we each have. We need to humbly acknowledge that we are learners, especially when it comes to understanding another’s experience. We should not just do this as evaluators, but as members of this society and as human beings.

Ah, to this example you might say, but I am busy and I have deadlines and high-quality reports to complete, and self-reflection takes too long and does not have the benefits I am seeking. Yet, I would have to say that this approach (this more human approach), brings quality to the work we do. Yes, it takes time, but it allows us to better connect with others, including our clients, our funders, our stakeholders and people in general. When we work on ourselves, I think we are better able to interact with those around us and build trust so that stories can be shared, and relationships are built over the long term. During a time when inequities are persistent, and there is a nationwide focus on reconciliation, these ways of re-thinking our work are so important.

We need to humbly acknowledge that we are learners, especially when it comes to understanding another’s experience. We should not just do this as evaluators, but as members of this society and as human beings.

To summarize, I’d like to pass on these key takeaways. Hopefully, they resonate with you.

  • Bring empathy and humility, including cultural humility, to each project you support. To start this process, I would suggest looking inwards at your own biases and assumptions that you might hold of particular groups or individuals and educate yourself on why you hold them, and how to breakdown these viewpoints. This will be a life-long, ongoing process.
  • Re-frame your thinking around evaluation. Recognize that there are various forms of knowledge and methodologies that exist within evaluation and research. Each method is a valid way of learning and knowing and can also be a way to share information with others. Be open-minded, respectful and curious of different ideas and approaches.
  • Recognize that the words we use in our everyday lives or when we compile an evaluation report, can exclude or include viewpoints, communities, or groups of people. It can be helpful to ask yourself: am I focusing on a deficit-based approach rather than an asset-based approach? Put differently, am I highlighting the successes of the project/program I am helping evaluate, and genuinely learning from my partners? Or does my evaluation process only focus on uncovering ‘negative’ aspects of processes, programs etc.? How can I work with those involved in the evaluation to disseminate, frame and share evaluation results in a way that resonates with those involved, and does not uphold stereotypes etc.?


Author Credit: Diana Gresku

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