This is an Eval Central archive copy, find the original at danawanzer.com
This blog post was originally posted in the American Evaluation Association July 2020 newsletter. Thank you to AEA for asking me to reflect on what the AEA values mean to me and how they guide my work.
This summer has been a time of reflection due to physical distancing, transitioning to remote teaching, and the growth in the national visibility of and support for the movement for Black lives. This time of reflection was a pause on “walking the talk” because I first had to grapple with what walking and talking meant to me personally. I had to sit down and think through what my personal values were and how I would embody them in my everyday life.
I have never explicitly stated or evaluated my personal values because I merely adopted the ones our white dominant society presented to me: civility, perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, dichotomous thinking, paternalism, etc. As a white, heterosexual, cisgendered woman with a privileged academic background and job, it was easy to accept these as-is without reflection. It was comfortable. It was white supremacy.
The first challenge to my personal values occurred during my job talk for my now position at UW-Stout. A graduate student asked me, “How does social justice affect your evaluation practice?” My initial gut reaction was: it doesn’t. And sadly, that was true. I never thought explicitly about social justice beyond the idea that there was a fourth branch on Mertens and Wilson’s (2019) adaptation of the evaluation theory tree. That began a quest to bolster—and in some ways challenge—my formal education. I began reading, discussing these topics with friends and colleagues, and slowly adding what I learned to what and how I taught evaluation to students.
A year and a half later, George Floyd was murdered by police, and I left the comfort of my home to go protest in the little rural town I live in. I had always supported the Black Lives Matter movement, but never had I truly walked the talk until I stood at the corner of our biggest intersection with my sign. I began to realize how much easier it was to read books on antiracism than to practice antiracism.
After attending a couple demonstrations, I wanted to continue walking the talk. I wanted to help change the world and make a difference! I dove head-first into new projects and ideas, wrote and disseminated things, and realized quickly that I had re-submerged into the pool of the white dominant society’s values, not my own. I felt the urgency to get things done, to do things big, perfectly, and mostly by myself. I quickly became defensive when people who cared pointed out that my actions were the characteristics of white supremacy in action.
This was the juncture at which I realized I needed to pause, slow down, and reflect. So instead of walking the talk lately, I’ve been figuring out and explicitly determining my set of personal values, seeking inspiration alignment with scholars, friends, and colleagues, primarily those who are Black, indigenous, or people of color.
Some values were easy to determine, like valuing openness and transparency, which I embody through open science practices, sharing resources and research through my blog, and being honest with my students about what I am teaching and why. Other values have been far more difficult, presumably because they more directly challenge the white supremacist culture ideology I had internalized for so long. For example, the work of the Equitable Evaluation Initiative has emphasized to me that it is not enough to have diversity and inclusion if equity is not front and center.
As I continue to reflect on my values, I look in part to AEA’s values. There are some values that resonate deeply with me, such as having evaluations that are “high quality, ethically defensible, and culturally responsible”. There are others that I would modify, such as valuing equity in addition to diversity and inclusion. And there are yet others that I would add, such as valuing advocacy efforts on behalf of the evaluation field (AEA Professional Practice Competency 1.9).
More than anything, I am realizing that “walking the talk” and truly living out AEA’s values is an enduring process that is constantly evolving as I pause, slow down, reflect, and challenge my role in white supremacist culture.