This past weekend i sat in on a workshop at the Allied Media Conference about the technology funds recently awarded to various groups in Detroit and Philadelphia. One of the central coordinators asked my husband, Tdka, and i to discuss the importance of evaluation to accountability of the vision. Tdka went first, making the distinction between vision and daydreaming. A vision has a plan attached to it, a process to carry it out, and takes into consideration historical and current realities. Daydreaming, on the other hand, is merely a dream. In addition,
- important to the evaluation process is documenting with precision all that takes place towards fulfillment of the program's objectives.
- a system of strategic planning needs to be developed and carried out. Having a plan that lays out the process and guides decisions and actions toward realizing the vision, goals and objectives of the work is critical to getting things done.
- it is important to do what is necessary to see that everyone is doing what they are supposed to do.
He wasn't quite finished making his point when another panelist jumped in an asserted that in addition to this, the group must tell its own story - which is valid. Then others who earlier demonstrated their verbosity chimed in to further articulate their thoughts, expertise and experiences on the challenges they faced after having been awarded the $18 million (not really sure of the amount) federal stimulus funds, the successes, the this and the that. (Forgive the sarcasm. It is rather interesting (even a bit entertaining) to watch people so full of ideas talk, talk, and talk some more about their experiences, ideas, lessons, successes, etc.).
Though aggressively jumping in to make a point was certainly an option, i chose to remain quite. I held my tongue because i thought that anything i would have said to the group could better be applied to our work. But in reviewing my notes, i thought that it would do no harm typing them up here:
- The first thing i wrote was "it is important to develop a system for the collection, processing and analysis of data." Collecting data is one thing, but for what purpose? Toward what end? And according to what procedures? What kind of data are needed to evaluation the effectiveness of the work? What efforts and decisions need to be documented so that a comprehensive and appropriate evaluation process can take place? From what sources will the data be collected? How can these data sources be accessed in appopriate and ethical ways (what permissions are required)? Who is responsible for collecting the data? What safeguards will be put into place to address bias? According to what timeline? How will the data be used? How will it be processed and cleaned of errors? Who and how will the data be analyzed and reported? There are so many more questions that can be raised. But these questions get addressed when a system for evaluation is developed that includes procedures and principles for the documentation of actions and decisions.
- Secondly, i would add that to ensure accountability to the vision, the group must be clear about what the vision is. If grant recipients are committed to principles of justice and consider themselves activists first and foremost, they must work on multiple levels to work toward bringing the vision to life. On one level, activists ought to struggle with their race, class, gender, culture and generational biases...holding themselves accountable to creating a new world first within their hearts then their homes and so on. On another level, they work to meet the external demands of the funding agency. No matter how much extra work is needed, the justice vision is the most important and must remain at the center of the work, otherwise it will get lost, watered down and eventually abandoned.
- When pursuing funds or considering how to use them, activists must first recognize the temporariness of such funding, particularly in a period of economic crisis. In addition, they need to recognize that accepting external funding has its drawbacks; the nature, flexibity and autonomy of the work often changes. And thirdly, if external funding is pursued, activists should consider how it can support its vision (either partially or in its entirety), rather than the vision shifting to support the interest of the funders. This often takes extra work and special care to do both. But worse than sacrificing time is selling out for some money.
Though i can't say that my contribution would've made a tremendous difference in the discussion, i appreciated having been able to think about what it means to be accountable to a vision. And now...back to work.