Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get involved in evaluation?
I was first exposed to evaluation during my Master of Public Policy (MPP) program at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. As part of my core classes, I took a course on conducting experimental and non-impact evaluations. Dr. Larry Orr taught the class as an adjunct professor who worked at Abt Associates after a lengthy evaluation career. This course was my introduction to evaluation, and I fell in love. I felt challenged and loved how it combined so many of my interests and skills: research, policy, economics, analysis, social justice, and public health. Upon graduating with my MPP, I knew I had plans to pursue a Ph.D. Given my interests, I always thought I was going to be studying education policy. Once I took that evaluation course, everything changed. I saw how evaluation is critical for policy research, analysis, and decision-making. I was eager to learn more about evaluation to hone my skills. Now, I am pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration, specializing in program evaluation, at George Washington University. I am currently working on my dissertation and plan to graduate later this year.
As a recipient of the 2021 New Professional Scholarship, you have access to an array of professional development opportunities. What are you looking forward to gaining through experience, and what are you looking forward to giving to others in return?
I am most excited about the ability to be exposed to and learn from so many fellow evaluators. There is no one way to do an evaluation, but I desire to learn as much as possible—my ultimate goal centers around using evaluation to empower communities and reduce disparity. I am grateful that the New Professional Scholarship provides professional development opportunities. As a graduate student, I want to learn as much about evaluation as I can. Unfortunately, many of these opportunities are costly, and without Washington Evaluators, I would not participate. Through this experience and the professional development opportunities, I hope to learn critical information to incorporate into my work and disseminate it to my classmates and colleagues. I also hope to make meaningful relationships with individuals in the community, key stakeholders, fellow evaluators, potential mentees, policymakers, and others.
Please tell us about your academic journey as well as recent academic pursuits and/or focus areas.
Currently, I am pursuing my Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration at the George Washington Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Administration. Now a Ph.D. Candidate, I specialize in using (1) phenomenology - the study of lived experience. (2) racial equity, culturally responsive frameworks, and (3) community-based participatory methods in program evaluation and policy research. Each individual is unique, and their perspectives are shaped by a combination of their environment and experiences. I think these perspectives are valuable and should be used to inform policy development and implementation. Similarly, policies should seek to reduce harm and improve outcomes without placing or worsening undue burden. Racial equity and culturally responsive frameworks help in crafting rigorous questions without discounting the role of context. Lastly, community-based participatory methods help to ensure those affected by a policy have the opportunity to participate in its development meaningfully.
How do you plan to, or currently, promote equity in your evaluation work?
My research interest centers around conducting racial equity and culturally responsive informed evaluation to enhance policy. My goal is to highlight stakeholders' perspectives and help bridge the disconnect between policymakers and practitioners. I am a trained phenomenologist. I study how individuals' lived experiences shape their life, reality, and ability to thrive. In my dissertation, I seek to uplift educators' experiences working to reduce chronic absenteeism among African American students. I am hopeful my findings can inform education policy and research. I want to contribute to the scant literature on the promising practices, and evidence-informed interventions that recognize and account for African American students' unique lived experiences relative to their non-minority peers.
Washington Evaluators is in the midst of creating our 2021-2024 Strategic Plan. What advice do you have for WE in regards to how we can best support new professionals, current students, postdocs, and/or new graduates like yourself?
When I served as the chair of the GW Trachtenberg's School of Public Policy and Administration's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, I worked to facilitate several workshops and training for students, faculty, and staff. When we asked students how to best support them to ensure they thrive, overwhelmingly, we heard one thing: "we want tangible skills to address conflict". Like myself, many new and emerging evaluators understand the importance of working to promote equity and dismantle systems of oppression. We grew up amidst the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements. We recognize how the unintended consequences of policies can result in institutionalized racism and discrimination for specific populations. However, I have found that most people struggle to have the difficult conversation such an inquiry requires. Often, they work or learn in environments where such concepts are mere ideologies or novel to their colleagues and superiors. If Washington Evaluators is looking to support new professionals, I would recommend workshops that help provide new professionals, current students, postdocs, and new graduates like myself tools to facilitate those conversations. We cannot promote equity alone.
What do you wish people knew about evaluation?
Ironically, the one thing I wish people knew about evaluation is: How to define evaluation. It seems simple on its surface, but it is indeed a difficult concept. I attest that is partly why the field itself has yet to develop a standardized definition or even uniform-ish ways of thinking about how to conduct an evaluation. I often dread the questions ``What do you do for a living?" or "What are you studying?." I talk to so many people who have never heard of program evaluation. I have officially lost count of the number of blank stares I receive when explaining any aspect of my research interests or professional experience. My undergraduate degree is in public health, which may sound great now. Because, well, now, most people (including those in public health) know what public health means. In a nutshell, public health boils down to ensuring equity where we: live (e.g., housing, environmental health), learn (i.e., education), work (e.g., occupational health, healthcare ), and play (e.g., transportation, recreation).
When I graduated with my bachelor's degree in Spring 2016, public health was a foreign concept. However, since then, three key events have caused the United States and the world to recognize public health's importance. As populations become affected in different ways, they call on their policymakers, who, in turn, look to the research and practice communities looking for answers and best practices. First, prescription medication and other drug-related deaths hit White Suburbia, starting the "Opioid Epidemic." I mention this because of how foundational it is to public health. This was the first time - in history - that addiction and substance abuse had been recognized as a disease. Minorities dating back to the 1980s experienced disproportionately high rates of excess death, morbidity, addiction, and mortality in the past. Then it was called the "Crack Epidemic." Rather than focus on treatment, individuals were often criminalized, furthering community disruption and hindering economic opportunities. Once the middle class, predominately White, Americans began experiencing the effects of the pharmaceutical conglomerates and medical lobbying corporations, the narrative around substance abuse changed. It is no longer "Just say no''. Addicts should have always been seen as people who are sick and need treatment. Our funding and research priorities align with popular opinion, and the tides turn quickly.
Considering these public issues, simultaneously, an industry like the electronic cigarette and vaping market exploded, reaching exponential success in a few short years. Unfortunately, these early products were highly unregulated, causing detrimental impacts to teen health and excess lung-related deaths. Just as with the "opioid Epidemic," parents found themselves turning to lawmakers. Lawmakers turned to regulators, who turned to the research community again, looking for answers. They found none, and public health was further cast into the spotlight. And lastly, the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic further sealed the importance of public health. If we seize this opportunity, it can also be evaluation's defining moment.
To evaluators, so much of what we do seems common sense to us, yet I realize this is an assumption we make far too often. Here is a not-so-fun fact: When COVID-19 happened, and New York City, NY became the global epicenter for the disease. New York City alone had more COVID-19 cases than every other country on earth. Let that sink in for a moment. Given the US's advanced health care and resources, you would think a highly progressive city like New York would have lots of public health measures in place, right? Wrong. In fact, one of the critical things New York City did to help reduce their cases was shut down the metro overnight and clean it. The first time it will have been shut down overnight to clean in its 115 years history.
I like to think I define evaluation as, 'The notion that we should be checking to see if all the things we rely on to work are, well, working'. Thus, to evaluate is to consider how things work best for those who rely on it. Yet another complex but straightforward statement. Most things have been designed for upper-middle-class, Christian, cisgender, heterosexual, Caucasian males. Traditionally, they have held power and made the decisions. However, the US is diverse. Our policies and programs must reflect this diversity. Evaluation is the only way to get there. You may want the best education or healthcare, but how do you know if you have it? How do you know what works and what does not? What about things that work best for others but not you? So, depending on how much time I have, I either explain evaluation in more or less detail, because it almost always inevitably leads to one question: "So, what is it you actually do?" To which I love to smile and respond with, "Well, what is it you actually want? Let's start there."
What advice do you have for other young, transitioning and/or emerging evaluators?
There is no right way to do evaluation, but there are plenty of WRONG ways! Evaluation is much like other fields. Training is required for proficiency, but mastery is impossible. Take as many opportunities as you can to learn and perfect your craft. If you love working with quantitative data, take as many coding classes as you can learn and experiment with different software. If qualitative data is your niche, learn as many analysis methods as possible, from coding focus group interviews to examining archival documents. Seek every opportunity to learn and keep them all in your evaluator toolbox. Then, when the next project comes your way, you have more experience with different perspectives, methods, stakeholders, and more. The key to being a good evaluator is asking really good questions. You do not know what you do not know, and more exposure brings an opportunity to - well - be exposed to new things. So, get going!
What's something about you (a fun fact) that not many people know?
Many people are surprised to know I am extremely shy. I used to work in the hospitality industry during high school while pursuing an undergraduate degree. As a waitress, you learn to hold conversations with just about anyone. I have learned how to be sociable, but I have a hard time initiating conversations outside of professional settings.
What are you reading now or what is your favorite book and why?
I have been a full-time graduate student for the last five years, first, my MPP and now my Ph.D. So, I have not read for pleasure much since at least summer 2016. I cannot remember the last book I read for fun. I think it was Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) by J.D. Vance….
Anyways, here are some of my favorites:
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (2013) by Susan Cain
- Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are (2017) by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
- The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care (2010) by T.R. Reid