Pictures of Practice: Evaluation and Representation
If we don’t represent experience, how can we share it with those who aren’t present? Evaluation is a way of ‘taking pictures’ of what is going on in an intentional and thoughtful way.
One of the delights of working with the youth sector is seeing how many possible pathways there are to achieving outcomes associated with improved youth wellbeing. Since YouthREX launched, I have met with organizations seeking similar outcomes but which take entirely different approaches. I have met with organizations taking similar approaches but with the intention of achieving entirely different outcomes! The diversity of the sector is both a strength and a challenge. Niche organizations and initiatives make essential contributions to the broader social ecosystem. However, these contributions are often unrecognized or misunderstood.
In talking with representatives from the sector, I have received questions along the lines of “How can we help others to really see us? How can we help others to understand what we are doing? How can we demonstrate and communicate our legacy”?
These questions prompt me to consider issues of representation and also literacy in relation to evaluation. Evaluation can never capture and represent all the outcomes an initiative may generate. Programs and initiatives, like people, will always exceed evaluation; evaluation cannot represent the totality or the complexity of our work. It is, by design, a way of focusing on what we are doing, achieving, and learning within particular contexts and at particular times (the who, why, where, how, how much and when).
Evaluation functions in similar ways to photography. As evaluators, we are taking pictures of practice, outcomes, and impact. How and where we focus informs what we, and others, may see. I think of the glorious Impressionist paintings by Monet of French bridges and countrysides. Art historians have demonstrated that in order to produce these idyllic views, in many cases Monet had to impose a particular frame of view for were he to shift his frame ever so slightly we would not see an idyllic pasture but a nation in the process of industrializing.
Evaluation is a way of framing, representing, and then seeking to understand what we can learn from the process and the product.
At YouthREX we are committed to examining our practices from multiple points of view. In recognition that all we do cannot be captured in one frame or by one approach, we employ multiple complimentary strategies for representing and learning from practice.
At a time of scarce financial resources, many are faced with the challenge of how to communicate the value of their work. Some experience challenges framing or communicating their work in a way that translates impact. We hope that by using multiple methods to evaluate practice, impact will be more evident. I wonder if evaluation might therefore play an intermediary role – a way of bridging communities of practice (practitioners, policy makers, funders) — and bringing us closer to shared understanding. I think we have to admit that within the youth sector, even if we all speak English or French, we do not speak the same practice and experience “language”. Without a shared language communication is a real challenge.
The work for shared understanding cannot be one-sided. We all must strive to learn from each other, and learn new languages that bridge our diverse knowledges.
Certainly, evaluation will never be fully representative of everything we do. However, it can become a meeting place between diverse practice cultures, ways of knowing, and approaches to achieving the shared desire for improved youth well-being.
Our Academic Director has joked with us that “if you don’t take a picture of it, it doesn’t exist”. This speaks to the power of representation. If we don’t represent experience, how can we share it with those who aren’t present? Evaluation is a way of “taking pictures” of what is going on in an intentional and thoughtful way. With these pictures of practice, we can hold them in time and up to the light. We can use the distance from the demands for moment-to-moment responsiveness, to look for details or trends that elude us in the day-to-day.