Skip navigation

Shifting Our Idea of Impact: Decolonizing Program Evaluations, by Heather Augustine

Have you ever thrown a pebble into a pond and watched the ripples grow? Even a small pebble can create rings reaching far out from the center. When I imagine what impact looks like, this is what I see. But how do we measure it? How do we begin to understand this? Is it a number? How do we measure love?

My relationship to Impact:

Outside of my work with REACH developing, scheduling, and facilitating community education programs, I work in various spaces of community organizing. My journey in community organizing grew out of a need to build a community for myself and my family. In my early 20’s, while living in San Francisco, I met a Native street vendor selling his goods. To my surprise, he was Passamaqoddy. He invited me to the Inter-Tribal Friendship house in Oakland. He wrote directions on a receipt and let me know that night they would have a free meal, drumming, and dancing. With my handwritten directions, l made my way, navigating the train and streets of what felt to me like a foreign land. As I approached the building I was welcomed by a Micmaq man, his Mother from Canada. He took me inside to meet her. She shared with me that she was a residential school survivor, like my Dad. That night was the beginning of a long friendship between her and me and many visits to the Inter-Tribal Friendship House. Her son took me to my first sweat in the Redwood Forest. The Passamaqoddy Man is my friend to this day. That happenstance meeting created an impact and ripples that continue to create a force.

Harm also creates Impact:

When we moved back to the states, I will never forget a Columbus Day project in first grade. We cut two holes out of the sides of a paper bag and one at the top. This bag would be our Indian Dress. We cut fringes with our little scissors, colored the bag, and made a matching headband with construction paper feathers. In a memory clear as day, decades later I remember the teacher talked about us like we were creatures from a time long ago. I was wounded. This is one of many stories I could tell you about harm, miseducation, and microaggressions I experienced in my years in school. I wish I didn’t have stories to share about microaggressions and harm my children experienced. We know intergenerational trauma is the result of colonization. How does education to non-natives about the historical and continued impacts of colonization impact the lives of Wabanaki? I know that it does, but understanding and tracking this is complicated.

Learning and Unlearning Simultaneously:

I wasn’t alone in my curiosity about impact. Amongst REACH leadership, staff, board and volunteers, we shared our curiosities which led to the formation of an evaluation sub-committee. A member of the subcommittee suggested we apply to the Data Innovation Project for a graduate fellow. We were matched with Galen Perkins and together we set out on a journey to co-create a decolonized program evaluation. The idea of what this could be was so abstract we needed to create a framework and a lens to look through. But first, we need to get to know one another. We NEEDED to bring our whole selves into the project, disregarding timelines, and previous colonial methods of data gathering and interpretation. We had to unlearn and learn simultaneously together, over zoom.

Why reinvent the wheel?

Wabanaki REACH is unique in its creation, Mission, Vision, and Values but surely there were similarly aligned organizations with a decolonized methodology we could learn from. Finding these organizations and learning new methods was not a quick Google search. Designing the framework while researching decolonized methodology was a rich, insightful, and ongoing process. Our research led us to two methodologies that felt the most right. These were Most Significant Change, and Ripple Effects Mapping. Each is participatory and led by values, utilizing storytelling (dialogue sessions) but different in implementation and interpretation of data. Learning from the developers and facilitators of each method was possible but would take time and capacity.

Creating something of our own:

In the second phase of our time together we created a hybrid using elements of each method. The beauty of this project is that we were working within boundaries and a framework that we designed, centering Wabanaki self-determination, and sovereignty. Truth, Healing, and Change is our lens. The challenge was moving from an abstract idea to the development and implementation of a process. Do people experience truth, and healing, or make changes to their lives by supporting Wabanaki's sovereignty and self-determination following a program? By truth-telling are we disrupting harm?

One of REACH’S strengths is honoring, uplifting, and creating space for truth through storytelling and gathering. Through a values-led, participatory dialogue session (storytelling) we did what we do best, we asked the right questions and listened. Through our analysis following these sessions we created the “domains of change” which can be explained more easily as what happens to people. Understanding these changes is the pathway to understanding impact. It is worth noting REACH volunteers have a significant level of investment in supporting the mission of REACH. The domains of change may look different for different pools of people.

The gift of Truth:

Wabanaki REACH offers the community the gift of truth, the truth being the rock that creates a force of meaningful change. How will that gift be received and what will people do with it? These are the questions we will keep asking as the project grows. Understanding the ways in which people change informs the future development of new programs. I continue to understand who I am in this story, the process of decolonization, and how my skills and love for my community can be utilized for meaningful change. There is always work to be done and truth to be told. The pond is big, the ripples continue to create force.


Continue Reading

Read More