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ACE Evaluation Network Member Highlight: Vidhya Shanker

With 95 Evaluators and growing in the Network, we are highlighting an ACE Evaluation Network Member each month to share their experiences and current projects with the ETB® community.

Advancing Culturally-responsive and Equitable (ACE) Evaluation Network Member Vidhya Shanker, PhD is an interdependent, interdisciplinary, and intersectional evaluation scholar, practitioner, activist, and organizer/field-builder as well as co-chair of the American Evaluation Association’s (AEA) DEI Working Group. She is settled on the unceded homelands of the Dakota, near the birthplace of the American Indian Movement in what the U.S.A. now calls Minneapolis, Minnesota. Its unique demographic composition has shaped her ways of thinking, doing, and being as much as her family’s experience of colonization and migration and her study of transformative justice, community organizing, and the arts have. Her doctoral dissertation is the first to examine race in the field, as distinct from the practice, of evaluation. She has since tried to put its results into practice to interrogate, identify, and articulate the processes that reinforce — and disrupt — oppressive power dynamics in, through, and around evaluation and the racially stratified industries that use its services and products. Dr. Shanker earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in the History of Art, from the University of Michigan where she gained an understanding of welfare “reform” through the Feminist Women’s Union and an understanding of Asian American resistance movements through coursework and the Asian American Women’s Journal. She later earned a Master of Arts, concentrating in Nonprofit Management from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. In an effort to compensate for the program’s failure to contextualize, let alone address, deep patterns of racial stratification underlying and reinforced within the nonprofit sector, she designed a secondary concentration in Race, Class, and Gender in Global Perspective.

What first attracted you to the ACE Evaluation Network?

As one of few people of color in my graduate program, with no professors whose teaching and professional practice were explicitly informed by personal or political experiences of exclusion, marginalization, violence, or cultural imperialism (and with no representation of such analysis in the curriculum), I felt very isolated. I was not eligible for the Graduate Education Diversity Internship because my home discipline is evaluation. Later, through my dissertation research, I realized that one of the best “outcomes” of that program is the community that it has cultivated among its graduates since its inaugural cohort in 2004. Many have now “come of age” within the field and increasingly can and do call on each other to collaboratively make great things happen in relation to evaluation, and probably elsewhere. I was seeking to similarly build, share, and wield the power of community — consisting of politicized evaluators who see themselves as change agents and who were socialized by/ within (and remain connected with, responsible for, and accountable to) subjugated communities and knowledge systems. I wondered if the ACE Evaluation Network may generate that kind of community and exchange of ideas and energy.

What do you value most about the ACE Evaluation Network?

The ACE Evaluation Network offers possibility. I continue to seek relationships that challenge and transform, and moreover decenter and make irrelevant the ongoing dynamic of subordination and superordination between evaluators and Funders — philanthropic and government alike — or program participants and program evaluators, or nonprofits and communities. I always value any time that I can spend with ACE Member Geri Peak, and through a Coffee Break, I had the additional privilege of meeting Theresa Esparrago Lieu, with whom myself and a third partner proposed an AEA conference session focused on where Asian Americans belong in the binary understanding of white supremacy that dominates evaluation and society more largely. I’m encouraged by the opportunity to connect not just with Funders but also with other Evaluators. At the same time, I value the attempt to channel capital to managers and small business owners of color who are more likely to hire and otherwise transfer their earnings and wealth to family and members of communities who have been, and continue to be, excluded from the formal economy.

What’s a current project you are working on?

The work that I am most proud of — which feeds my mind, body, heart, and soul — is developmental and principles-focused evaluation with grassroots, constituent-led organizations like the Sierra Leone Foundation for New Democracy. Additionally, I am trying to cultivate critical mass, connections, and consciousness among evaluators that the nonprofit industrial complex continues to harm and marginalize. This is through the field- and power-building work of The May 13 Group and the MN IBPOC in Evaluation Community of Praxis, which functions as a regenerative network through which evaluators from displaced and dispossessed groups cooperate rather than compete with each other.

I also work with philanthropic foundations and government agencies seeking to repair, redress, and regenerate from these harmful patterns of exclusion, exploitation, and extraction by changing those structures, processes, and cultures. Lastly, my work increasingly includes training and coaching evaluators seeking to build their understanding of difference, intersectionality, and evaluation’s own history of exclusion and erasure with greater theoretical and analytical specificity as they help undo harm.

I intentionally do nearly all my work — paid, unpaid, and underpaid — in cooperative, consensus-based collaboration, particularly with those who share, deepen, and stretch my understanding and practice of critical theories of systemic oppression, abolitionism, and systems thinking. As part of one of those collaborations, I am working to evaluate the Mosaic Network & Fund which is an effort to increase funding for African, Latine, Asian, Arab, and Native American arts organizations. In another, I am working to define anti-Blackness, Black-led social change, and racial justice for Black people.

I also work nationally and internationally to nurture a critical, indigenizing, liberatory, abolitionist tradition within evaluation, including collaborative research on evaluation. This includes an examination of harm in the monitoring and evaluation cycle and subsequent pieces on ethics of care and courage for Made in Africa Evaluation. It also includes oral histories of evaluation scholars whose structural analysis of oppression has been erased from the canon, as well as a forthcoming chapter on the critical, liberatory roots of culturally responsive evaluation with Rodney Hopson.

To see some of my thinking and engage in some of the collective direct action efforts that I have initiated or co-created, visit the AEA365 blog series or “Why Is Evaluation So White?”

To learn more about Vidhya, connect with her on LinkedIn.