This blog post was written by Ivette Gutierrez of Social Policy Research Associates.
Community Participation in Research and Evaluation
The American Evaluation Association, in a 2011 Statement on Cultural Competence in Evaluation, urged evaluators “engage with diverse segments of communities to include cultural and contextual dimension important to the evaluation.” Youth Participatory Evaluation (YPE) is a key way to achieve this goal because it meaningfully engages youth participants in the design and implementation of an evaluation that considers and reflects their values, identities, and culture. Over the last year and a half, our team at SPR has engaged youth in an evaluation of the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth programs. We have found that YPE has helped to make our evaluation both more rigorous and more accountable to the programs and community we are studying. This is the first in a series of blogs about our youth participatory evaluation work, where we share our experience with YPE, including the challenges we have faced, the benefits and added value of YPE for the evaluation, and our lessons learned to date.
What is Youth Participatory Evaluation?
YPE is “an approach that engages young people in evaluating the programs, organizations, and systems designed to serve them.” It is an interactive and somewhat labor-intensive research paradigm that involves youth as active partners in designing, conducting, and analyzing research so that they can have a voice in the process of knowledge production especially as it concerns issues that impact their lives or stories. Through careful and authentic engagement, evaluators can design opportunities for learning and empowerment while also ensuring that evaluations are reflective of youth’s experiences. As part of our OFCY project, SPR has created its own curriculum, meeting with youth weekly to train youth on research practices, data collection and analysis. Youth then exercise their research skills by developing a research question, creating and executing a data collection and analysis plan, and presenting their findings to OFCY staff and programs. They also provide feedback on data collection and analysis tools, such as youth surveys and program data sheets.
A New Field of Inquiry that Equalizes Power Relationships
Done with sensitivity, YPE helps to deepen the quality of research, while also empowering young people. As posited in a recent article on Paolo Freire’s global impact, “knowledge has an emancipatory function.” Through YPE, youth gain skills such as critical thinking, knowledge and application of research methods, and opportunities to be creative and generate new insights. Freire’s approach emphasized people’s ability to think critically about their situation and their capacity for agency, a critical consciousness. YPE follows this trajectory by creating space for all stakeholders to both teach and learn, reflect and evaluate, and eventually institute change. Throughout our YPE initiative for the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth programs, we create opportunities for collective reflection by building space for youth to give us feedback about our curriculum, delivery, and the wider evaluation. We also continually address our roles and issues of power in meetings; we frequently express that SPR staff are not the drivers of the youth-led evaluation—the youth are.
Why We Do It
Finally, SPR has invested in YPE because we believe that it strengthens our capacity to conduct culturally responsive evaluation and increases the reliability and validity of our findings. Youth provide feedback on our instruments and approaches. When doing interviews or presenting findings, youth partners can often communicate with harder to reach or underrepresented populations more easily than adult evaluators. Furthermore, we understand that evaluation is not a neutral act, knowledge is a social construction reflective of our norms and traditions: “when we use a certain method, which is not neutral, we do it based on an ethical, political, and pedagogical choice.” If the hope is to create evaluations that are reflective of the benchmarks we as a field find valuable, such as culturally responsiveness, we must meaningfully engage diverse communities and thoughtfully create spaces where the community has a voice and the tools to improve existing and future programs or projects.
 Gadotti, M. (2017). The global impact of Freire’s pedagogy. In M. Q. Patton (Ed.), Pedagogy of Evaluation. New Directions for Evaluation, 155, 17–30.