Aisha Rios: I want to, from the very jump, say something—something that my friends, comrades, and I like to say about ourselves is that we identify as students of abolition or practicing abolitionists. And we say that because we, one, recognize that we’re in a constant state of learning and unlearning. But we also want to honor our commitment to creating an abolitionist world. And so, I say that because I want to invite you all into dialogue with me in a place of learning and unlearning. And…to the extent that you can, try not to get held up in this, “OK, if I do this and this and this and this, I’ll be a perfect abolitionist,” or, “I have to develop a perfect understanding or definition of abolition.”
So, how this next 20 minutes or so is going to go is, I’m going to share two stories with you. I’m going to invite you all to engage with me a little bit around what you noticed, and then I’m going to share what I noticed about these stories. And then I want to tell you what I think we can do about it collectively.
So, here’s the first story. I was working on an evaluation with a foundation. They wanted to understand teachers in the United States perceptions of working with students with disabilities. They wanted to understand, “Do teachers feel a sense of responsibility to teaching and working with students with disabilities?” And they wanted to understand if teachers felt confident and competent in their ability to do so. So, my team and I started talking with teachers, and we learned that they do in fact feel a sense of responsibility for all students. But the next thing that happened was really, really interesting. The teachers wanted to talk about something much bigger than individual-level behavior and attitudes. They wanted to talk about systemic and institutional injustices that shape their work with students. They wanted to talk about how they struggled to navigate these and the supports that they needed to actually work with students in a way that they felt was liberating and supportive for their students. And so, my team and I brought these findings to the funder. And the funder told us, well, that doesn’t map onto the original learning and evaluation questions, so it shouldn’t go into the report. My team and I pushed back. And we were able to get those findings, convince the funders to put the findings into the report, but only as a supplement, so not the main section of the report. So that’s the first story.
Here’s the second. I was working with a nonprofit with colleagues. And the nonprofit leadership wanted to understand what it would take for their staff to work and implement programming in a way that aligned with reflective practice. What I mean by “reflective practice” is bidirectional reflection and learning and dialogue rooted in a political analysis, not one-directional kind[s] of education formats. And so, my team and I wanted to do the work in a way that was collaborative. What I mean by that was we wanted to design and implement the work in a way that was in partnership with the people who would be most impacted by the work…in this case, it was young staff of color.
My team and I started working with the staff and started talking with other staff. And very similar to the first story, what we learned was the staff wanted to have a much bigger conversation….What they wanted to talk about was [the way] that leadership, the way that they were advocating for reflective practice, was done in a way that felt more oppressive than liberatory. The staff felt like they were being pushed to engage in reflective practice. Staff of color described feeling tokenized. Staff described feeling that they wanted to have space for directional learning with one another, but they were constantly being pushed to perform individually. And so, my team and I decided that we were going to lean into what the staff was telling us, right, and broaden the scope of the evaluation. So those are the two stories.
So, what I want to ask you all now is, how many of you in this room have been in a situation like either of these stories before? Show me by raising a hand. A lot of you. For anyone who raised your hand, could you share a bit more about how you responded to that if you’re up for it?
[Inaudible response from audience.]
Thank you for sharing. Yeah…so the big takeaway that I’m hearing in the story that you just shared is that you resisted, right? And…that to me is the heart of what I want to talk about today. And so, this act of resistance, and even in the two stories that I shared also, my colleagues and I did the same thing. And so, I want to really point out that I believe that we all in this room can resist, even when we’re implicated in institutions of oppression right, even more implicated in a lot of really challenging dynamics. But what I love about both what you just shared and then the two stories that I shared is that when we open ourselves up to the possibility of different ways of being and we open ourselves up to the possibility of different voices shaping the work that we do and shaping the evaluation work that we do, we actually create more opportunities for far more nuanced and complex understandings of whatever phenomena [it] is that’s a subject of the inquiry that we’re engaged in.
What happens in the evaluation field is that when we stay laser focused on questions, assumptions—things that are all dictated by those who commissioned the evaluation—we end up reinforcing oppressive dynamics.
And so, one of the things that these stories also tell[s] me about the evaluation field is that, as evaluators, we basically become implicated in a lot of these oppressive dynamics, and we don’t question them, and we don’t push back like you did. And so, I really want to talk about resistance and the ways that we can push back, rather than fixate on the problems, as our luncheon keynote beautifully articulated. What happens in the evaluation field is that when we stay laser focused on questions, assumptions— things that are all dictated by those who commissioned the evaluation—we end up reinforcing oppressive dynamics. And we often create and reinforce individualized ways of responding to injustice, inequality—individualized solutions or problems. Case in point, the two stories that I shared. In both cases, the funder wanted to focus on individual behaviors and attitudes.
The other thing that happens is that we start reinforcing one-directional, hierarchical accountability all to the funder, as opposed to, say, being accountable to community and movement leaders. And so, these three themes [run] across both stories—learning agendas that are dictated by those who commissioned the evaluation, individualized solutions and problem solving, and then also one-directional hierarchical accountability. All three of those [themes] are actually characteristics of what scholars and activists refer to as the nonprofit-industrial complex. So that is, I know, a mouthful, but basically, it’s a web of relationships between funders, nonprofits, government, and wealthy elites. There is a really awesome artist based in Laos, who designed this zine. You can check them out. Their website is on a WordPress called zeeninginlaos.com. They articulate how philanthropy functions within the nonprofit-industrial complex with this art. So far left, you see, wealthy capitalists steal wages to make profit, then divert money out of public funds—taxes—thereby controlling dissent through grantmaking processes into tax-shelter foundations. I flipped that. Controlling dissent through grantmaking processes, which makes money, pays out, and benefits the system, while keeping us—aka, the masses—down. So, what this means is that funders engage in managing and controlling communities of color, queer and trans communities, our unhoused neighbors, all communities who have the power when banding together to resist oppressive systems.
And so, the other thing that happens is that, through these mechanisms, we actually dictate the narratives that are told and those that are not told. So, let’s take the first story as an example with the teachers. If my colleagues and I had just stuck to the program—if we had said, “Yes, what the teachers are saying about systemic-level issues, like, that’s not really what we need to be talking about”—if we had done that, we may have created a report that would have told a partial story that may have been published. It may have been presented at a conference like this. And all the nuances and the complexity that were [these] teachers’ real, lived experiences and that of their students would have been erased.
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These [evaluation] mechanisms and management and control for me, I believe, are deeply interconnected with institutions of policing and incarceration.
There was a 2021 Foundation Review article by Tanya Beer, Patricia Patrizi, and Julia Coffman, where they talk about this very topic. They articulate how advocacy groups and philanthropic support networks like GEO have critiqued the ways that funders manage and control communities and grantees and the work that they do. And they make the case that the evaluation field perpetuates these oppressive dynamics, and we don’t question them. And I agree with them. These mechanisms and management and control for me, I believe, are deeply interconnected with institutions of policing and incarceration.
So, you may have been wondering, wait, I’m following you. But, like, what does this have to do with abolition? I’m going to get us there. I’m going to get us there.
So, from my perspective, and a lot of other scholars and activists out there who I madly respect, these are all interconnected. But that’s just part of the story. The other part of the story is what abolition teaches us about organizing. So, you may have heard people say, prisons and policing are not broken. The prison-industrial complex is not broken. It’s doing what it was designed to do, which is to control and manage dissent. And I argue the same is true for the nonprofit-industrial complex, of which all of us who work in evaluation and philanthropy are a part.
The other thing that I want to elevate is that people often think about abolition as defunding police departments and completely abolishing prisons, and that is true. So, thinking about the [conference] luncheon today, [about the] kind of language about destruction and disrupt, right? The other part of abolition is the other side of that. It’s about imagining and creating something different, something that we can’t even fathom, because we’re focused in this matrix, and we can’t see past it, feel past it. Ruth Wilson Gilmore has said infamously, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” And that’s exactly what I’m talking about here.
So, when I talk about embodying abolition, I talk about my evaluation work and my consulting work. I talk about my interactions with friends and families, the ways that my responses to harm kind of lean into punishment rather than care and love. And so, it’s much bigger. And it is about the prison-industrial complex, and it’s about everything else that we do in our lives.
On abolitionist organizers: They’re imagining and building a world that’s different, that doesn’t exist right now. But it does exist right now because we’re building it today.
I wanted to share these two stories with you because I wanted to show how these mechanisms operate in real life. I also wanted to highlight acts of resistance, so we’re not just focused on the problem, right? What I want to do now is create some space to talk about what I think we can do about it collectively….I believe we all in this room—I said this earlier—we all have the space to act collectively and resist oppressive structures. Again, this really resonates with what Juliette was saying yesterday. What was the framing? It was so beautiful. I’m blanking on it. Someone help me out. Disruption—darn it, I forgot. It was really, really, really, really, really beautiful. But basically, it’s speaking to organizing. And so, “practice science fiction” is language that the editors of Octavia’s Brood, adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, have articulated. So, what they’re saying is that science fiction authors are practicing science fiction, right? And that’s what organizers are doing. They’re imagining and building a world that’s different, that doesn’t exist right now. But it does exist right now because we’re building it today. And so, practice science fiction.
So, there’s three ways that I want to encourage us to do this. And I want to say that this is not the end all be all, just some ideas I want to offer us. One of them is, expand whose questions and assumptions we let drive evaluation, right? So, this really maps onto the two stories that I shared. And so, I think in order to do this, what we have to do is build some skills and capacity around generative conflict. We have to create room for us to make mistakes and acknowledge when we don’t know something, and we have to know that it’s OK to do that. And we’re not going to be ousted for that, right? And so, building these skills around critique and contestation feel[s] super, super important. Second, I’ll just pause to say that if you were in the luncheon today and yesterday, you’re noticing lots of similarities, which to me is just a beautiful indication of being in the right place at the right time. I want all of us to think about ways that we can engage in internal resistance organizing work within our institutions. Dylan Rodriguez and Dr. Carmen Rojas described this as counter-occupying spaces. So, what that means is find ways to engage in radical truth telling within your institutions.
So, many of us have to stay in our positions, right? We have to do that to survive, to support our families and make ends meet. I’m not saying that we should all leave our jobs. What I’m saying, though, and challenging us on is, how can we really think critically about the work that we’re doing and our roles and our institutions? And how can we challenge the logic and legitimacy of the status quo, which is framed so much as just practical and realistic? And so that’s the second piece. And then finally, I want us to support grassroots organizing outside of our institutions. This is really important to me. I started my own consulting practice about two and a half years ago. And before that, all I had space to do, working for other people, was to do everything that was about billable hours. Work 50-plus hours a week. There was no space for reflective practice. There was no space for me to engage in organizing work. And so, when I started my own practice two years ago, I insisted that half of my time be engaged in unpaid labor and organizing work. And since I’ve done that, I’ve learned so much. And engaging in that work has sharpened my analysis. And I know it would do the same for all of you. And so, I want us to be engaging in work outside of our institutions so that we can really, really, really build collective action and critical analysis that’s necessary to do this work. And there’s so many movement spaces to be involved in….we need as many people as possible in all these spaces.
I want to leave you with a quote. I was talking with a dear friend. Their name is Phoebe. They are based in the Philippines; I met [them] recently. We were talking about abolition and having really hard conversations. And they shared a quote from Grace Lee Boggs. So, Grace Lee Boggs said this: “Transform yourself to transform the world.” And what they meant by that was not hyper focus on [your] individual self, but to instead look at your individual spheres of influence—so, the places where you work, your paid and unpaid labor—look at those as sites for change, sites for you to embody something different, sites for you to practice science fiction.