Departing the Buffer Zone

Last month Tiffany wrote about embracing collaboration as a path towards moving evaluation to a system of learning, rather than a system of accountability. We had an enlightening chat about that post with frequent Rad commenter and PhD student Chris Hall. He spoke extensively about the political and historical context of evaluation (listen here if you haven’t yet!). 

It’s always so gratifying when the connections just present themselves from month to month. I’ve (Libby) known for some time that our podcast guest this month would be Dr. Aisha Rios. I was inspired to invite her as I’ve heard her talk more about abolition in evaluation. Abolition has been slowly moving into the spotlight since 2020 amid calls to defund the police, with most current day abolition efforts being focused on the prison industrial complex. So how does this apply to evaluation? 

The concepts of abolition can be applied to any system of oppression. And yes, evaluation has historically been a tool used to maintain a system of oppression, namely racial capitalism in the US. In his article, “Social Service or Social Change?” Paul Kivel describes the economic and political context in which evaluation was developed and still exists today. 

Our current economic structure in the US is a pyramid. Just 1% of the population controls about 42% of all financial wealth, the next 9% of the population controls another 34%. That leaves 90% of the population with just 24% of resources, of that group 50% at the bottom divide just 1% of the wealth. 

For the most part, evaluators sit in the 9% – a group Kivel calls The Buffer Zone. “Members of this class may not gain the same level of power and financial rewards as people at the very top, but their work provides the research, managerial skills, expertise, technological development and other resources which the ruling class needs to maintain and justify its monopolization of political and economic power. This class also carries out the direct management of the largest public, private, and non-profit enterprises in the country.”

We’ve discussed values in this space extensively and I would guess that most of our readers would say equity and justice are among their values. When we fail to understand (as I have for the first 8 years of my evaluation career) the economic and political context of evaluation, even evaluation done under the guise of social justice serves to uphold an unjust system. 

By (re)imagining what evaluation can be, we begin the work of refusing to be buffer zone agents. Reflecting on our own beliefs and practices is one place to start. Kivel himself provides us with some reflection questions for us this month:

Who actually benefits from the work that you do? In what ways have your ties with governmental and community agencies separated you from the people you serve? Who in the economic pyramid are you in solidarity with? 

Watch for our podcast later this month with Dr. Aisha Rios who will reflect on these prompts with us. We would LOVE to hear your thoughts. Leave them here on the blog or tweet at us!

2 thoughts on “Departing the Buffer Zone

  1. Understanding the role of “gatekeepers” within overall political and economic systems is important to any antioppression work. I have followed Paul Kivel over the years as he works to provide more understanding of such systems in his work. The first exposure I had to him and his Oakland Men’s Project was with his “Act Like a Man” activity that challenges men to consider where and how their privilege and power manifests, and what happens to men who challenge that societal/cultural power. It took me some time to recognize that the way men’s power works to enforce other men who attempt to push against it does not in any way remove the power or privilege that still exists for those men. It merely gatekeeps the privilege by making it uncomfortable for men to push against it.

    Within evaluation, and all gatekeeping components within varying industries and services, the process is similar. If you recognize the presence of the gatekeeping, and also recognize your privilege and power regardless of the pressure, you can use it to push against or lean into the privilege when necessary to provide agency and empowerment for those who are most harmed by that inherent societal/cultural privilege. The big thing that prevents this is the ways that power sources push against challenges to that power, or use of that power that serves to dismantle it. Such pressures are exponentially more damaging to marginalized groups, and those within that source of power will still experience damage, and those implicit and explicit threats are what keeps people from truly working toward justice, equality, and change.


  2. The idea of “evaluator as consciousness-raiser really resonates with me this month. Our role is to heighten awareness of what’s happening, as well as to promote evaluative thinking around what’s going well, what isn’t going so well, and what could be done differently. Necessarily challenging what has been, what has become our auto-pilot checkbox way of doing things, and saying wait, did you even notice what is occurring?! 🙂

    Looking forward to the coming months of reflection. ❤


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