What is your current position(s) and what do you do?
I am an Adjunct Faculty member in Geography at San Diego State University and Project Director for the Young People’s Environments, Society, and Space Research Center (YESS Center) in the College of Arts and Letters at SDSU. I have been lucky enough to be able to develop a range of projects and research activities that bridge between academia and the applied work of non-profit organizations and local government. This enables me to pursue a lot of different projects and partnerships, diversifying my own experiences and pursuing opportunities to make a positive social impact.
Much of the work of the YESS Center involves conducting evaluation studies for clients in the San Diego region. With a current staff of 3, the Center is able to manage 6-10 concurrent projects, with the majority of those projects addressing education, youth development, public health, and family self-sufficiency outcomes. Ideally, we get involved at the point of proposal development so we can help define outcomes, identify indicators and measurement tools, and establish an appropriate level of attention to success measures from program inception to the development of a final report. I also need to share that evaluation is only part of my professional focus. My position has enabled me to continue with teaching at the university and has also led to an opportunity to serve as the Director of the California Geographic Alliance (CGA). The CGA is an organization that advocates for and supports geography education in K-12 schools. This split in my professional identity makes it possible for me to pursue two passions at the same time. This can sometimes cause brain overload, but I would not want it any other way.
What led you to the field of evaluation?
I was doing my dissertation research on the everyday geography of children in a diverse urban neighborhood of San Diego when a major philanthropist announced his interest in that same neighborhood. The philanthropist engaged the university for expertise in the neighborhood, but it turned out that I was one of a very small group of people with deep knowledge of the neighborhood and its families. As a graduate student, I was asked to bid on a job to carry out an evaluation for an extended day program at a middle school. I bid ridiculously low on the project, as a starving graduate student. I really did not know what was expected of me, so I drew on the knowledge of my mother (a career non-profit professional) and evaluators she had been working with, read the W.K. Kellogg Foundation evaluation manual and anything else I could get my hands on that seemed practical, and jumped in with both feet. When I gave my report on the findings of the evaluation, I was thrilled to hear that the organization would immediately implement my recommendations in an effort to improve the program. I was also stunned to find out that the audience for the report included a number of other non-profit executives who were actively seeking evaluators. I always congratulate myself on the smart move of bidding that first job super low, because I have never actively sought out clients after that. I have had the good fortune of having partners to work with, and good projects to work on, from that point forward.
What has been your favorite moment in your career so far?
My favorite experience came out of work I did with the Chula Vista Community Collaborative and its network of school-based Family Resource Centers. After learning about the community’s needs and assets, I worked with a team to create a neighborhood advocacy group composed entirely of Spanish-speaking mothers. These mothers lacked documents that would allow them to work legally, but they still wanted to set good examples for their children, so they looked toward volunteerism and community activism. We had lots of fun and made a significant impact on people and institutions in their community. We successfully advocated for the first new park in their community for over 30 years, and I especially loved the way our local politicians valued their civic leadership and constructive input even though they were not registered voters.
What motivates you at work?
Justice and efficient use of resources. I feel privileged to be able to contribute to projects that are addressing justice and equity in key areas, and I am able to help organizations use limited resources to have the maximum impact on the issues and communities they serve.
If you could give advice to young professionals in evaluation, what would it be?
Combine expertise in evaluation with expert-level knowledge in a specific field. Don’t try to be a generalist. You won’t be seen as a valuable partner, and the work won’t be as rewarding as it could be. Also, take time to envision the end results of your evaluation work and then only carry out data collection and evaluation activities that specifically contribute to those ultimate products and results. You want a rigorous and rich evaluation, so you need to be strategic and disciplined and think your evaluation design through in great detail. Ask yourself at each stage whether an activity generates a benefit that justifies the cost. And remember that the costs an evaluation design generates are mainly borne by clients and program staff. As advocates, we should try to treat clients and line staff with respect and serve them well in every phase of our work.
What are your favorite resources for evaluators?
I like resources that solve problems for me. I love online statistical calculators, for example. I appreciate the Kellogg Foundation handbook, or any of a number of other handbooks or guidebooks published by funders, as a starting place for new evaluators. I also like resources that lead me into new ways of thinking. Michael Quinn Patton’s books on different types of evaluation are very useful. In recent work on federal grants, I have found the What Works Clearinghouse to be extremely helpful.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Explore! I love to travel and observe the variety that the world has to offer. I tend to avoid attractions and look for authentic places and people living different lives from mine. I especially like connecting with kids and asking them what they think about the world. As a geographer, I try to understand how landscapes work, whether I am in a big city or out in nature. I use the app and website iNaturalist to document my encounters with biodiversity, so I am even data-driven in my free time.