Being an Applied Sociologist: A Conversation with Chantal Hailey


When attempting to transform communities through social policy, it is imperative to not only understand what the social problem is, but also how and why it exists and persists. Trained sociologists have indispensable tools for this type of applied work. – Chantal Hailey
                                                                    

                                                                                                               

In my last blog post – Choosing Applied Sociology I referred to a 2013 article in Inside Higher Ed in which Sociologist Roberta Spalter-Roth, from the American Sociological Association, comments that “In sociology, there is close to a perfect match between available jobs and new Ph.D.s”, if you take into account non-academic jobs (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/08/06/sociology-job-market-continues-recover-steadily). She notes that while these “applied” jobs often pay more than university teaching positions, graduates rarely know about them and professors may even discourage their students from entering these professions. 

Unfortunately, the majority of Sociology grad students view the tenure-track job market as their only career choice, but there are many Sociologists who have chosen to work in applied settings. The skills gleaned through a Sociology degree are applicable – or dare I say, “marketable” – in a whole host of other venues, including government, corporations, and all sizes of nonprofits, local, state and national. We are researchers, lobbyists, program managers, teachers/trainers, and more.

I decided to organize a panel on this topic at the annual meeting of Sociologists for Women in Society, held in Washington, DC.  And on February, 2015, three distinguished Applied Sociologists from the DC area presented about why they chose this route of practice, what they do and for which populations, and how they incorporate sociological principles into their work, framed by a race, class, gender lens.  In this post, one of the speakers, Chantal Hailey, talks about her draw to applied work, which she began as a Sociology student at Howard University. After a number of years doing Applied Sociology, Chantal is now a first year doctoral student at New York University.

Mindy:  What interested you in doing applied work?

Chantal:  Throughout out my childhood, I lived, attended summer camps and had friends and family who lived in low-income urban neighborhoods. I was able to see how low-quality schools, subpar housing, limited opportunities and violence shaped young peoples’ lives and limited their potential. I had a passion to transform these communities into places where all people could thrive. But on the other hand, I was a nerd. I enjoyed research, history, math and statistics. 

During my internship at a research branch of a community development corporation, I discovered that providing statistical trends on health, education, and housing to nonprofits could help them inform how they served low-income communities. I also discovered that the voices of women and people of color were sometimes absent from these discussions. I knew that in order to get a seat at the table, as a black woman, I needed to have the highest credential possible. So I began my academic journey at Howard University (as an) undergraduate in the Sociology department, knowing that my ultimate goal was to complete a doctoral degree in Sociology. 

Mindy: Did you know you were learning about Applied Sociology at that point?

Chantal:  While I was at Howard, I didn’t know of any distinction between applied and “pure” sociology.  I just completed papers on topics that were important to me–public housing, poverty, and education. Urban Institute (UI) kept popping up in my literature reviews and I applied for internship there after my junior year. 

Mindy:  What did you do when you were at Urban Institute?

Chantal:  At Urban Institute (UI), I transformed from an intern to a Research Assistant to a Research Associate. UI’s research is a combination of researcher-generated projects and responses to RFPs (Requests for Proposals). Two of my projects exemplify the type of applied sociology I was able to undertake at UI.  The first is the “Long Term Outcomes for Chicago Public Housing Families” project (LTO). LTO is a 10-year longitudinal study of families whose Chicago public housing was demolished or revitalized through the Plan for Transformation. We employed mixed methodology – family surveys; in-depth interviews with heads of household, young adults and children; and administrative data review. 

                                                                            

We found that after relocation from distressed public housing developments, families generally lived in better quality housing in safer neighborhoods, but many adults struggled with physical illnesses and youth suffered the consequences of chronic neighborhood violence.

Mindy:  What was your role there? What did you do?

Chantal:  As a team member in this project, I assisted in developing the survey, helped lead data analysis, generated the young adult interview guides and conducted in-depth interviews with the young people in the study. I also co-led and lead-authored research briefs on housing and neighborhood quality and youth. A research brief is a 15-20 page synopsis of research findings. Unlike most journal articles, there is not a long literature review. 

This short article allows us to disseminate the findings to wide audiences. In addition to the standard research brief, we also produced blogs, HUD online journal articles, and radio reports; and briefed the Chicago Housing Authority, Senate committee members, and the press.  LTO used sociological methods to understand policy, but intentionally shared this knowledge with wider policy makers and practitioners. 

Mindy: You say that trained Sociologists have “indispensable tools” for applied sociology. Can you elaborate on this a bit?

Chantal:   Sociology can address a plethora of subject areas that often intersect (i.e. inequality, education, crime and violence, health, etc.), and it unveils the mechanisms behind social problems. A Sociology education trains researchers to look for the hidden transcripts among social groups and interactions, not just the most apparent narrative. It allows for simultaneous macro, meso, and micro analysis to understand multiple contributing factors. And it emphasizes the impact social context has on policies’ implementation and outcomes. 

This was especially apparent in the LTO study. We understood that in addition to families’ relocation from public housing, a series of key factors – including proliferating national rates of housing foreclosure, increasing Chicago neighborhood violence, and rising income inequality – also shaped families’ experiences in South Side Chicago neighborhoods.

A Sociology education provides an array of methodological tools that can be tailored to best address research questions (i.e. interviews, focus groups, ethnography, quantitative analysis).  It pairs theories of race, class, family structure, etc. to better understand social issues. These analytic and research skills allow us to partner with government, non-profit, and academic agencies to both advance sociological theory and offer practical solutions to social problems.

Mindy:  Thank you!  And can you provide another example of applied work you’ve done, where you’ve been able to bring your analytic and research skills to the fore?

Chantal:  In D.C., I participated in a Community Based Participatory Grant funded by NIH entitled Promoting Adolescent Sexual Safety (PASS). UI, University of California San Diego, D.C. Housing Authority, and D.C. public housing residents collaborated in the PASS project.

This research team – along with a mix of individuals from different racial, class, and professional backgrounds – aimed to develop a program to increase sexual health and decrease sexual violence. 

Mindy:  How did you use what you were learning as a Sociology student/practitioner?

Chantal: Again, we used sociological methods to conduct this project, including an adult and youth survey, in-depth interviews with community members, participant observations, and focus groups. 

Mindy:  You said this project was participatory. Can you talk about who was involved?  How was it participatory?

Chantal:  Through the grant, we developed a community advisory board, a group of 15 residents who participated in creating the PASS program. The interactions between the community advisory board, community practitioners, and the researchers challenged the researchers to not only study educational, class, geographic and racial inequalities, but also to assess how our interactions dismantled or exacerbated power inequities. 

Mindy:  Earlier, when we spoke, you talked about what it was like to be an African-American researcher who also had a personal understanding of the experience of people you were researching. Can you talk a little about that?

Chantal: As an African American woman on the project with family who lived in D.C., I was personally challenged to both create distance as a researcher and closeness as a fellow black D.C. resident. I often found myself “code-switching” during community meetings, as I communicated with both my co-workers and the community members. Feeling a responsibility to and, often, sympathizing with the desires of the researchers and the residents, I also had to sometimes explain and mediate diverging understandings during conflicts. This closeness and distance dichotomy was also pertinent during data analysis. While my experiences allowed me to recognize and interpret focus group participants’ terminologies and cultural cues, I had to ensure that my sympathies with the community did not cloud my ability to see inconvenient truths. 

Mindy: And how did you get what you learned out there to your target audiences?

Chantal: This research project, like most UI projects, focused on dissemination to wider audiences in palatable formats–a community data walk, research briefs, blogs and journal articles.
 

Mindy:  Finally…now you’re a doctoral student at NYU and studying Sociology.  How do you see yourself moving forward as a Sociologist?  How will you incorporate what you’ve learned into your future practice? (or is that something you’re still figuring out!)

Chantal:  As I continue in graduate school at NYU, I aim to crystalize my research identity and trajectory. I have methodological and policy research experience through the Urban Institute, and I am gaining theoretical expertise while completing my doctoral degree. I hope to incorporate these elements into my research and become a conduit between academia, policy makers, and urban communities to make inner city neighborhoods a place where all children can thrive. A mentor once advised me that graduate school is a journey where you begin in one place and end in another. I am tooled with amazing applied experiences and I’m excited to see how my graduate school journey directs my path.

Choosing Applied Sociology

After working in the policy world in Massachusetts for many years, going back to graduate school in Sociology felt like going to a candy store in the country* every day, where I could read interesting books, have stimulating conversations, learn how to do research, and then write about it.  I admired my professors, and I was kind of amazed that their job was to take me seriously and support my development as a scholar. Later, while I was working on my dissertation, I got a job teaching part-time in a local university while a full-time professor went out on leave. It was challenging; it was fun; and it was an incredible opportunity to experiment with pedagogy. I learned that I loved teaching, and over the next two years, got hired to teach a wide range of sociology classes – about families, sex and gender, feminism, work, and women and leadership – at several other Boston universities. 

But the more I learned about the full-time tenure-track teaching world, the more I realized it was just not my thing. First off, I couldn’t imagine “starting over” again at the bottom of the career ladder, with what could be six grueling years of slogging towards tenure. Nor could I imagine the idea of a job for life – the promise of tenure – working with the same folks for the next few decades (apologies to my mythical could-have-been colleagues!). Call me fickle, but I enjoyed changing jobs every few years, having new and varied challenges, and working with a diverse array of people. 


Learning on the job
By luck, while I was taking research methods classes, I was offered a small consulting job to evaluate the impact of a well-established training program on its activist participants. Here was an opportunity to put my newfound knowledge to use.  Except that no one was teaching how to evaluate social programs in sociology graduate programs!  I did have some experience with “program evaluation”. When I was directing a statewide child care project that was federally funded, some guy was hired by the state to evaluate my program. He met with me once at the beginning of the project, and at the end, he wrote a glowing report.

Every so often, I wondered if he’d be back. In the end, he really had no basis upon which to evaluate the strengths and challenges the project was facing – and believe me, there were plenty. But I wasn’t going to complain if he was phoning it in!

Since I had no idea how to evaluate a program, I hired someone who did, and for the next few years, she trained me and my sociologist friend, Claire, in how to use research skills to evaluate social programs. I never intended to continue doing this “applied” work for the next 20 years, but that is essentially what has happened. When I first started, I wasn’t very good at it, and I thought it was boring. But a couple decades later, I have learned a whole lot about how to do it well, and (luckily) find this work fascinating.

Making a choice to be an applied sociologist
The choice to be an “applied sociologist” is not a rejection or devaluation of academic sociology. It is a choice that is, in part, a function of economic imperatives – a tight job market, especially if you don’t want to move – but also a choice to make a different kind of difference. To impact the social world through organizations that are impacting people:  through service, through organizing, and through education and advocacy, in the areas of public health, education, urban planning, climate change, arts and arts education and many more.

I have learned that it makes me happy to use the research and writing skills I learned in graduate school as a tool to help promote social change, through the vehicle of strengthening nonprofit organizations and improving philanthropic decision-making. Once considered the stepchild of the field, applied sociology is now gaining prominence, but largely because the economy has not produced the plethora of academic sociology jobs once predicted.


“Close to a perfect match”
In a 2013 article in Inside Higher Ed, Roberta Spalter-Roth, from the American Sociological Association, commented that “In sociology, there is close to a perfect match between available jobs and new Ph.D.s” (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/08/06/sociology-job-market-continues-recover-steadily). But this is only if you factor in the many government, nonprofit and research analyst jobs out there that require the skills and sociological perspectives learned in graduate school. Spalter-Roth notes that these jobs often pay more than university teaching positions, but graduates rarely know about them and professors may even discourage their students from entering these professions.

This year, my applied sociology friends and I agree that the “applied route” seems to be gaining some traction, with increased interest from universities and professional associations. A number of us have been on a (minor) speaking circuit, talking to graduate students at the request of sociology departments about choosing applied sociology as a career. And this year, the Sociology Department of a major research university, Boston College, hired me to teach a course on Evaluation Research.  (Kudos to BC Sociology for recognizing the importance of this avenue for sociologists-in-training!) 


Panel at Sociologists for Women in Society: Choosing Applied Sociology (sponsored by the Career Development Committee)

Given this increased interest, and what I believe is a need for sociologists to promote the health and well-being of organizations and communities using research and sociological principles, I organized a panel on this topic at an annual meeting of my favorite national feminist sociology organization, Sociologists for Women in Society.

The panel included three distinguished applied sociologists from the DC area, where the meeting was held, who presented about why they chose this route of practice, what they do and for what populations, and how they incorporate sociological principles into their work, framed by a race, class, gender lens.


The speakers, all based in DC, included Tekisha Everette, a lobbyist for the American Diabetes Association; Andrea Robles, a research analyst at the Corporation for National and Community Service; and Chantal Hailey, who ran evaluation projects at the national Urban Institute and elsewhere, and is currently a sociology doctoral student at NYU. One other panelist, Rita Stephens, was not able to make it because of a blasted snowstorm, but she would have rounded out the panel very nicely as she works at the State Department. The three women spoke to a standing and sitting room only crowd at the meeting, followed by numerous informal conversations, attesting to the fact that there is a hunger for this kind of work.

In my next couple of blog posts, I will allow these amazing women’s words speak for themselves. I hope that their words stimulate a dialogue about the value of and choice to pursue sociology outside of the academy. Based on the remarkable response at this meeting and in classrooms where I talk about applied sociology, my sense is that sociologists want to know about alternatives to working within academia. The words of these speakers inspired me and I hope they inspire you.


                  “I was interested in doing applied work that could lead to positive social   
                  change. Somehow, it seemed like I wanted to be part of making the world
                  a better place.”
                                                         Sociologist, Andrea Robles
                                                         Corporation for National and Community Service
                                                                     
Check out this excellent blog post by Dr Zuleyka Zevallos, Research and Social Media Consultant with Social Science Insights in Australia, called What is Applied Sociology?, published in Sociology at Work:  Working for Social Change:  http://sociologyatwork.org/about/what-is-applied-sociology/

*Brandeis University, which is actually in the suburb of Waltham, Massachusetts, but looked like the country to this city girl!

From Applied to Action Sociology: Jamaica Plain Porchfest

For a couple of decades, I have been an “applied sociologist”, meaning that my sociology leaves the classroom and situates itself in organizational contexts. There are many ways that applied sociologists “do sociology”.  For the most part, my work focuses on evaluating a range of programs and policies to help organizations get stronger and ultimately, bring in more funds so they can continue to do their good work. Applied sociology may be perceived by some as the step child of academic sociology.  “Professor” is a far more classy title than Senior Research Associate or even, Wowza Evaluation Research Expert!  But academic and applied sociology are equally good options; the choice to pursue one or the other has more to do with the job market, as well as one’s career goals and interests.  That said, applied sociologists have fewer institutionalized steps along the career ladder to achieve “success”, and we certainly experience less institutionalized scrutiny.  For better or worse, applied sociologists also don’t generally have a “family” of colleagues for life!


A lot of us “applied folks” are happy with our choice. The work is challenging, and the potential to improve programs and policies that improve people’s health, education, incomes and more is satisfying. Many of us also love to teach, but generally when we do, we’re on the lowest rung of the totem pole as adjuncts, with low wages, no benefits and depending on the institution, no status, even if one is a stellar teacher whose students adore you. But unlike adjuncts who are scraping a living together teaching multiple single courses, we may choose to teach a course, without fully depending on this income.


This spring, I discovered another way to put my sociology into action, when I joined with a friend to organize a neighborhood music festival on porches, called “Jamaica Plain Porchfest”(www.jpporchfest.org).   

My type of applied sociology had, for the most part, been stuck in a room, or on occasion, at an event or rally. But I felt ready to break out. While I have been evaluating arts-based programs for a number of years, I found that I could bring my sociological eye to designing and implementing this participatory arts-based musical event.  Luckily, I was partnered with an old and dear friend who brought the same sensibility and perspective.


Our sociological eyes went into motion from the very beginning of our planning, as we identified the “outcomes” we wanted to achieve for this event.  We live in a community that is considered very diverse, in terms of race/ethnicity, class and sexual/gender orientation. But in reality, the community is very divided. There is a “Latin Quarter” which houses Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Central Americans; there are public housing developments that cloister poor people in large high rises; there are new mixed-income housing developments; there are sections of “town” that are entirely working class, and others that are entirely middle class. Our goal was to bring the various strains of the community together – bridging race/ethnicity and class – using music as the vehicle.


The phenomenon of “porchfests” is not new.  The first one was organized in Ithaca, New York in 2007, and now there are 20 of them in cities and towns throughout the U.S., including Tucson, Napa Valley, Boulder, Buffalo (my home town!), Salt Lake City and in Somerville, Massachusetts, the porchfest that initially inspired us. From the looks of the incredible photos on each of their porchfest websites, we can see that they are joyous events that build community. From our conversations with the Ithaca and Somerville porchfesters, we also know how successful they are in promoting community bonding, as people come out on the streets to enjoy music together.

In contrast to some of the neighborhoods where other porchfests take place, around half of Jamaica Plain’s residents are people of color, including 25% Latino, 14% African-American, and 4% Asian, and 50% are white.  Our commitment was to promote bridging and bonding, by pursuing three strategies: include a diverse range of musicians in terms of their racial/ethnic backgrounds as well as their musical genres; locate and include porches throughout the neighborhood where musicians can play; and engage and bring out diverse audiences.  We hoped that these strategies would help to overcome some of the “tri-furcation” or “quadri-furcation” (!) in the ‘hood.  


Initially, we created a Facebook page with a call for musicians and porch hosts.  But a lot of people don’t go on Facebook, including 27% of online adults who don’t use social media, and another group of people defined as Facebook “resisters”.  

So we reached out to local non-profit organizations, some of whom serve youth, others who manage low-income housing, others who coordinate small business activity, and yet others who run programs around maintaining a beautiful, large park in one of the neighborhood’s low-income neighborhoods. We also reached out to students at a highly renowned local music college. We even “scouted” musicians, sometimes at a local park or other venue, as well as musicians we just heard of through friends.


My organizing partner and I started with the idea that we’d do a “pilot” event, with three bands and three porches. But if were to stay true to our goals, we needed to do more than that. Ultimately, we had 60 bands sign up, and enough porches committed so that two bands could play on each porch. We spent hours poring over the mix of bands and porch hosts we would match, focusing on bringing together a mix of people from diverse backgrounds, by race/ethnicity, gender, and where possible, class. In the end, diverse bands and solo musicians shared a stage – aka porch – hosted by a third party who generously offered her/his porch. 


We had been informed that one of the other porchfests almost got shut down one year because there were crowds of people roaming the streets, obstructing traffic and trashing neighbor’s lawns. So we created a tiered structure, in which each porch had a “Porch Fun Manager”, each cluster of porches in a particular part of neighborhood had a “Cluster Manager”, and the overall event had two “Network Managers” (me and my partner), who kept an eye on the whole picture. Organizational sociology in action…

While the two of us organized this event, we realized that we were operating within the construct of social institutions that needed to be privy to our plans, offer advice, and inform us of any limitations. So we met with officials from the City, from the police, and from a neighborhood services department that does city permitting.  (We were committed to NOT have permits for each porch!  We didn’t have the budget and we didn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy.)

 
And did I mention that we had NO budget whatsoever?  This was one of the appeals of the event. Nothing commercial. No “brought to you by”, banners, logos or even food trucks!  We received a few in-kind donations:  one from a friend, another from the City of Boston which paid for printing colorful maps of the porch routes to be used on the day of the event, and another from a printer who didn’t charge us for printing postcards to announce the event. For many people, the fact that JP Porchfest was commercial-free was a breath of fresh air.

So how did it go?  On the day of the event, we had 7,000-8,000 people roaming throughout the neighborhood listening to music, and hundreds showed up at a local restaurant, Bella Luna Restaurant and Milky Way Café, for an after-party which served $5 all-you-can-eat pizza!  Anecdotally, it seemed that everyone loved the event from the audience to the musicians to the porch hosts.

But a good “action sociologist” can’t just leave it there!  We needed to evaluate the impact of the event.  In order to count the numbers in attendance, we used porchfest stickers, and had intended to count the leftovers to gauge the size of the crowd, except we ran out of stickers in one hour!  We consulted an audience researcher on how to calculate the final numbers, and it’s her figures – 7,000-8,000 – that we are citing.  


We also distributed very short surveys with a few questions that would help us learn what worked and what didn’t work, as well as to identify the demographics of porchfesters. 

Nearly 100% reported that the event was excellent or very good (we’re still working on analyzing this data).  In addition, we had two sociology grad students from Brandeis University (my alma mater) traversing the event and interviewing participants about their experience. 

And we queried musicians and porch hosts to provide more detailed feedback on their experiences performing at JP Porchfest, and learned that they made great connections with the other band with whom they shared their porch as well as with their porch hosts. They were pleased that they were able to add people to their mailing lists and increased their CD sales. We also heard that small businesses had increased sales. One of our colleagues and friends from Hyde Square Task Force, a JP youth leadership organization, conducted her own short survey to see if business picked up in the “Latin Quarter”, and interestingly, small shops like the local beauty shop and local rotisserie chicken take-out place increased their business by anywhere from 100-400%!


Finally, we wanted to document the event, creating a team of professional filmmakers who shot the event and will produce two videos.  One is a documentary about JP Porchfest that centers on three narratives:  a long-time Latina political activist who had just moved into affordable housing and wanted to use porchfest as a way to unite her racially divided neighborhood; a veteran rocker musician who writes songs about JP and is a staple in the ‘hood; and a group of youth leaders from a local non-profit organization who were accompanied by two filmmakers who documented their response to the event and the different types of music.  The other is a 5-minute how-to video, which will be accompanied by a training guide that we write, in order to help other communities produce their own porchfests!


My organizing partner and I were initially worried that no one would show up, and then after the event, we worried that we would experience a post-event malaise.  But we have been disproven twice!  We are now planning JP Porchfest 2015, this time knowing a lot more than what we knew before we started. Soon we’re going to launch a Kickstarter campaign, and Bella Luna/Milky Way has offered us their venue for two fundraisers. 


In the end, we determined that we had done a pretty good job, maybe even a really good job!  While roughly one-third of our musicians were people of color, we want to increase the diversity of the audience, and we are developing a strategy to do so.  

In a follow-up conversation I had with Ayanna Pressley, a brilliant African-American City Councilor who spoke at the event, I lamented that the audience wasn’t as diverse as we wanted it to be, and she told me, “you are acting like a woman!”  I was startled. What did she mean?  She told me that the event was a great success, but I was focusing on the negative. “We’ll work on that for next year”, she reassured me.    

Photos/Video:
1. Woman doing limbo at Nate Smith House, affordable housing for elders. Band was Tempo International Rhythm Section.
2. Sterling Rhyne performing at home of Betsaida Gutierrez, housing activist.  Photo credit:  Sam Sacks.
3. JP Porchfest banner, created by Hyde Square Task Force Youth Leaders
4. Damn Tall Buildings. Photo credit:  Damn Tall Buildings (selfie!)
5. The Amy Hoffman. Photo credit: Jane Akiba
6. Guts and Buttons. Photo credit:  Sue Dorfman
7. Cornell Coley and Hyde Square Task Force.  Photo credit: Jane Akiba
8. Filmmakers planning Porchfest videos
9. Son of Chris Antonowich, Riding Shot Gun.  Photo credit:  Sue Dorfman
10. Video, Rick Berlin and Nickel and Dime Band:  “I Love My Street”

Save the arts because the arts save lives, part 2…

Over a year ago, I wrote a blog post about the importance of funding arts education. I’m still thinking about these issues, so here is Part Two: Save the arts because the arts save lives...

The arts – dance, theater, music, writing and the visual arts – have a powerful impact on children, opening the door to deeper knowledge and self-expression. I know from personal experience, and I have seen it in young people far and wide. While the current administration has said all the right things about arts education, this is sadly not enough, because federal, state and local policies STILL favor standardized testing and severely limit arts education funding. With all the concern about remaining competitive in a global market, this is precisely the time to fund arts education and allow our children to thrive. 

I started taking dance lessons at age seven. For the first year, I did ballet, but only lasted one year because the teacher was nasty and the movements were too rigid for my soul. Instead my mother found a modern dance teacher, Seenie Rothier, a kind and ageless woman with a lean body and tight bun (and buns), who spoke with a raspy voice as she led her charges through endless contractions, swirls and triplets across the floor. Trained in Martha Graham-style dance, Seenie, as we all called her, had a penchant for the dramatic, and yet she was the most grounding element in my life. I always assumed that my family life was your average normal, and yet looking back, I have realized that it was a household rife with angry silence and disappointment. Seenie’s studio on Hertel Street in Buffalo, was just up the block from Kaufman’s Deli where they sold frosted brownies, and down the block from my grandparents’ working class neighborhood. It was my salvation. She recognized my talent, and by the time I was thirteen, had invited me to join a college dance troupe. Dance was my manna and still is. 

While it is hard to “make a living” as an artist, I tried my best, working as a dance therapist in a psychiatric hospital and later, teaching dance as a resident artist in the Syracuse, New York public school system. I discovered the magic of movement as a source of expression for young children. Often in these schools, children were marched into the gym in single file, and told to remain quiet and respectful of the visiting teacher. 

Little did they know that the new visitor was about to tell the children to jump up and down like popcorn, express their joy and anger through finger dances, and shout as loud as they could, using only their eyes or feet. There was always one child in every school who attached her- or himself to me, following me around, sometimes sitting on my lap or holding my hand as I moved through the room. Sometimes I imagined that what this child really wanted was to crawl into my womb for safety. And there was always the wild child. Sometimes teachers warned me about him or her, and other times, I learned through my own encounters. If teachers were observing – they rarely participated – they might speak with the child in a stern, warning tone or pull the child away for time out. But when I could, I intervened and said ‘no, it’s okay’, because I could usually figure out a way that that child could use movement to express herself. 

Dance is a healer, a universal mode of communication that is good for children. It’s natural. It’s great exercise. It wakes up the brain. It gives children an outlet. I have observed talented movement professionals use movement with children to help them learn science and math concepts. Dance can strengthen children’s emotional intelligence, and their ability to collaborate with others. And it can provide a form of discipline and order, when students are challenged to create dances that have beginnings, middles and ends. 

A number of studies (see Critical Links) cite a positive correlation between dance experiences and nonverbal reasoning skills. One study demonstrated that “subjects” who were exposed to creative dance made significant gains in creative and critical thinking. And another study conducted with children with behavioral disorders found that when dance and poetry were combined, students’ were engaged and their social skills improved. Another study that promoted reading through dance to elementary children found that students improved significantly on all measures assessed by a reading test, including their ability to relate written consonants and vowels to their sounds. 

The research on other arts modalities is equally strong, linking the study of theater to literacy, music education to improvements in spatial-temporal reasoning, achievement in reading, and reinforcement of social-emotional and behavioral skills. And classrooms that integrate the arts are a leveler for all students, including those with disabilities. 

In my own research, I’ve found that teachers who implemented arts-integrated curriculum into their classroom had increased enthusiasm for teaching as they observed the positive response from students, both in terms of their attitudes towards learning, but also their ability to learn. 

It’s time to broaden the policy dialogue and demand increased funding for arts education!

Why Evaluation Research is Pretty Cool…

Despite this current climate of economic belt-tightening – and maybe even because of it – there is growing pressure on organizations to evaluate their programs. More and more, funders are asking for a comprehensive evaluation plan that produces concrete data on the process of implementation and the outcomes of the program. While federal and state grants have historically required evaluation as a part of their budgets, the emphasis has  increased in this tough economy and private foundations are not far behind. Funders want to know that their money is being used to do what was promised, that the outcomes promised were achieved, or if not, that there were legitimate reasons.

Many programs approach the notion of evaluation with the fear of being judged (“What if they find that we screwed up?”), annoyance (“This is a waste of time.”), or resentment. (“Why do they have to spend so much money on evaluation instead of where it belongs, in the program?”).

These reactions may be influenced by people’s previous experience with evaluation or a lack of it. My own first experience with an evaluator – nearly 30 years ago – was downright disappointing. I was directing a federally-funded educational program based in state government. And our evaluator “came with” the project; that is, we had no input on his selection. He “interviewed” me a couple of times and seemed friendly enough, but I never really felt he cared about the project or really understood what we were doing, nor did he make much effort to do so. He didn’t seem to have an evaluation research design, didn’t ask me for input on the interview protocols he used, and I honestly have no idea who he even talked to in the process of evaluating the program. 

At the end, he generated a report that was totally useless (to us at least) and didn’t really resonate with our experience of the program. Nonetheless, he concluded that we had done a good job, so we were not about to argue! We could say an independent evaluator liked the program… Sad to say, my colleagues and I just thought it was a big joke. But in reality, what a waste of public dollars, and what a missed opportunity for us to actually reflect on our program experience!

A sound evaluation is focused on identifying and supporting the strength of a program, identifying the challenges, and targeting ways to overcome the obstacles. In my view, the goal of evaluation must be to help organizational decision makers make good choices about their programs and/or policies.
All evaluation is aimed at assessing some form of transformation, whether at the micro or macro level, including understanding if all the elements are in place to achieve the desired goals. In the vernacular of sociologists, I bring a “third eye” to help solve problems in diverse organizational settings, such as foundations, nonprofits and universities.



To these “clients”, I am an evaluation researcher, organizational analyst, educator, strategic planner, and increasingly a management coach. Some of the questions my colleagues and I have grappled with this year include:


* To what extent do early childhood teachers benefit from state policies aimed at improving quality in child care programs?
* How can a university-community partnership overcome differences to work together more effectively?
* What role can the arts play in improving student outcomes and school culture?
* How can a foundation-initiated leadership program strengthen the nonprofit sector?

When I do evaluation planning with clients, I ask them:

Who wants to know what for what purpose?

* In other words, who is the audience for the evaluation?
* What does the audience want to know?
* And why do they want to know it?

Usually the audience for an evaluation is both internal and external. An internal audience is the program leadership and staff who need robust information about how a program is being implemented and/or developing, so it can stay on course or improve if there are difficulties. An external audience generally refers to funders or policymakers, those who require an evaluation or will use evaluation data for their own decision-making purposes.

That said, I (and most of my evaluator colleagues) often choose to work with organizations that are trying to make a positive change in society with the clients they serve, the policies they promote, the campaigns they run and/or the advocacy efforts they promote. As an evaluator, I present myself to organizations as a “critical friend” who can think big-picture about what they are trying to accomplish and who can work closely with them to understand what is working and what needs some help. 

Evaluation can play a key role in supporting program leaders and staff to make good decisions to maximize the possibility of achieving goals, or dare I say, “success”, however that is defined…. And it is also key to highlighting the real world challenges programs face that may impede program success. 


Increasingly, I am finding that funders want evaluation research to document the process of program implementation, warts and all. Those of us who run or evaluate programs have known for a long time that programs will run into obstacles when they are being implemented. Evaluation can bring a wide lens to understanding and documenting these obstacles, what it takes to overcome them, or if they simply are insurmountable.

In my next posting, I will write about how to select an independent evaluator. It is inspired by my experience and that of my evaluator colleagues who have some very wise things to say. Stay tuned!  Meanwhile, here are a few quotes that relate to evaluation research because, as I said, evaluation research is pretty cool…

Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”  Albert Einstein

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”  Truman Capote

“My mother drew a distinction between achievement and success. She said that ‘achievement is the knowledge that you have studied and worked hard and done the best that is the new. Success is being praised by others, and that’s nice too, but not as important or satisfying. Always aim for achievement and forget about success..'” Helen Hayes

“First get your facts; then you can distort them at your leisure.”  Mark Twain

“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” Vincent van Gogh

 “True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information.” Winston Churchill

 “Each time he sees me, while all the rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.” George Bernard Shaw

Friend to Groucho Marx:  “Life is difficult!”

Marx to Friend:  “Compared to what?”