by Isaac D. Castillo, Director of Outcomes, Assessment, and Learning at Venture Philanthropy Partners.
Evaluators don’t make mistakes.
Or do they?
Well, actually, they do. In fact, I’ve got a number of fantastic failures under my belt that turned into important learning opportunities. So, when I was asked to share my experience at the MERL Tech DC 2018 session on failure, I jumped at the chance.
Part of the Problem
As someone of Mexican descent, I am keenly aware of the problems that can arise when culturally and linguistically inappropriate evaluation practices are used. However, as a young evaluator, I was often part of the problem.
Early in my evaluation career, I was tasked with collecting data to determine why teenage youth became involved in gangs. In addition to developing the interview guides, I was also responsible for leading all of the on-site interviews in cities with large Latinx populations. Since I am Latinx, I had a sufficient grasp of Spanish to prepare the interview guides and conduct the interviews. I felt confident that I would be sensitive to all of the cultural and linguistic challenges to ensure an effective data collection process. Unfortunately, I had forgotten an important tenet of effective culturally competent evaluation: cultures and languages are not monolithic. Differences in regional cultures or dialects can lead even experienced evaluators into embarrassment, scorn, or the worst outcome of all: inaccurate data.
Sentate, Por Favor
For example, when first interacting with the gang members, I introduced myself and asked them to “Please sit down,” to start the interview by saying “Siéntate, por favor.” What I did not know at the time is that a large portion of the gang members I was interviewing were born in El Salvador or were of Salvadoran descent, and the accurate way to say it using Salvadoran Spanish would have been, “Sentate, por favor.”
Does one word make that much difference? In most cases it did not matter, but it caused several gang members to openly question my Spanish from the outset, which created an uncomfortable beginning to interviews about potentially sensitive subjects.
Amigo or Chero?
I next asked the gang members to think of their “friends.” In most dialects of Spanish, using amigos to ask about friends is accurate and proper. However, in the context of street slang, some gang members prefer the term chero, especially in informal contexts.
Again, was this a huge mistake? No. But it did lead to enough quizzical looks and requests for clarification that started to doubt if I was getting completely honest or accurate answers from some of the respondents. Unfortunately, this error did not arise until I had conducted nearly 30 interviews. I had not thought to test the wordings of the questions in multiple Spanish-speaking communities across several states.
Would You Like a Concha?
Perhaps my most memorable mistake during this evaluation occurred after I had completed an interview with a gang leader outside of a bakery. After we were done, the gang leader called over the rest of his gang to meet me. As I was meeting everyone, I glanced inside the bakery and noticed a type of Mexican pastry that I enjoyed as a child. I asked the gang leader if he would like to go inside and join me for a concha, a round pastry that looks like a shell. Everyone (except me) began to laugh hysterically. The gang leader then let me in on the joke. He understood that I was asking about the pan dulce (sweet bread), but he informed me that in his dialect, concha was used as a vulgar reference to female genitalia. This taught me a valuable lesson about how even casual references or language choices can be interpreted in many different ways.
What did I learn from this?
While I can look back on these mistakes and laugh, I am also reminded of the important lessons learned that I carry with me to this day.
- Translate with the local context in mind. When translating materials
or preparing for field work, get a detailed sense of who you will be collecting data from, including what cultures and subgroups people represent and whether or not there are specific topics or words that should be avoided.
- Translate with the local population in mind. When developing data collection tools (in any language, even if you are fluent in it), take the time to pre-test the language in the tools.
Be okay with your inevitable mistakes. Recognize that no matter how much preparation you do, you will make mistakes in your data collection related to culture and language issues. Remember it is how you respond in those situations that is most important.
As far as failures like this go, it turns out I’m in good company. My story is one of 22 candid, real-life examples from seasoned evaluators that are included in Kylie Hutchinson’s new book, Evaluation Failures: 22 Tales of Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned. Entertaining and informative, I guarantee it will give you plenty of opportunities to reflect and learn.