HEI FYI

What does Afrofuturism have to do with Evaluation?


By Donté McGuire, Research Analyst

The title question is not rhetorical. Neither does this post attempt to fully answer this question. Instead, it is a topic I have reflected on since attending AEA’s Eval20 Reimagine virtual conference. Specifically, I was challenged by the session, “Illuminating the future context through an equity lens: Why systems evaluators need to use foresight and futures thinking without imposing Western cultural values”  led by Jewla Lynn of Policy Solve and Jen Heeg of Humanity United. When the presenters shared a picture of Janelle Monae’s Archandroid album cover, describing it as a “shining example of Afrofuturism in popular US culture,” they held my attention. To understand why I was surprised to hear the term Afrofuturism in a session about evaluation, I can simply return to last month’s HEI FYI.

In the What We’re Reading… section of October’s newsletter, I highlighted N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky along with this comment: “While this book does not have an explicit relevancy to HEI’s work, it does shape my worldview and approach to my work.” Just a month after not seeing the connection between the Afrofuturist books I read and the evaluation work I do, I found myself in a session that contradicted that perspective.

As a relative newcomer to the term, I understand “Afrofuturism,” at its basic level, to refer to the ways Black people see themselves in the future—a perspective informed by the past and present but separate from racist and White supremacist stereotypes. Clearly with or without this term, there have always been Black folk who have imagined themselves in a future radically different from the one White supremacy was creating and predicting for them.

As a relative newcomer to the field of evaluation, I wonder what it means for me, as a Black evaluator, to use, reference, and be inspired by Afrofuturist ideas in my work?

Here are some of my initial thoughts:

  1. Be explicit about Black futures. One thing Afrofuturism highlights is the dearth of racial diversity in science fiction and fantasy productions in U.S. popular culture. In other words, the disregard and neglect for Black life in the present is mirrored by the absence of Black people in the future imaginations of popular, White U.S. culture.

    Here’s the connection: Almost every evaluation project I have worked on has some forward-looking component, whether it’s organizational strategic planning or recommendations for future actions. I’ve noticed that the lack of explicit language regarding marginalized groups in this future planning (e.g., “Black people in higher education”) usually aligns with perpetual, inadequate strategies to address the needs of those communities. This correlation speaks to the failure of generic language related to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

  2. Black people have good ideas about more than just “Black” issues. Although I have worked in areas of education ranging from residential life to international education to college access and am pursuing a Ph.D. in higher education, White people and non-Black People of Color engage my ideas around the aforementioned topics in one way while engaging my ideas about the topic of race/ethnicity in another way. Whereas I am never outright dismissed, I cannot help but notice the listener’s curiosity that comes from trusting the speaker’s point of view when I’m talking about issues related to Black people or race that it absent when discussing other topics.

    To be clear, I am not talking about being in conversation with White and non-Black People of Color who don’t “get it”; I am talking about the ones that do. We all need to consciously acknowledge that Black people, including black authors, have much to say on all kinds of topics. Reading The Stone Sky and the other books in Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy (where a full and diverse Black future is normalized) has made me think more about issues such as my relationship to the environment, grief and mourning, concept of time, community, and leadership than it has about race and ethnicity.

    So even when evaluating organizations where Black people’s experience can be improved, I should look to them for insight on issues beyond the employment experience of their demographic group. For example, what thoughts do they have about the organization’s governance or leadership or strategic priorities? These questions represent an opportunity to learn from those Patricia Hills Collins refers to as the “outsider within.”

  3. Getting to new futures requires new tools. As I learn more about the field of evaluation, I realize that many “standard” tools and practices of evaluation are limited in their ability to allow for a genuine engagement with Black futures. For example, the AEA presenters discussed the ways Western values can be standard in systems thinking. I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s popular quote: “the master’s tools will not destroy the master’s house.” 

    The presenters provided a link to specific tools and resources that evaluators can use, which not only reference Afrofuturism, but also Indigenous Futurism: Decolonizing Our Future.