Learning to See Clearly

Jamie Clearfield's Musings on Evaluation and Development


Thoughts from the Field: An Uncomfortable Truth

An uncomfortable truth – education is not free. I say uncomfortable because many of us in the development world and in broader society want it, wish it, trust it to be so. I say this working with a “free” girls’ high school in the Kibera slums (Kibera Girls Soccer Academy). While the school is free for the girls attending, that does not mean that there is not a constant battle, headache, and heartache to raise operating costs, pay teachers something close to a livable and respectable wage, and provide for the equipment and supplies our students need to thrive. KGSA has always pushed for providing not just sufficient but quality education. Slowly, surely through a lot of work, sacrifice, and dedication they are doing it. Graduates are entering university and thriving there. They are coming back and working in their communities to provide other girls and children with similar opportunities….

I digress, and it is so easy to digress when discussing our passions and stories of programs that are succeeding. Yet for every KGSA, Shining Hope for Communities, or Educate!, there are many other community-based and independent schools and organizations struggling and simply disappearing. Within the United States, while education is a protected civil right, it is likewise not free. The continuing saga (rather than debate since there has yet to be any real dramatic shift except perhaps the emergence of charter schools in how the United States finances public schools in decades) over school finance means that while every child in America has the ability and must attend school, the quality of their education is dependent on zip code and their own parents’ ability to be their advocate.

While I don’t advocate for equating money with quality, success, or respect, it is hard to achieve those three values without investment of resources, both human and capital.  Yet it is at times a confusing struggle. As a young student I fervently believed that education must be free since it is so crucial to our existence, to ending poverty, and creating a more just and equal world. I still believe fervently in the power of education, but realize now that we live in a very complicated world. A world where there are very few straightforward corollaries. Politics, power dynamics, the human psyche all play a fantastic role. Working in Kibera and Arusha and small villages, time and time again I heard from people there, “If something is free, it has no worth.”

Poetry Workshop

In Uganda, the kids would chant, “Bazungu give me my money,” (Note: this was the only place I had traveled where kids actively chanted for money). They didn’t necessarily understand fully the English words, but it wasn’t hard to understand why they said them. The village had a lot of aid dropped in from abroad, mostly in the form of school buildings with little follow-up. Thus the secondary school was majestic yet students and families were still struggling to pay school fees, equipment was hard to come by, and teachers continued to struggle to make a living. Another major consequence: parents – largely subsistence farmers – were intimidated by the school compound and only came to the school if summoned to pay school fees. Instead of place of unity, it became a place of separation and differentiation, and while many parents were proud to have their child attend, they did not think they could be involved in their child’s education, or for the child to remain involved in daily life on the farm.

It is an uncomfortable truth – education is not free. I am struggling to fully understand this and what this means in the development and evaluation worlds.  As I reading the mounting frustration of teachers in America as regulations and evaluation to some extent undermine their legitimacy and field and as I continue to read the moving memorials to Anne Smedinghoff, and think of so many who are continuing the good fight in the classroom and elsewhere, both in the United States and abroad to encourage, enlightened, learn, and create possibilities, I am troubled, I am inspired – where do we go from here?

Thoughts? Comments? Have you come across any uncomfortable truths in your work? Let’s broaden the discussion, and find a path forward together….

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Lessons Learned from the Field, Part 1: Define Your Mission

Greetings, I’m Jamie Clearfield. I’m an evaluator with CEAC (Collaborative for Evaluation and Assessment Capacity) and am new to the evaluation blogging world*. I’ve been having a lot of discussions lately with many different people about evaluation and organizations. Having attended a recent networking event with the New York Consortium of Evaluators (NYCE) featuring David Hunter, it got me thinking a lot about the different organizations I have worked with and how they have impacted me as an evaluator.

I got my start working with a community-based organization in the Kibera slums of Kenya, interning during a study abroad program. The experience was and continues to be transformative – nearly 7 years later I’m proud to be still involved with them and seeing how they have transformed their community through providing free secondary school education for girls. Working with the Kibera Girls’ Soccer Academy was an education in the power of what communities can achieve working together.

No MBA, no doctorate degree can take the place of dedicated people who are willing to experiment, fail, reevaluate and transform day after day no matter the challenges. And there were challenges – within 2 months after I arrived, the school was evicted from the bare two rooms it had acquired unless it began charging the girls tuition. The school’s director and founder, Abdul Kassim (check out his Nairobi TEDx audition below)- a charismatic man, a leader with a simple vision and a heart full of love for his community and for seeing it become a place where everyone has a chance – and I had many long walks and talks about the nature of challenges, remaining true to convictions and facing the unknown.

In the end, he went to the people who mattered most – the students – and asked what he should do. The school chose eviction and everyone together – students, teachers, and a small intern – worked together to procure space and finances to build new classrooms.

Today the school has graduated over 100 girls, educates 120 more every year, has graduates attending university, and more important is a symbol of hope, change, and locally driven development in Kibera. The habits of self-reflection, mission-driven evaluation remain a core focus of the school. While organizationally the school is learning, growing – its continual focus on remaining dedicated to its original purpose of providing free secondary education for girls remains a priority.

My lesson: Remaining true to your mission is crucial and worth the challenges. This is as true as an evaluator as it is for organizations.

What lessons have you learned through your work as an evaluator or working with organizations? What are some of your personal mantras when you’re working in evaluation?

Abdul Kassim: Real Change Requires Listening

*Many thanks to Ann Emery, Chris Lysy, and Karen Anderson for encouragement in getting this blog going!