Expanding on metrics

by David Hooker

Rich, I fundamentally agree with everything you have said and the concerns you have raised. I actually want to expand on those concerns. During my 20+ year career as a conflict transformation specialist and community convener, I have often argued that there must be some (I would suggest high) value placed on process measures — transparency, efforts at collaboration, values driven processes. And yet, good process is never a substitute for process. What impressed me at the Nevada Community Foundation’s Authentically Community Advised Funds Conference was the constant struggle with the questions concerning what to measure and how to measure it. But there was another question that has concerned me even more since I left the conference: What if the measures we can make and the measures that are acceptable to funding sources either don’t inform our work or, worse yet, are fundamentally incompatible with the long-term success of the community?

This is an example of what I mean: In a community building effort, where a marginalized or previously disenfranchised community is trying to organize in the face of rapid (and often aggressive) gentrification, demographic measures, which are practical and often acceptable, are uninformative at best, and possibly deceptive. While an increase in percentages of home ownership, high school and college graduation, and constant employment among residents may actually reflect improved conditions for the previously disenfranchised populations that are the focus of the work, it is equally likely that the improved statistics reflect the depths of gentrification.

Without attention and good intentions on the part of the funding source and those with oversight responsibility, it might be possible to allow the community builders to declare victory and go home without having ever improved one life. Often we measure what we can and the measures are uninformative and/or deceptive.

The second issue is a more systemic question. Often the acceptable and practical measures of success and the standards of program and process evaluation are ways of comparing the disenfranchised or marginalized community with the general population and establishing strategies to equalize the marginalized community within the same paradigm and framework as the dominant culture. 

My question arises from my experience in a collectivist communal context or from my theological position arguing for a beloved community. Often the measures of success of the dominant paradigm – accumulated wealth, property ownership, consumptive capacity – are actually measures of the willingness and success of those participating within the exploitive and oppressive systems that created the marginalized communities in the first place.

Increased homeownership is important; however, large homes with high heating and cooling costs and large yards contribute to (sub)urban sprawl, environmental degradation, and reinforced glorification of excess consumption. In order to allow greater numbers of people access to this life style, we have to acknowledge that both in our back yard and on the other side of the globe, we will of necessity contribute to someone else’s exploitation and environmental degradation.

So my question is this: In our Metrics “R” Us organization, do we have a place for a values and standards committee that reminds us that just because we can measure it does not mean that it is for the up building of the kingdom or the eventual repair of the breach?

David Hooker, guest blogger, is vice president for community building at the Center for Working Families, Inc., Atlanta, Georgia.