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What bearing witness might look like in equity-focused evaluation

Paul Farmer, MD, a proponent of Social Medicine, talks about the notion of bearing witness in his book Pathologies of Power. He uses this term to describe the act of acknowledging and putting forward examples of structural violence and its effects on peoples’ lives, despite not having experienced that structural violence oneself. One example of structural violence is a lack of access to health care due to limited public transportation options or a lack of insurance. Other types of structural violence include extreme poverty, gender inequality, and human rights abuses and the systems that lead to those issues. Bearing witness can happen in many different ways, through sharing of personal experiences on a podcast or blog post, through writing about what has been observed in a report or perhaps a letter to the editor. The act of bearing witness can sometimes result in past perpetrators taking a moment to pause and think before taking an action that might, for example, perpetuate racialized inequalities in their workplace.

Speaking as white evaluators, it can be hard sometimes to figure out how to address issues around structural violence in an evaluation. While we don’t necessarily understand the suffering of people we meet who experience structural violence, we can do our part in bearing witness to their suffering and working to make sure that we challenge the root causes of it. However, considering the small scale of most evaluations, it seems difficult to make large-scale impact. Even if we share the experiences of participants in one report for one company who decides to make a change, the problems still persist on a large scale. Bearing witness through public forums such as letters to the editor or town halls may be one option for carrying voices of participants in evaluations to a space in which differences can be made. Essential to all of this is that we include only the voices of those who consent to have their experiences shared!

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