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Joe Hall, President of Banana Kelly International, and Marianne Cocchini, Founder of AER/MAC Consulting, write about evaluation as a learning enterprise for a CBI.

The Banana Kelly organization began in 1977, when thirty residents gathered to stop the demolition of their homes along the banana-curved block of Kelly Street in the South Bronx. Founded, owned, and governed by local people, the organization today employs over 100 full-time staff members (90% community residents) and operates programs in housing, economic development, and education. Projects include the Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY), school-based family support in three junior high schools, and a Banana Kelly Community Learning Center public high school. Last year, from over 800 nominations worldwide, the United Nations recognized Banana Kelly with one of six gold medal Best Practices awards for Improving the Living Environment.

Evaluation is an integral part of our work at Banana Kelly. While the funding sources of our programs are usually focused singularly on the success of a specific activity, our outcomes also include human, community, and organizational development. Thus, for our organization, evaluation involves not only program or even organization effectiveness, but also personal growth and development. In this model of evaluation, we learn how to design and operate good programs with our neighbors and learn how to innovate and excel as leaders by creating new knowledge.

We work closely with an evaluator who combines appreciative inquiry, assets-based assessment, and organizational learning strategies with qualitative and quantitative evaluation methods. She is simultaneously Teacher, Coach, and Mentor. She is a member of the Banana Kelly family, and a partner, but she remains outside the organization and its day-to-day work. By using evaluation techniques that are learner-centered (see box), she creates natural opportunities for us to learn.

Elements of a Learner-Centered Evaluation Practice

Providing an appreciative entry into a project or program: valuing who we are, what we bring to the program, and what we can learn from each other

Establishing an appreciative baseline from which to measure growth and chart change: creating an inventory of assets of the individuals involved; their knowledge, skills, and values; what gives life to the organization; and its work in the community

Learning through a developmental cycle of reflection, experimentation, and action

Holding learning meetings: including appreciative self-assessment, peer assessment, and program performance assessment

Designing learning inventories: what we know and how we know it and how we can transfer the knowledge to others

Conducting focus groups: bringing the whole system of stakeholders into the room

Surfacing our tacit operative assumptions: staying close to the “so what” of the project and what we mean by success, as the basis for building program propositions and hypotheses

Developing profiles in practice: case studies of a program in action

Documenting practice: capturing the lessons learned “in our own words”

For example, by welcoming people into the community through an appreciative entry process, the evaluator surfaces their skills, talents, dreams, best beliefs, and opinions of themselves, valuing from the start the “best of what is.” This is critical, as it helps people to reassess past negative experiences with education and evaluation, while offering the possibility of learning as a tool for lifelong growth, community development, and new opportunities for meaningful work. By creating the incentive and space for individuals to raise and share their tacit knowledge and values with others, she enables us continually to create a common language and knowledge base. She captures the learning in our language and sends it back to us and others with a sense of authorship that moves us forward.

Julio's experience, described below, is one example of this practice in action.

A Banana Kelly Evaluation Story

In 1991, Banana Kelly acquired a building from the City of New York and rehabilitated it with private funds. The success of this investment was defined by the outside funding source in terms of the following questions: How well is the building maintained? How efficiently are rents collected? How high or low is the vacancy rate? How much do the investors receive for tax credits? While these indicators are very important to the community and the tenants as well, they are only the point of departure for reaching the long lasting outcomes of community-building work, namely, human and organizational development.

Five years ago, Julio (not his real name) and his two children moved into this building. Julio had experienced homelessness and drug addiction, but was ready to make positive changes in his life. He was soon hired as a Community Trainer with Banana Kelly's Family and Community Enrichment (FACE) program, leaving a job downtown in the garment industry that paid a higher salary. He participated in a variety of interactions that are key to our evaluation model: focus groups; conversations in the hallway; asset-based program planning; reflection sessions; and the documentation and dissemination of ideas—in his own words, within and outside the community. Through these fora, Julio was introduced to external models and theories, methods, organizations, and practices that were applicable to his work.

The evaluator worked closely with Julio and others to identify their tacit knowledge about their practice, which helped integrate their personal development with community development. She pulled together for us the elements of our practice, clarifying the underlying logic of the model, which we then shared with a broad audience, from the local community, to Washington, D.C., to the U.N.

At the building's tenant association meetings and during the time that Julio was a member of the Banana Kelly advisory board, the evaluator listened and provided feedback on what Julio was learning and contributing in a community context. These early meetings allowed Julio to see that his ability to get other tenants involved was not simply his personality but a skills-set he had learned over time—and more importantly, through systematic, reflective evaluation practice—and was something he could teach others. He was encouraged to evaluate his projects and practice. He also began to seek new arenas and answers for his questions through classes, training, and workshops in HIV/AIDS education, financed by the organization's commitment to training and development.

Julio soon gained access to many levels of the NYC HIV/AIDS community. He met people who introduced the possibility of Banana Kelly's operating a major demonstration grant in conjunction with university researchers. Julio's passion and leadership moved him beyond his role as a community trainer—he was now pushing the programmatic boundaries of Banana Kelly to include a community-building model for people living with HIV/AIDS. He pulled together a powerful team composed of professional and community-based staff members, outside consultants, and evaluators. His mission was to integrate the Banana Kelly model and learning practice into HIV/AIDS programming. He quickly identified the critical short-term outcomes for the demonstration programs and what Banana Kelly needed to learn to create an integrated service and development model for people living with AIDS. Using the evaluators' observations, data collection, and learning meetings and their frequent “discussions-on-the-run” to get into the real outcomes of the project—as well as identifying a strategic role for himself as project champion—Julio ensured the long-term success for AIDS programs at Banana Kelly.

Today, five years after the opening of Julio's building, we are still discussing and learning from that initial investment in our community—information that is unfortunately not often appreciated.

Our experience, the successes that we have seen in our programs, and the achievements of residents and staff members such as Julio, provide strong evidence that evaluation can move from a position of passive objectivity and aggressive accountability toward a much more rewarding, meaningful role in community-building. The artificial limits of traditional project evaluation are such that intended and unintended outcomes cannot be wholly documented, integrated, disseminated, and put to use across the organization or community—especially within the fertile learning areas found in the life after program funding.

We have made a large investment in evaluation, an investment that surprises many people. For us, evaluation is not a “frill” or a luxury. Evaluation is as much a part of our daily practice—a core function of Banana Kelly—as housing management or economic development. We could not succeed without it.

Joe Hall
President/Chief Operating Office
Banana Kelly International

Marianne Cocchini
AER/MAC Consulting

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