An Interview with Jara Dean-Coffey, Founder, Luminare Group

Jara Dean-Coffey, Founder, Luminare Group/ Director,  Equitable Evaluation Initiative

@jdeancoffey @equitabeeval @theluminaregroup.

Tell me about your current role?

My role merges critical friend, optimist, feminist, strategist, provocateur and coach. I bring all those roles to leading Luminare Group, a for-profit consultancy that I launched as a solo practitioner as jdcPartnerships in 2002 and rebranded in 2016. I work at the intersection of strategy and evaluation – evaluative thinking and explicitly how that needs to be contextually based in values for equity and liberation. We seek clients aiming for those principles to be front and center. Consulting areas include strategy and evaluation work, capacity building, and pushing practice which includes writing and pushing forward conversations in the field to shift minds, hearts and practice.
I also direct the Equitable Evaluation Initiative (EEI), a five-year fiscally sponsored project of the Seattle Foundation launched in 2019 that Luminare Group incubated with core funding from W.K. Kellogg Foundation and complimentary funding from The California Endowment and Kresge Foundation. For some time the philanthropic sector had been talking about diversity and equity led by efforts such as the Philanthropic Racial Equity Initiative and the D5 Coalition.  In those conversations, evaluation wasn’t anything that anyone was talking about other than primarily the disaggregation of demographic data related to differential effects. jdcPartnerships was engaged in 2012 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to help them think about how increasing interest in equity would impact their grantmaking.  We learned that no one had been thinking about it. A spark was lit.  In 2016, through a partnership with Center for Evaluation Innovation and Johnson Center for Philanthropy, we conducted a landscape study to look at the way foundations were thinking about equity and evaluation and realized that even the most progressive funders hadn’t considered the worldviews and mindsets that traditional evaluation perpetuates. The way evaluation is practiced in US society continues to prioritize a white dominant world. To get someplace new, we must challenge what we think is knowledge versus evidence. We must interrogate why we do what we do and determine whether it still makes sense to hold up a model from the 1960’s. EEI seeks to shift the evaluation paradigm so that it becomes a tool of and for equity and one that embraces the complexity of the age in which we live. For those that have placed equity as core to their work regardless of where they sit in an institution or place of work, this is a no brainer. For those who have not (yet), we invite you to consider if your evaluative efforts are valid and rigorous if you do not shift your frame and expand your worldview.

If there was a soundtrack of greatest hits related to your career, what would make the list?

Work and life are integrated:
For my husband: “Everlasting Love” by Natalie Cole.
For my everyday: “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers or really anything by him.  If I am feeling a bit of something “You Don’t Know Me” by Armand Van Helden.
When needing inspiration: “My Shot” by Lin Manuel Miranda. The first time I heard it in Chicago watching Hamilton I had a profound reaction.
To round it out, it’s a toss between “Choices” by E-40, “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, and “Life’s What You Make It” by Talk Talk.
Also, depending on the space, I often use music to “unsettle” folks before talking about the opportunity and responsibility we have before us to evolve evaluative practice. See this post from early summer 2019 where I share more and offer a playlist for those that might be curious.

Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values.  Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconcile that tension or not?

Such a great question. It takes me back to the beginning. When I started in consulting, it was a different landscape. In California, conversion foundations were emerging, for profit management firms were seeing philanthropy as a potential market and the philanthropic industrial complex was in its infancy. And as for diversity, it was not on the radar screen, let alone inclusion or the pursuit of equity and justice, except for a few progressive social justice funders and collaboratives. In those days, when I joined a consulting team, I fulfilled two quotas: female and African American. Oh, and back then I would have been considered young – so maybe three. I have always been very aware of what happens when I step into a room and have sought to manage that in a way that advances the work and protects my core.
I remember one occasion, and it took a while for me to remember this, when I was part of a consulting team on-site with a client in Utah. This must have been in 1999 or 2000. The client lead recognized and engaged with every person in the room by name except for me. Message received. I shared this experience with my VP who was a white cis-gender hetero normative female, and that I wanted off the team as it was clear I was persona non grata. I think there was a communication with the client but needless to say the work continued, just without me.
At that moment, I decided never again. So, I don’t put myself in those positions anymore and that’s a privilege that I have: to be super discerning about who I’m in relationship with and from whom I take money. It’s a gift my parents gave me. Their choices and their battles allow me to live my life the way I do and the work I am privileged to do.

How do you operationalize the discernment?

These questions are taking me WAY BACK. I grew up in the Northeast as did my folks. I’m pretty sure the neighbors picketed so we couldn’t buy the house where I grew up. I went to an all-girls prep school grades 7-12 where I was one of the few black students. I had a close knit family growing up and have fond memories of hearing the stories and watching the home movies of how the adults moved through a racialized world that at times seemed welcoming, and yet there was almost always a reminder that you were less because you were black – or at least that was what they wanted you to believe.
What does have to do with discernment? It means a few things. I have a strong sense of identity:  ethnicity, class and gender (as they are the most front and center for me and I cannot separate them). I am comfortable walking within and among those who see me as an “other” and can and do code switch, if need be. Ultimately, I have a good sense of self and am clear about who I am and am not. I am, as someone once told me, disturbingly intentional. I was raised with a strong protective core; it takes a lot for me to feel disrespected. I don’t need permission or acknowledgement. That allows me to move in certain ways that are uniquely how I am in the world.

Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time?  What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?

I feel like I have a tremendous sense of agency. Whether that’s true, I don’t know, but I perceive and act on the belief. I operate from that place…that it’s my choice. Research shows that if people perceive they are safer then the neighborhood tends to be safer; there’s something about what you manifest that is useful. That’s not to say if I wish it, it will happen – that’s delusional. But I’m super appreciative and aware of my privilege which resulted from the sacrifices of others and move in ways that don’t take that for granted. So, the answer to your question is, I don’t have one.

What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?

Both EEI and Luminare Group are virtual practices. This means, there are days when I am at home working and I am trying to do better at taking advantage of that. I have started walking more during calls and have a personal trainer which love. I have had a Fitbit for a few years and it really made me aware of how I needed to be more active. 10,000 steps each day is the goal. I started doing the Relax function as a slow entry into meditation which I have found beneficial. I prefer the physical exertion of a workout rather than being still, but I get that each have value so am trying to incorporate. I haven’t done it in a while but like to leave the continent and go someplace where they don’t speak English. It’s liberating not to have all the inputs. As an introvert I get really exhausted and feel lighter when I can be  somewhere I can just be and hear, but not process.

We come from a resilient and strong lineage. How would you describe the type of ancestor you want to be and why?

I don’t have kids so when I heard the question, I had to think about what that meant for me. Last year we did some research on both my parents’ sides and our American origins are as FreeBlacks from Westmoreland, VA  which we can date back to the early 1700’s. In fact, we think it is probable that one of my dad’s ancestors was a Buffalo Soldier. So, I think of how my ancestors lived and the world they created within a society that found them less than. I hope that my efforts, particularly those related to Equitable Evaluation and being as true to myself as I can be, honor that legacy.

What advice would you offer other black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?

I would look for those with whom you think there is value alignment, watch them, reach out to them, see what they do and where they are, and to the degree to which their strategies make sense for you, emulate them. Try to find a peer group if you can. I didn’t have a peer group earlier. Most of the women I turn to are ten to twelve years younger than me, so I would try to find women who are in the same stage of life and figure out how to build a supportive relationship around each other. I try to foster connections among the females I interact with as this work can be incredibly isolating.

If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm black women, what would that change be?

Personally,  I am less interested in the sector and more interested in the space called civil society and what role the sector has played in perpetuating a space that was not made for you or me, and how we get to someplace new. The sector is the container in which I work to create a world in which I want to be in. It is an instrument…just like evaluation. They are means not ends.
Cyndi Suarez, senior editor at NPQ, is creating a Leadership Maker Space which is an opportunity for primarily women of color/black women to come together as need and values align to be in deep thought partnership and collective action to change the civic space. I’m fascinated by what might be possible.

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