Fall is my favorite time of the year. The air becomes crisp and cool, and the leaves in New England turn vibrant shades of red, orange, and yellow. I enjoy running and hiking through the woods with leaves crunching beneath my feet and later cozying up on the couch with a good book and a hot cup of tea.

Fall also means it’s time for the annual meeting of the American Evaluation Association, or what I like to refer to as the evaluation family reunion. The event provides time for networking, learning, and reflecting so it is timely that this year the conference theme was “From Learning to Action.”

Last year I provided an overview of trends that emerged during the conference. Many of those themes (design, databases, evaluation capacity building, cultural responsiveness, and communication) surfaced this year as well. Thus, instead of talking about trends again, below are three reasons I continue to return to the conference each year.

1. Community

Outside of the annual conference, AEA offers opportunities for new and established evaluators to be actively engaged in the professional organization. Monthly webinars, topical interest groups, and the AEA365 blog provide different inroads for members to learn and engage with one another. Each Fall, over 4000 evaluators and evaluation-minded professionals gather together for the conference.

This year was my third time attending the American Evaluation Association conference and yet it feels like I have been a part of the evaluation community for decades. As a young professional it can sometimes feel daunting to navigate and explore new opportunities. The encouragement I have received both during and between conferences from established evaluators is remarkable. For example, I have conversed with current and past organization presidents and attended social gatherings with leaders in the field. This year I even had lunch with folks I had only previously interacted with on Twitter.

AEA is my professional home and I am so grateful to have found this group of passionate people. I believe the welcoming and supportive environment is what makes AEA and its members truly exceptional. I mean, really, at what other conferences can an introvert like myself leave feeling invigorated and inspired rather than completely depleted after three full days of intense networking?

2. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

I came to the evaluation field through social work and public health so diversity, equity, and inclusion have been an integral part of my training and career. Each year I continue to learn from my evaluation colleagues about how to address, discuss, and incorporate DEI into my work. I am grateful that so many of my evaluation colleagues are willing to have tough conversations about DEI and to challenge and support each other as we learn and grow.

While the AEA Statement on Cultural Competence in Evaluation provides a starting point for evaluators, it is the daily conversations and action on the ground in the field that will create change. Together we can disrupt racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and other forms of privilege.

Here are a few of the examples that inspired me at this year’s conference:

  • Thursday’s plenary provided an overview of AEA’s Dialogues on Race and Class and demonstrated how programs and policies can perpetuate racism and classism
  • The Improve Group shared an example of how a nontraditional logic model can better align evaluation with an organization’s values, mission, and symbols
  • Tom Archibald demonstrated cultural humility by acknowledging white and male privilege while accepting his AEA new evaluator award
  • On Twitter, Nicole Bowman raised the concern that many past and future AEA conferences are held in towns with Indian and race-based mascots and asked how the organization will live up to next year’s theme and “speak truth to power”

Wondering how your beliefs about gender, race, and other topics may be impacting your evaluation work? Check out Harvard University’s Project Implicit Social Attitudes.

3. Authenticity

In my experience, the people I have met through AEA set egos and personal agendas aside in favor of community. Members have shared stories of their path to evaluation, what inspires them, and what challenges they experience. For example, during the past few conferences, AEA has held a learning from failures session where established leaders in the field share lessons learned during their careers.

The learning from failure session is one of my favorite parts of the conference because it showcases vulnerability and humility. I couldn’t attend this session this year because I was presenting at the same time, which was incredibly disappointing. However, just knowing that folks like Michael Quinn Patton, Rakesh Mohan, Stephanie Evergreen, and Kylie Hutchinson willingly and openly talked about their experiences helps me remember that evaluation is not about perfection, it is about improvement.

Need a few more learning from failure stories for inspiration between AEA conferences? Check out the Failure Lab.

So there you have it. My top three reasons for calling AEA my professional home are the community, attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and authenticity. Plus, I got an “I Likert you a lot” pin and a dataviz temporary tattoo, which basically solidifies the fact that AEA and its members are awesome.

Check out what other attendees have said about their time at #Eval17:

Now it’s your turn to share. Why did you attend #Eval17 and what did you learn?