Counting Caring: Accountability, Performance and Learning at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center
This dissertation -- incorporating action research, global ethnography, narrative inquiry, and critical race perspectives -- examines an agency-wide staff and organizational development process at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC), an African-American-led, multicultural community center in Ithaca, New York, while contextualizing this local work within an examination of global structural forces shaping the work of the community-service sector as a whole in the United States. Through this research project, we explored how a sustained collective, critically reflective educational process linked to concrete action could help GIAC and its staff respond simultaneously to external demands for improved accountability and internal desires to improve programming. In this dissertation, which draws upon that research, I suggest that an unarticulated tension between two fundamentally different conceptual frameworks -- a dominant "professional public management" frame and a contesting "personal relations" frame -- reflects and shapes how people understand, and thus, attempt to account for, learn about and improve "community service" work. I examine the ways these contesting frameworks played out in practice, demonstrating how seemingly "objective" approaches to accountability and evaluation -- e.g., the now nearly ubiquitous outcome measurement model -- actually marginalize important kinds of work and reproduce entrenched social (dis)advantage. I explore the challenges and possibilities faced by an agency that centralizes a "personal relations" perspective in a world dominated by norms of "professional public management," and I examine practitioners' efforts to not only reflect on, but collectively respond to contesting perspectives on their work within social environments shaped by institutionalized relations of power. Finally, I argue that taking a "personal relations" perspective seriously is needed to (a) understand GIAC and organizations like it on their own terms; (b) re-imagine accountability and evaluation as dynamic, dialogic, collective processes that can enable people to learn about and improve their work in the course of learning about what matters; and (c) revitalize a weakened public commitment to nurturing human potential and embracing diversity, thus reinvigorating our community-service system as a whole. From a methodological perspective, this dissertation also exemplifies action research strategies for collaborative knowledge creation and draws lessons from this work for the further development of action research praxis.
accountability; learning organizations; staff development; nonprofit management; community services; action research; global ethnography; critical race studies
dissertation or thesis