Empowerment Evaluation in the Digital Villages: Hewlett-Packard's $15 Million Race Toward Social Justice

David Fetterman

154 pages, Stanford University Press, 2013

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The Digital Village Initiative

The Digital Village was a $15 million Hewlett-Packard initiative designed to help bridge the digital divide. Former HP Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Carly Fiorina, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, and human rights activist Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., helped launch the HP Digital Village Project. It involved a partnership between Hewlett-Packard, Stanford University, and three ethnically diverse communities of color throughout the United States. It was a large-scale community-based initiative.i It helped these communities build their own technologically-oriented businesses, improve their education systems, and improve their economic health.

Hewlett-Packard and Stanford University

The Digital Village sponsor, Hewlett-Packard, invested their time and energy in the Digital Villages because they believed they could help them accomplish their goals and objectives.

Hewlett-Packard was confident about their ability to deliver the equipment and technical training. However, they were less confident about answering a few simple questions:

How do you know if you have accomplished what you set out to do?

How do you know if it made a difference?

How do you do these things while keeping the program where it belongs—in the hands of the people living in their own communities?

Evaluation was the tool needed to address these critical questions and Stanford had the requisite expertise. Stanford’s agreed to conduct the evaluation and in the process provided faculty and students with real world learning opportunities.

The Three Digital Villages

The overarching mission for the Digital Villages was simple: to leap frogii across the digital divideiii. The written mission was to:

Provide people access to greater social and economic opportunity by closing the gap between technology-empowered and technology-excluded communities—focusing on sustainability for the communities and HP.

The Digital Villages ranged from urban to rural settings and could be found on both the east and west coasts. They included the: Tribal Digital Village (San Diego area), Baltimore Digital Village (East Baltimore), and East Palo Alto Digital Village (northern California).

The Tribal Digital Village was comprised of 18 Native American tribes and reservations. The Baltimore Digital Village involved the Baltimore City Public School System and a collaboration of African American community-based organizations, including Blacks in Wax (an African American featured wax museum). The East Palo Alto Digital Village consisted of programs, ranging from Plugged In, a high tech community resource center, to Opportunities Industrialization Center West, an employment training program. The residents were primarily African American, Latino, and Pacific Islanders. Each site was awarded $5 million, including cash, equipment, and services over a three-year period.

These were communities left behind in the digital age, leaving them systematically disenfranchised from information and opportunities. HP’s role was to provide each of the Digital Villages with the necessary funds, equipment, and consultants to pursue their strategies and accomplish their objectives.


Tribal Digital Village. The most significant Tribal Digital Village accomplishment was the creation of “the largest unlicensed wireless systems in the United States,” according to the former head of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC continues to recognize the Tribal Digital Village’s accomplishments, characterizing them as “one of the shining examples in wireless unregulated spectrums that’s connected several tribes here”iv. It became the digital backbone of the tribes’ communication system, connecting the 18 reservations, tribal offices, community centers, schools, and individual residences. The Tribal Print Source represented another Tribal Digital Village success story. It provided digital imaging and printing services. The HP initiative was designed to jump-start small entrepreneurial businesses in the community. In this case, the press not only generated a profit, it represented an alternative to gaming and helped to support other programs on the reservations.

East Palo Alto Digital Village. One of the East Palo Alto Digital Village’s notable achievements involved the Belle Haven 1-to-1: E:learning Project. It provided laptops to 400 students in grades 4-8 at Belle Haven School. Teachers also received laptops. The project transformed the learning environment. The Internet became a core resource and transformed teaching and learning in the school. In addition, East Palo Alto Digital Village’s Small Business Development Initiative contributed to the community’s economic development by building small business’ technological capacity.

Baltimore Digital Village. The Baltimore Digital Village adopted five schools and integrated computer equipment and training into the Baltimore City Public School System’s school curriculum. Over 185 teachers were provided with computers and technology training. According to Carmen V. Russo, former chief executive officer of the Baltimore City Public School System, “The technology and support that the Baltimore Digital Village has provided our teachers and students has proved invaluable in our efforts to develop an outstanding curriculum.”

The Baltimore Digital Village’s Small Business Development Initiative also provided 35 local business owners with technology packages, a five-week skills training program, and business services consultations. The initiative fostered the development of 50 small businesses in the community. The Baltimore Digital Village also touched the lives of individual families, providing 300 families with their own computer equipment and computer skills training courses.

These are solid outcomes with tremendous face-validity, designed to generate sustainable economic and social development in the community long after this influx of seed money and support.

Empowerment Evaluation

Definition. Empowerment evaluationv was selected to help plan, implement, assess, and improve their work. This approach differs from many other forms of evaluation or strategic planning because the groups or communities remain in control of the process. The definition of Empowerment Evaluation provides a more concrete description of the approach.

Empowerment evaluation is an evaluation approach that aims to increase the probability of achieving program success by (1) providing program stakeholders with tools for assessing the planning, implementation, and self-evaluation of their program, and (2) mainstreaming evaluation as part of the planning and management of the program/organization (Wandersman, Snell-Johns, Lentz, Fetterman, Keener, Livet, Imm, and Flaspohler, 2005). Theory. The theory behind empowerment evaluation is that the more that people participate in evaluating their own program, the more likely they are to buy into the findings and the recommendations—because they are their findings and recommendations. The approach cultivates pride and ownership. Empowerment evaluation helps people align what they say they are doing with what they are really doing, by providing them with a continuous feedback loop designed to refine and improve their practice. Concepts. Empowerment evaluation is guided by many concepts including: 1) building a culture of evidence to make decisions; 2) using cycles of reflection—helping people think about their data, act on it, and then reflect on the impact of those decisions; 3) building a community of learners—where everyone is learning from each other along the way; and 4) cultivating reflective practitioners—people who think about how they can improve their performance on a daily basis. Empowerment evaluation is also guided by a critical friend or coach who values the effort but also asks the hard questions to keep things rigorous and on track.

Steps. The Digital Villages used a three-step approach to empowerment evaluation including: 1) mission; 2) taking stock; and 3) planning for the future. Once they agreed on their overall mission they took some time to assess how well they were doing in relation to their goals. This honest critique set the stage for them to plan for the future or establish new goals to accomplish their objectives. The 3- step cycle was deceptively simple because there was no end to it. Once a Digital Village implemented its plans for the future it was immediately time to evaluate or assess its effectiveness, make mid-course corrections, and implement a revised plan of action. It was a never-ending process, much like the continuous quality improvement approaches. (See the empowerment webpage and blog for details).

Empowerment Evaluation Summary. Empowerment evaluation is honest and rigorous. It is designed to help people accomplish their objectives. It is as concerned about contribution as it is attribution. Empowerment evaluation is not a short-term episodic observation and judgment, it becomes internalized or institutionalized. Empowerment evaluation becomes a part of the fabric of an organization. It fosters life-long learning on both an individual and organizational level. Although, there are no guarantees, empowerment evaluators improve the probabilities of success. Empowerment evaluation is designed to build capacity for the long haul, contributing to meaningful community sustainability.

Building Capacity

The hidden story behind these accomplishments is capacity building. Capacity building is about helping people learn new skills and competencies in order to more effectively manage their own affairs. Capacity building is a hand up, not a hand out approach.

The Digital Village provided community members with a nurturing and supportive training ground. They assumed new roles and exercised responsibilities in settings previously placed outside their reach. This opportunity allowed them to operate in what Vygotsky (1978) called the proximal zone.vi This is a place just beyond a person’s reach and experience. It is somewhere between what a person can do on their own without help and what they can do with the assistance of a more experienced person. It placed them outside of their comfort zone. However, the proximal zone is a place conceptually where people learn to stretch themselves and reach another level of insight, understanding, and capacity. In this case, the Digital Village placed community members squarely in the proximal zone as planners, designers, managers, employers, and employees in training.


Digital Village learning was learning by doing. Digital Village members found this experiential approach to education, intellectually and emotionally intoxicating. They accomplished their goals. People began to see obstacles as opportunities. The Digital Village started as an effort to bridge the digital divide and evolved into a series of learning organizations. The entire experience for Hewlett-Packard, Stanford, and three ethnically diverse communities became something much larger than a race to completion. The Digital Village became a race toward social justice.

Read author David Fetterman’s introduction to this text.