NAPA Career Profiles: Monica S. Hunter

“I am currently the Director of Research at the PAST Foundation based in Columbus, Ohio. I began working with PAST on a consulting basis in 2007, conducting case study analysis of K-12 education reform involving implementation of integrated science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and transdisciplinary problem based learning (TPBL).

In 2010 PAST initiated the Knowledge Capture Program, giving me the opportunity to lead the development of a new program offering both formative (internal) program evaluation and summative (external) evaluation to support successful implementation of STEM/TPBL education. In my work I have engaged in program evaluation with a range of clients, including schools in urban, suburban and rural communities, various community organizations, and have conducted evaluation of broad stakeholder involvement in regional and statewide planning initiatives designed to support K-16 policy and program implementation of STEM education. Over the course of the last seven years, I have worked with projects conducted in over 20 states with hundreds of educators, as well as those engaged in policy planning and implementation of education reform.

My passion in conducting this work centers on improving the quality of education for children who are preparing to enter a world and workforce that require critical thinking, innovation and strong skills in communication, collaboration and the ability to apply new knowledge to solving problems that will sustain communities and society as a whole. In the course of building my career, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in a range of aspects of community life in both formal and informal efforts organized to improve the quality of life for current and future generations.”

Through graduate school and beyond, Hunter identifies her dedication to community service as the catalyst for her lucrative career in evaluation.

“I received my Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles in cultural anthropology in 2003. My academic training included a four-field approach that allowed me to gain research skills in cultural, linguistic and political anthropology, with a complementary emphasis in cultural geography. My career has developed through a strong commitment to applying my anthropological training to support community stakeholder engagement within institutional decision-making processes, including research to inform decision makers (elected officials and agency program administrators) on local values and goals related to particular initiatives aimed at changing institutional program rules and regulations.

My initial work in the field was focused on stakeholder engagement with decision making related to management for the sustainability of coastal and marine resources. In this work, I grew in my knowledge of the challenges confronting coastal communities in attaining sustainable environmental policies. In 2005 I received a Governor’s appointment to the ‘public seat’ on the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, one of nine regional boards in the state of California charged with implementing the federal Clean Water Act and the state Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act.

In this role, I am able to bring to light various social and cultural issues related to impacts of water quality regulation, and can inform the regulatory process through my knowledge and experience in working directly in coastal communities with organizations, groups and individual residents seeking to implement community goals for resource sustainability. I am currently completing my ninth year of work on the Water Board, and was recently reappointed to a third term under the current Governor of the State of California, and now serve as the Vice-Chair of the Board.

My interest in community service has also provided me the opportunity to serve on two additional boards. I recently became a member of the Board of Trustees for the Planning and Conservation League Foundation (PCLF), a 501c3 organization dedicated to protecting and improving the quality of life for California residents to ensure a safe and healthy environment, including the protection of air, water and natural resources. I also serve on the Executive Board of the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy (CRWC) a community-based nonprofit organization, and together with PCLF and the CRWC, worked on public engagement in an 8-year process to advance a project to remove the San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River in Monterey County.

The project now underway is a joint effort supported by a public-private partnership to remove the largest dam in California’s history, involving the State Coastal Conservancy, NOAA Fisheries, and the California American Water Company. In my work with stakeholders I gained insight on the critical importance of a systematic approach to documenting local knowledge, traditions and values that must be taken into account by local, regional, state and federal governing agencies when changing existing policy or introducing new regulatory programs.

A major aspect of this effort involved creating a process informed by ethnographic understanding of the factors that were critical to advancing a viable solution, something that had evaded the community since the early 1990s when the dam was first deemed to be a threat to the communities downstream of a seismically weak dam structure. Many in the community came to understand my work and the role of systematic input through ethnographic work to support and assist in establishing a voice for different perspectives and informing the decision-making efforts of elected officials and program administrators in reaching consensus on removing the dam.”

Hunter’s early successes – utilizing diverse stakeholder interests to inform the design and implementation of policies and programs – have shaped the nature of her work at the PAST foundation.

“In my current work at PAST, I have benefited from prior experience with local, regional, state and federal agency decision-making processes that are often the context for community participation in consensus-based action or to provide input to program policy and regulation. These types of governing actions often require formal community involvement; however, many processes, including those conducted by educational institutions, do not require formal public input to policy and program design and management. In my experience, gaining public input and defining public interests as a component of the initial stages of program or policy design is critical to developing successful and effective implementation strategies.

One of my first experiences in this type of work involved ethnographic analysis of the commercial fishing fleets in California, from San Pedro to Monterey, to provide formally organized stakeholder input by the commercial fishermen and fisherwomen participating in these regional fishing fleets for the management review process conducted by the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary program in Southern California. Through my work as a member of the social science team, we were able to bring to light not only the required analysis on economic impacts, but we were also able to demonstrate the critical underpinnings and interconnected links of families and other social networks across fishing ports, bringing attention to specific factors that could potentially result in direct and indirect community impacts associated with significant changes in fishery regulation.”

In terms of what best prepared her for a career in evaluation, Hunter credits her traditional four-field education.

“My Ph.D. field research was supported in part by an internship from the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), Office of Water, to study the stakeholder process and formation of the Morro Bay National Estuary Program in San Luis Obispo County in central California. This effort was being conducted primarily through the work of the Morro Bay Watershed Council involving over 60 stakeholders including farmers, fishermen and fisherwomen, public and private land owners, conservation groups, as well as resource protection advocates of coastal and marine environments, and agency program administrators responsible for resource management and federal policy implementation.

As an anthropologist I found my four-field training allowed me to define the range of perceptions and goals, and underlying values, traditions, as well as fears that are inherent in changing the status quo. In the final phase of my work, I was tasked by the Watershed Council and the USEPA program coordinator with organizing the last stage of stakeholder input to the federal planning document for management of the estuary. Completion of the Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan (CCMP) for the National Estuary Program culminated with formal consensus of all stakeholders and approval of the CCMP document by the USEPA.

Gaining federal designation for Morro Bay as the last and 28th estuary to enter the federal program assured a federal funding stream of over $350k annually to support implementation and coordination of the CCMP. This experience allowed me to see the value of anthropological skills to gain insights on stakeholder processes where individual stakeholders are advocating for competing issues of critical importance, all vying for priority standing, and at the same time fearing new regulations and impacts to existing practices and traditions. In this case, I learned that governance that succeeds in recognizing and addressing community concerns can result in acceptance and support for establishing a program that had broad consensus in spirit, but which potentially could introduce federal oversight in ways that would limit or constrain traditional resource uses. Addressing the latter concerns openly and engaging stakeholders through small group dialogues helped to dispel unfounded fears, and gradually achieve required consensus from all stakeholders.”

While anthropological theory and methods are apparent in Hunter’s evaluative approach, she adds that her anthropological orientation also requires her to be mindful of her professional role on an interpersonal level. Such awareness enables her to identify opportunities for cooperation and engagement.

“I find that my anthropological outlook in my current work, both in the field of education and in my continuing work with environmental policy and regulation, assists me in understanding my role and work with colleagues as a member of a collaborative effort. These undertakings typically involve individuals with different and often opposing views based in distinct disciplines and experience, including scientists, elected officials, and members of various communities including groups and organizations advocating for particular outcomes. On a personal scale, I am always aware that there will be different values and priorities among a given group of individuals working together to advance commonly shared goals and desired outcomes.

Recognizing differences and respecting these differences can potentially allow me to find opportunities for collaboration in a manner that helps to achieve consensus without losing sight of those differences. In my work at the PAST Foundation I value input from my research team, as well as from others within our organization, knowing that my ultimate research design for a given project will gain through rich insights attained in an iterative process that will more fully represent the issues that may be encountered during the course of program implementation. In working to serve our client’s needs I find this approach contributes to establishing a greater understanding of ways to effectively engage with educators working in the classroom, and administrators responsible to parents and the community as a whole for the education of their children.

The opportunity to work directly with teachers, principals, parents and children often puts me in the unique role of representing their views and experiences as new programs advance to full implementation. Giving stakeholders a voice in the implementation process through focus groups or one-on-one interviews has allowed me to help identify issues that may require different types of solutions. For example, student participants in a focus group conducted in a STEM high school program voiced their concern for greater accountability of students in committing to team projects. Concerns centered on the idea that teams were graded as a whole regardless of the level of effort any one student contributed toward completing the project. Providing a thematic analysis of student views and their particular set of concerns, the faculty and administrators were able to respond, implementing changes to provide a more clearly defined set of expectations for student conduct in completing team projects.

Parents were also involved through focus group participation to contribute their perspectives regarding after-school work on class projects. In my analysis, I identified issues that helped to inform faculty and administrators about parental expectations and lack of understanding on the strategic use of social media to support student teams in conducting after-school work on projects. In response, program administrators worked to increase communication for parents about the school’s expectations for after-school project work, including clarifying the value of social media as a tool for collaborative teamwork.”

Revisiting the significance of the four-field approach, Hunter asserts that a holistic perspective is necessary to capture the diversity of ideas and interests among stakeholders.

“Anthropologists are uniquely qualified to work in program evaluation, offering an applied research approach conducted in a holistic context for defining broad stakeholder concerns no matter where it falls on the spectrum of formal to informal community processes, whether in the field of education, health, environmental sustainability or other challenging areas where people are working together to solve problems and improve their lives. In the context of education, formative program evaluation has great value for decision-makers who understand that differing community views are often strongly held, but may not recognize the importance of implementing communication strategies early in the planning phase for new programs. These strategies include ways to support a healthy dialogue or debate about possible actions and solutions for improving the quality of education in the neighborhood school. Ignoring or unknowingly working against local values and priorities can be met with vigorous opposition that can cause set backs in program implementation. Formative evaluation conducted during early program planning stages can provide input to implementation strategies that are responsive to emerging community concerns, and can also open up possibilities for potential mitigation of unforeseen indirect impacts of particular program components.”

Looking back at the trajectory of her career, Hunter identifies specific strategies for success.

“There is no clear path to entering a career in applied anthropology. My career planning evolved as I found opportunities to apply my skills and experience and gain in expanding my network of colleagues through participation in professional organizations that include the American Anthropological Association, the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology, and the Society for Applied Anthropology. Adhering to human subjects research protocols, as well as to the ethical guidance provided by professional organizations (including those in the field of evaluation) also provided essential guidance and support for building career skills and experience.

As a professional pursuing work in the field of evaluation, it is sometimes necessary to educate my clients who are typically unfamiliar with anthropological methodologies. Therefore, it is essential to hone communication skills to provide a clear understanding of what an anthropologist does and how this approach can add value to the work of program implementation. In my experience, this is an essential aspect of establishing yourself as a program evaluator.

Ethnographers in particular, often encounter resistance to the idea that ethnographic data and qualitative analysis have merit or value in program evaluation, believing that without quantitative research, there is little substance in a qualitative approach. However, in my work I have demonstrated the value of the mixed-methods approach, building on qualitative analysis to design survey instruments yielding quantitative data that reflect comparative shifts in participant views over time, and conducting systematic analysis that structures formative evaluation at strategic points as implementation processes are underway. In this approach, evaluation can take account of all stakeholders including those charged with implementation, as well as those impacted by program design and implementation, providing real-time evaluation and opportunities to modify the plan for implementation.”

Working primarily within the realm of bureaucracy and policy, Hunter reveals how her approach has validated the efficacy of qualitative research methods in formative program evaluation.

“After completing my Ph.D. at UCLA, I found that my association with established federal processes allowed me to gain in my professional experience in working with multidisciplinary teams to produce analysis that met mandated requirements for public input to formal policy and regulation. However, through this work, I also discovered that the social sciences are often regarded as second-tier, and as a result I committed my efforts to raising awareness of the value of qualitative research in program evaluation as one of my top priorities. As I gained in my skills and experience, I was able to continue work in a series of federal and state processes where I could incorporate qualitative research and utilize this type of data to conduct evaluation essential to informing a well conducted implementation process leading to successful project outcomes.

For example, I am currently involved with the Governor’s statewide initiative on the right to safe drinking water. My role has involved collaborative work with stakeholders, including scientists across multiple disciplines, advocacy groups, business and industry organizations, as well as individual rural landowners and residents. Our work centers on identifying the particular needs of significantly disadvantaged communities that qualify for assistance under new safe drinking water policies, including providing bottled water as an interim measure for families that are found to be consuming contaminated drinking water (primarily nitrates and heavy metals).

Until this time, many rural area residents, including farm workers, have relied on domestic drinking water wells that – under current public health laws – are not regularly tested for water quality and public health standards. Current efforts by Regional Water Board staff have determined that a significant number of people in rural areas are exposed to contaminated drinking water with few options for cost-effective solutions for permanent resolution of this serious health threat.

In my role, I am able to help identify cultural dynamics of the situation, consider demographic information and such things as language differences, as well as traditions and life style aspects of rural communities to contribute toward creating an approach that can effectively inform these communities of the situation and potential health impacts. Designing educational efforts to raise awareness of the problem, as well as working in cooperative ways with well owners also requires that these actions are viewed in the context of a highly challenging but nonetheless urgent problem where there are no black and white solutions. Factoring in cultural issues is critical to the successful resolution for each individual well owner, as well as those that rely on well water to meet their water supply needs.”

In addition to her systematic application of research methods, Hunter’s ability to learn about and understand stakeholder perspectives requires strong communication skills.

“I value and respect local knowledge and insights on what is at stake, potential solutions, and other’s views of both direct and indirect impacts that may occur when change is initiated that is intended to meet particular community needs. I have also learned that when tensions are high, showing a good sense of humor in appropriate ways often helps to build trust and establish a meaningful dialogue critical to effectively engaging with community members, scientific panels, or advocacy groups concerned with controversial matters. Treating people with respect, especially among groups with differing views, also helps to create confidence that any engagement in the course of program implementation will be conducted in a manner that will lead to a productive exchange of ideas.”

Assessing challenges for anthropologists more broadly, Hunter notes that common misconceptions about anthropology persist in the field of evaluation, yet she reaffirms the relevance of our participation.

“There are times when I have given some thought to the fields of cultural geography or sociology that in my experience are often regarded to be well-established social science fields of endeavor. In contrast, it sometimes seems that outside of academia, anthropologists have had few gains in overcoming the perception that we only work in foreign cultures.

In our contemporary multicultural society, ethnography and anthropology as a whole can and must play a strategic role in defining local knowledge and values that can contribute to effective problem solving in an era where communities are facing major, large-scale challenges for sustaining the quality of life. This includes assuring that we and future generations can expect to live in a healthy environment with viable economies, high quality public education systems, reduced poverty, and institutional solutions for those who find themselves in times of hardship, whether due to health or other types of problems, with the means to sustain themselves and a reasonable expectation that the basic necessities of life will be available to them.”

In closing, Hunter alludes to exciting opportunities for emerging anthropologists in evaluation and adds that many in the profession are already working together.

“I am often pleasantly surprised to find anthropologists who are actively practicing in their field, and are deeply engaged and effectively working in communities outside of the academic world; however, they are few and far between. As I pursued my interests in the field of program evaluation, I was fortunate to have encountered a small group of anthropologists working as program evaluators in areas of health services, and in consumer marketing.

Most recently I have connected with a group of anthropologists who were willing to lead informal discussions with others like myself interested in the field of evaluation, and who have been willing to share their knowledge and experience in conducting evaluation training for anthropologists. I think this is an important and growing area of opportunity for anthropologists to excel in applying their skills and expertise in assessing the cultural context of community life where projects and/or programs offer solutions that are sometimes mired in political strife, and potentially impact those with little knowledge or understanding of the bureaucracy and institutional systems that govern daily life.

Since initiating my work in program evaluation, I continue to experience growing interest by those who have come to see value in utilizing applied qualitative research to inform successful program implementation that attains important goals and sustainable outcomes.”

Hunter may soon be on the lookout for anthropologists to assist with upcoming projects at the PAST Foundation. You can find her contact information below and you can try to catch her at an upcoming conference.

“I am interested in connecting with other anthropologists who are looking for opportunities to gain experience in program evaluation. The PAST Foundation (based in Columbus, Ohio) has recently been awarded several state grants to conduct 18-month projects that may require additional staff to support formative evaluation. I am planning to attend the AAAs in December this year, as well as the American Evaluation Association in October.”

Monica Hunter can be reached at and you can check out the PAST Foundation at

These brief interviews of some key anthropological practitioners appeared on the NAPA LinkedIn pages (2013); subsequent interviews were posted on the NAPA blog (2014). They are listed here by the most recent interviews. The interview series was produced by NAPA Communications Committee members Kristin Keller and Nicole Conand.

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