Meet Aisha Rios

Aisha Rios (I-ee-sha), PhD (she/they)

Learning and Change Strategist

My name is Aisha Rios. I come from and am inspired by lineages of organizers, educators, storytellers, and agitators who I am proud to say have shaped who I am today. I identify as a Black mixed, able-bodied, cis woman—someone with privileges due to my being graduate school educated and with English as my first language living in Amerikkka. I was born in Detroit, Michigan, and I am proud to have roots in a city with an important history and present for Black liberation struggles, as well as Detroit techno music! I have spent most of my life in the southern United States (mostly Gainesville, Florida and Atlanta, Georgia), but I also spent half a decade in both Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Denver, Colorado.

I have layered lived experiences of trauma and oppression in a racialized body and as a survivor of gender based violence within my family. These experiences plus the privilege afforded through proximity to whiteness—by being raised by a white bodied mother—has fostered a deep awareness of how intersecting social identities and lived experiences shape access and opportunities under neoliberal, settler, white supremacist capitalism.

From Our FounderThe work I am most proud of has contributed to disrupting structural violence through grassroots organizing, both directly and in supporting other change agents. While in graduate school, my first organizing work focused on the exploitation of overworked, underpaid adjuncts—by creating space for collective care, support, and connection. After graduate school, I spent several years as an external evaluator in consulting firms that worked with government, philanthropy, universities, and nonprofits until I founded Coactive Change in 2020. Starting Coactive Change has meant having more agency over my time and emboldened me to create more space to organize against the carceral, settler colonial, and capitalistic institutions of the state. The below quote from Abolition. Feminism. Now. speaks to the role I see “normative evaluative logics of success” play in subduing radical organizing and funneling it into the nonprofit industrial complex and reformist policy change work. A dynamic that I contributed to in the past and that I am now actively resisting through my work.

“Normative evaluative logics of success—a win is passing legislation, creating a policy or a large and permanent organization, something tangible or deliverable—are internalized, and sometimes produce shame: What did we even do? We failed. But as abolition feminism reminds us, while changing laws and policies might be necessary it is never sufficient. In this ecology of abolition feminism, the slow and urgent time of movements means that some of the most critical relationships and shifts are often unrecognizable as “wins,” but these rarely acknowledged and sinewy genealogies that tether movements and campaigns across time and place continue to spark freedom” — Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth E. Richie, Abolition. Feminism. Now.

In my role at Coactive Change, I partner with change agents working to dismantle systems of oppression and carcerality—and embody more just and liberatory abolitionist futures now. I strive to bring Black feminist and abolitionist principles to everything I do, from facilitation and thought partnership to my ethnographically grounded evaluation practice. I weave in space for collective political education and critical resource sharing so that I am learning and unlearning oppressive structures with the people and groups I work with. My work relies on approaches that center collective knowledge and collaboration—rather than solely relying on my knowledge and experience. I do this because I believe that learning does not happen in isolation but in partnership with those working on the ground to advance social justice.

What this looks like in practice is slower paced, reflective, and contextually grounded projects. I center relationship and trust building, and create space for thought partnership, creative facilitation, and strategic guidance. I love collaborating on interdisciplinary and intergenerational teams in a way that harnesses everyone’s diverse knowledge and lived experience. My commitment to creating a more just world permeates my collaborative approach to everything I do. I believe in leveraging the power of different ways of knowing and being—from evaluation and anthropology to coalition building and grassroots organizing—to achieve our collective liberation.

Community Leadership and Organizing

I am committed to serving in various leadership, mentorship, and organizing roles. Current roles include: co-facilitator of the American Evaluation Association’s Local Affiliate Collaborative; community organizer with a Black radical power building collective and an abolitionist prisoner letter writing organization. Former roles include: member of the Denver Reimaging Police and Public Safety Task Force; former co-chair of the Abolition Campaign of the Denver Democratic Socialists of America and their Political Education and Research Committee; and former president of the Atlanta-area Evaluation Association.

Evaluation and Research Experience

I bring over a decade of evaluation and applied anthropological research experience. I have co-led complex, multi-state and multi-community, U.S.-based projects focused on systems change, community organizing, and advocacy across many sectors and institutions. Current and former projects include the following content areas: prison industrial complex, grassroots organizing, coalition building, organizational change, philanthropy and nonprofits, federal policy and funding, prison industrial complex, gender based violence, HIV/AIDS and STD prevention, youth leadership, K-12 education, and older adult social services. Check out my CV for more details!

Graduate School Training and Research

Prior to 2014, I spent nearly a decade conducting a U.S.-based ethnographic dissertation research project. My research explored feminist and anti-feminist discourses and practices within and across state advocacy and community coalition building in response to gender-based violence in a southern U.S. state. I explored multi-sector interpretations of and responses to gender-based violence within and across social services, state and legislative advocacy, the criminal punishment system, and community coalition organizing.

I hold a PhD and MA in Sociocultural Anthropology from Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have a BA in Anthropology from Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Community and Field Leadership: Organizing, Presentations, Podcasts, and More!

“Nothing is Broken: What Evaluation and Philanthropy Can Learn from Abolitionism” Presentation at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations Conference. May 17, 2022. Invited speaker.

Check out this highlight from Nonprofit Quarterly.

“Generative Conflict and Consciousness Raising as an Alternative to ‘Do No Harm’ in Evaluation” An Evaluation Cafe hosted by The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University. Feb 4, 2022. Invited speaker.

Inaugural community forum on de-escalation organized by the Denver Task Force to Reimagine Public Safety. December 11, 2021. Organizer.

“Abolishing Carcerality and Whiteness In, Through, and Around Whiteness” Plenary at the Annual American Evaluation Association Conference. November 10, 2021. Invited plenary speaker.

Radical (Re)Imagining podcast. August 2021. Invited guest.

“Equity in Practice” Panel with the Colorado Collaboratory on Equitable Evaluation. July 28th, 2021. Invited panelist.

“Tales from a Practicing Abolitionist: Inspiration for Whole Scale Transformations of Your Practice.” 2021. Invited Speaker at the Eastern Evaluation Research Society Annual Conference. Virtual. 

“Embodying the Change: How Culturally Responsive Evaluation, Anthropology, Abolition, and Emergent Strategy Guide my Practice Before and After Accepting Projects.” 2021. NVivo Culturally Responsive Research Webinar Series. Virtual.

Multiethnic Issues Topical Interest Group, Past (2021) Member at Large

Chinook Fund Giving Project “Meet the Changemakers” Panel. March 30, 2021. Invited moderator.

“Social Justice Evaluation with Dr. Aisha Rios” EvaluLand Podcast. January 19, 2021. Invited guest.

Chinook Fund Giving Project, Past (2020) Cohort Member

“Anti-Racism and Evaluation” Panel with the Atlanta-area Evaluation Association. October 22, 2020. Invited panelist.

Atlanta-Area Evaluation Association, Past (2018) President

“​How We Speak Truth Matters: Examining Power, Knowledge, and Evaluation Discourses Through an Anthropological Lens.” 2018. (Co-organized with Lavinia Nicolae) Session chaired at the annual meetings of the American Evaluation Association, Cleveland, Ohio.

“Integrating Design and Anthropology: Why Empathy and Cultural Relativism Matter.” 2016. (Co-organized with Chithra Adams) Session at the annual meetings of the American Evaluation Association, Atlanta, Georgia.

“Navigating Representation: Producing Ethnographies of Gender-Based Violence Organizing.” 2014. (Co-organized with Laura Nussbaum-Barberena) Session chaired at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C..

“Producing an Engaged Anthropologist: Lessons Learned Navigating the Space of Gender-Based Violence Organizing.” 2014. Paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C..

“Shelter Staff “Appreciation Days”: Intentional Conversations about Intersectionality and LGBTQI Intimate Partner Violence.” 2014. Paper presented at the annual meetings of the Society for Applied Anthropology Meeting, Albuquerque, NM.

“Queering Activist and Feminist Research on Violence Against Women.” 2012. Paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, San Francisco, CA.

Local Affiliate Collaborative to the American Evaluation Association, Co-Facilitator

Member of the Denver Task Force to Reimagine Public Safety, a community-based initiative to reimagine how we create public safety

American Evaluation Association, Member

Funder and Evaluator Affinity Network, Member

Colorado Collaboratory on Equitable Evaluation, Member

Colorado Evaluation Network, Member