Community Science Honors Our Hero and Colleague Ricardo A. Millett

Ricardo was a powerful force who set in motion the transformation of the evaluation profession. As the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s first Evaluation Director in the first among major philanthropies to create this function, he used his position and the foundation’s resources to “steer” the American Evaluation Association to launch the Building Diversity Initiative in 1999. This initiative explored how to address the lack of diversity in the profession. This initiative resulted in a plan and set of recommendations to not only diversify the profession and the American Evaluation Association, but also to push the practice of evaluation to become more culturally competent. Today, AEA has graduated 19 cohorts of emerging evaluators with demographic backgrounds that have traditionally been underrepresented in the profession (i.e., the Graduate Education Diversity Initiative [GEDI]); more attention than ever to issues of cultural competency, inclusion, and equity; and a consistently diverse board. Ricardo posed the question about the profession’s lack of diversity and attention to cultural competence in 1999 and when he saw the need to act, he made it happen.

Ricardo knew how to use philanthropic resources, relationships, and his big personality to make things happen. He added greatly to the thinking and practice of evaluation. The Kellogg Foundation produced the first practical manual on how to use logic models in the evaluation of grantmaking – Ricardo was behind this. To this day, this manual is the most cited and used resource when it comes to logic models. It made logic modeling a practical tool for evaluators and accessible to practitioners far beyond philanthropy. He also pioneered the concept of “cluster evaluation.” This was an exceptional approach to evaluation at the time as evaluators tried to figure out how to make sense of large inconsistent grant portfolios. The cluster evaluation method called for “clustering” of grantees around common approaches – a more effective and useful way to evaluate them.

Ricardo joined our organization (at the time, we were the Association for the Study and Development of Community [ASDC]) as a principal associate after he left philanthropy. His thoughtfulness, scholarship, and commitment to social justice advanced our collective agenda to use research and evaluation to fuel social change. For example, he led the evaluation of Fair Food Network, Wholesome Wave, and other organizations’ food equity initiatives, and the findings from that evaluation informed USDA’s Farm Bill. When we were sitting around one day discussing the need to change our name because nobody could remember what ASDC stood for or even the acronym itself, he said, “We’re about the science of community.” You can guess where the name Community Science came from – his legacy lives on through all of us who are and have been a part of our organization.

More than anything, Ricardo has left us with the value of community, scholarship, and action, and the importance of staying grounded in one’s convictions because the rewards for challenging the status quo are far and few between. His deep laugh, love for music, and the time he spent with family and friends are reminders of what is important — a lesson for us all.

Community Science will miss you.

Personal Notes

I met Ricardo in 1999 at an AEA conference. I was so intimidated to speak to him after a presentation, but when I walked up to him, and someone said something dismissive to me, he turned around, pointed to me to that person, and said, “I’d hire this young lady anytime.” That moment is seared in my memory. It made me seen by someone I admired and respected – it was the most precious gift anyone could give an emerging Asian professional of color.  Since then, we have worked together, laughed together, and lamented about the state of philanthropy, evaluation, and the world together. He always wanted to “noodle” on some idea and have me “tug his coat” when I needed him. Ricardo never wavered in his belief that evaluation played a role in social justice, even when it was perceived as sacrilegious to put the words evaluation, equity, and social justice together. It certainly was not a popular idea back in the day before the explosion of DEI. But that was the most valuable lesson Ricardo taught me—I should have a social justice agenda as an evaluator no matter what anybody said.

I loved talking to Ricardo. He always had a book for me to read, an encouraging word when I felt disheartened, and something deep for me to ponder. And on more than one occasion, his response to me was, “That’s bullshit!” During a karaoke session where I sang a song in Cantonese, it cracked me up to hear him act as my backup singer crooning lyrics he had no clue of! When his wife, Jan, called me with news of his passing, I was sad beyond belief. He was always there; I knew I could always pick up the phone to talk to him, but that is no longer the case. However, his memorial service lifted me up again as I learned more about Ricardo and his big spirit. It reminded me once again of the importance of kindness, love, relationships, community, and, yes, social justice. Thank you, Ricardo, for your wisdom. I will always feel your presence and hear your voice guiding me as I continue my journey in this world.

~Kien Lee

Ricardo is one of my heroes. He was a lifelong warrior for justice. Growing up as a young black boy in Panama who rose to get a doctoral degree from Brandeis University, he learned how to work from the inside to change powerful racist institutions. He never forgot where he came from or gave up on trying to bring about the world he wanted to see. I met Ricardo about 30 years ago at an AEA meeting. He was surrounded by a group of people wanting to speak to him after a speech he made. As I walked by the crowd, he turned his head and pointed to me in his loud booming voice, “You were right.” I was stunned that such a powerful figure would acknowledge me. That was Ricardo. No one was too unimportant or important to address. His charm, grace, and humility were inspiring. When you or someone you cared for needed something, he gave you everything he could. I’m sure he would give the “shirt off his back” to someone in need. He took off and gave me the tie he just got from his beloved Panama just because I said I liked it. His generosity abounded.

I learned many things from Ricardo. Probably the most important is that you can have a full life of family and love, fight for justice, and have joy. He taught me that you can have it all and do the right thing. He never gave up on any of those things. Ricardo loved to dance and to sing. He loved his aged rum, and I recently learned gambling, too. Most of all, he loved his family. He never wanted credit and was happy to work behind the scenes helping others make a difference. I believe he was singularly the most important person in bringing about diversity within AEA. He was as gracious a person as I have ever met. He inspired me to be better and to stay strong no matter what life, foundations, and anyone else says or does to me. I feel so privileged to have known and worked with him. We lost touch over the last few years, something I will always regret. I hope in some way, with his spirit, will know how much he meant to me and so many other people.

~David Chavis

Ricardo Alfonso Millett 1945 – 2024

Ricardo Alfonso Millett had a lifelong passion and commitment to personal integrity and social justice. These ideals were driving forces throughout his life.  Ricardo did not shy away from speaking truth to power, whether it was on his college campus, the board room, or when he experienced or witnessed an injustice in his day-to-day life.  Ricardo stood up and spoke out—that was his essence.

Born on May 10, 1945, in Santa Cruz area of Gamboa on the Panama Canal Zone, Ricardo was the third of five children born to Ometa (Chi-Chi) and William Millett. As a middle child he often complained that the birth of his beloved younger sister Eleanor some 14 months after him, robbed him of maternal attention.  This was a running joke between them, with Eleanor “playing” the violin to his sad missive.

Ricardo—known as “Butch” to his family and childhood friends—     often reflected on the conditions of his early childhood and how that impacted his values and life choices. Ricardo’s grandparents came from the Caribbean to work on the construction of the Panama Canal. Most Afro-Caribbean canal laborers faced barriers finding work on the Canal Zone following its completion. Many of them had to return to the Caribbean or to the cane fields of Cuba to find work. Not without considerable difficulty, others integrated into the Panamanian labor force when they were able to overcome language barriers and the overt racism of Panamanian society.

Ricardo’s father was born in Panama and was among the second generation of Afro-Caribbean workers to the Isthmus.  He was fortunate to get a job in the Canal Zone as an oiler on one of the tugboats deployed for the seemingly constant effort of dredging the canal pathway. Being a ‘local worker’ (a Panamanian employee as opposed to a U.S. worker , who were predominantly Caucasian) in the Dredging Division maintenance crew allowed his father to request—and eventually receive—approval for family residential quarters in Gamboa.  At that time in history, the Panama Canal Zone constituted a politically separate military, residential and governmental presence along the fifty miles of the canal- an apartheid system. It essentially created a separate country in the middle of the Republic of Panama—     segregated by nationality, military affiliation and, not too subtly, by race. While the Canal administrators and US military personnel were mostly Caucasian US employees, The maintenance crew were mostly Panamanians of Afro-Caribbean descent. They were paid as low-skilled workers even though they often had skills that surpassed their supervisors.  The residential townships and the payroll systems were highly segregated based on Gold (US-high) and Silver (Panamanian- low) rates.  For Panamanians of Afro-Caribbean descent—being Black meant being marginalized.      Swimming pools on the zone were segregated and there was not a pool in their community for Black people to use. As a result, Black youth often went swimming in the very dangerous waters of the Canal, where the undertow caused by the ships could prove to be deadly. On one particular very hot day, Ricardo and some of his friends decided they would cool off in the Canal. Even though he was a strong swimmer, the waters took Ricardo under, and without the intervention of one of his friends, he would have drowned.  That kind of legal segregation of people and races stuck with Ricardo. Those kinds of politics stuck with Ricardo. It is those experiences that help shape the man he was to become.

At home with his family, Ricardo enjoyed a warm childhood with his brothers and sisters—Bobby, Billy, Eleanor and Makeda—filled with school, church, and community.  The Millett’s were known in the community as committed students, athletes and student leaders.  Ricardo played trumpet in the school orchestra, sang in the choir, played soccer, and academically was always near the top of his class.

One highlight of his childhood was playing Little League with MLB great Rod Carew. Ricardo frequently reminisced on his days as a youth baseball player -conveniently leaving out the part that his nickname was the Strike Out King- because when he came to bat, he either hit the ball or struck out!

Following his graduation from Paraiso High School in 1964, Ricardo very briefly attended Seminary. He found that the conservative theological teaching did not match his understanding of God, and quickly left. Throughout his life, he was very spiritual, but not a follower of organized religion. He maintained a great interest in religion and his personal library is filled with books on spiritual teachings. He was particularly inspired by the work of Howard Thurman.

Just weeks after he left the Seminary, he came to the United States to attend Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts as a Wien International Scholar.  There he obtained a BA in Economics in 1968, followed by Master’s and Doctorate degrees from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.  Similar to his experiences on Panama, Ricardo found the US to be strife with racial and political unrest- These were turbulent times in the US.  As a graduate student in 1969, Ricardo would become a leader of the student occupation of Ford Hall at Brandeis that resulted in the creation of the African and Afro- American studies department increased numbers of Black faculty and students on campus  This was done at great personal risk of losing his scholarship and immigration status.  This determination to put his beliefs and integrity first, and the impact of those decisions on his life would shape his professional career.

Soon after completing his doctorate in 1974, Ricardo got a position at Atlanta University (now Clark-Atlanta) in their Research Department. There he was reintroduced to a smart, dynamic young woman from Chicago named Jan Stepto, who had briefly attended Brandeis as an undergraduate. Ricardo would jokingly tell people, “Jan walked into my class, and the rest is history.” Their professor/student relationship was quite the scandal at the school—her parents were even called by “concerned” University faculty. Despite those headwinds, they were married August 6, 1977, in Hyde Park, Chicago, and began their life together. In Boston, Ricardo held several positions—notably with Abt Associates, Boston University, the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

In 1993, Ricardo’s professional career took the family from Boston to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he began a position at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  As Director of Program Evaluation, he focused on developing methodologies to give grantees and participants voice in the evaluation process, and to maximize the use of evaluation as an integral part of programming.  In this role, Ricardo supported organizations all over the world, and this work brought him national and international recognition.

In the 2000, Ricardo came to Chicago to become President of the Woods Fund of Chicago. In 2005, he formed Millett & Associates to provide program evaluation and strategic planning consultant services to foundations and non- profits and was a Principal Associate with Community Science in the Washington, DC area.

Ricardo considered Chicago to be his second home and developed many close friendships during nearly 25 years of living in the city. He loved going out for drinks at the Ramada, playing poker with his Lamb’s Club brothers, and enjoying Christmas Eve with the Runners. A favorite summertime activity Ricardo enjoyed was sitting—often sleeping—on the front porch of the Martha’s Vineyard home the family has enjoyed for over 30 years. In later years Ricardo and Jan took what they called “adventure trips” and explored the less traveled areas of Spain, Uruguay, Cyprus and Suriname. He loved his three grandchildren, taking great pleasure in the time he spent with them.

Ricardo’s passion for social justice and love for life impacted many. In the words of a former Kellogg colleague, “Ricardo was my friend, my mentor and an exemplary professional in our field. He was brilliant, and more than that he was wise. I cannot think of another man for whom I have greater respect or—now—a warmer memory.”

Ricardo leaves his wife of 46 years, Jan Stepto Millett, his children Sundiata (Shereece Williams), Miguel (Sharitza Rivera), and Maya (Christopher Binns), and three grandchildren (Zoe, Theodore and Enrique). He was preceded in death by brothers Robert and William and is survived by sisters Eleanor Millett Coney (James Coney) and Makeda Kamara. Ricardo also leaves behind a host of nieces and nephews who he loved dearly.

“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”

~Howard Thurman