Equity isn’t a Thing to Solve

I’ve spent the past few days in a training on equity. One of the lessons I learned from equity champions was: “Equity isn’t a thing to solve. We solve problems through equitable solutions.” The point the speaker was making is we can’t keep throwing the term equity around. It isn’t that we need to solve for equity, like an algebra problem: X + Equity = 209 happy children, but first we have to isolate equity so we can make sure we get it right – wrong/fakequity. We can’t isolate equity, equity is the process and the methods to get toward equitable results.

Equity isn’t a Thing to Solve or Isolate

One of the problems I continue to see is organizations trying to solve equity. They have separate line items or boxes on their workplans labeled equity with targets such as “recruit XX% of people of color,” or “hear from 10 communities during the community phase,” or my favorite phrase “it’s the equity factor.”

Equity isn’t the thing to solve, it is the solution to the problem. The problem should be defined by disaggregating data, communities most impacted, and asking the right questions to really understand the underlying systems in place that are holding people back. Once the problem is defined, equitable solutions begin to present themselves.

Slapping an Equity Label on – Bitter Lemons

bitter lemonA few years ago I was invited to be a grant reader for “equity grants.” The funder has a fancy theory of change; it is a really pretty infographic that is easy to understand through pictures. This grant round was a way for the foundation to flex their equity muscles. The organization was proud in pulling together the money to offer these equity grants.

As a grant reader I got my packet of applications and started reading. As I read I became more and more disappointed. The grants were from mainstream organizations and the projects were directives from their organization down to the community. There was little community voice, let alone communities of color defined solutions. From the community perspective the projects were lemons, pretty to look at on a tree from afar, but sour and tart when bitten into.

What Went Wrong

Slapping an equity label on the grant round and isolating the effort didn’t produce truly equitable results. What went wrong was the grant making process and the organization stayed the same—in other words the organizational and process systems didn’t change, but they were aiming for a different result.

By keeping equity isolated to the grants and not embedding it across the organization, it defaulted to what it knows and what is easy. In this case the funder started with what it knew, it knew mainstream organizations and partners, it knew how to do grant making through traditional means (i.e. send out Request For Propsals to people they know, expect properly formatted LOIs back, make grants, and expect reports back), and it was informed by voices from within the organization not the community.

How to Get it Right—How to Make Lemonade

Equity isn’t the problem to solve, equitable tools are needed to get to equitable results and solutions. In this case the funder didn’t define the problem correctly, it took the easy way out and said “we want to impact equity so we’ll give out equity grants.” There are no such thing as “equity grants.” This is the lazy way of doing things. What the funder should have done is look at disaggregated data, listen to the community, and allow the community to define its own problems. The funder, or whatever group is working on a problem, then uses its power to put together a process that targets the problem. The principles of racial equity should be embedded into all of their grants or plans, not isolated to one grant cycle or activity.

The grant making process needs to change to get equitable results. This is where we take those sour and bitter lemons and turn them into lemonade. In order to make lemonade we need to acknowledge not everyone or every group with lemons also has the right materials to make high quality sweet lemonade. In order to make lemonade you need clean water, sugar, and a pitcher—in grant terms does the organization have access to the grant, do leaders within the organization know how to write a grant and get it submitted, can the organization navigate a site visit and build relationships to receive funding, who is reading and scoring the grants, etc.? If the answer is no, then we’re stuck with lemons and won’t get lemonade.

We also need to acknowledge not everyone has the same access to the ingredients to make lemonade or win a grant. For some the burdens to get this access is greater. In order to get equitable results we need to change the structure of the grantmaking process.

  1. Define the problem correctly—disaggregate data, listen to the community, allow the most impacted groups to define the problem to solve.
  2. Redefine systems– Change the application process to allow those most impacted a fair chance at receiving a grant. Ask about distribution channels, ensure large organizations aren’t competing with smaller organizations for the same funding, look at who the grant readers and scorers are, do grant seekers have the tools and information they need to apply?
  3. Questions assumptions– Does it need to be a grant or are there other mechanisms to solve the problem? Is the grant structure right for accomplishing the goal and solving the problem?

In answering the questions we can begin to insert equitable changes into the process, which will help get to equitable results.

Redesigning the System to Embed Equity

In future posts we’ll explore examples of when this is done right. We all need something to look forward to and inspire to.

A special thanks to Bao N. for her thoughtful lemonade example and prompt. She offered the prompt as a dare to use it in a sermon. I’m not a sermonizer just a bitter old lemon, but I took the dare and hopefully made some lemonade.

Posted by Erin

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