How to begin to ‘do equity’ when you’re not ‘doing equity’

A few years ago several friends and I had a conversation about how to ‘do equity’ when an organization isn’t ‘doing equity.’ In other words, someone in her organization heard the buzz word ‘equity’ and mandated it, but hadn’t figured out how to adjust the organization to be more community centered and aligned to the principles of equity.  My poor friend Tyler was frustrated her colleagues expected her to be the ‘equity expert.’ So we had a huddle (a.k.a. we went to happy hour) to whine and problem solve.

Tyler works for an informal learning organization. As a general principle they are open to everyone, and as long as people follow the rules they can access services. Pretty straightforward service model: people come into their buildings, participate, leave, and hopefully come back. Because of the drop-in nature of their programs her colleagues didn’t know how to ‘do equity.’

The conversation Tyler shared sounded like this:1589583
“How are we supposed to do equity if we serve everyone?,” “If we start serving only some people, what about the others? We’re supposed to be open to everyone who wants to come in. This isn’t fair,” and “If we only tell some people about our program, we have to tell everyone—otherwise it isn’t fair. That is preferential treatment.”

Tyler needed several drinks to get through the retelling of these meetings and conversations. Tokenism = happy hour. We needed to help her figure out how to support her colleagues as they realigned their expectations and start working proactively rather than complain about changing their ways of working.

Do you Know Who is [not] Using your Program?
Hearing some of the comments from Tyler’s colleagues led us to ask about demographic data. Did her colleagues know who was using their programs? The answer sounded like this “Umm… no…” Tyler knew who visited her programs because she did the hard work of recruiting participants from the community and communities of color. Others relied upon traditional means of getting the word out – fliers, online postings, and word of mouth referrals. Their programs were often full, so the staff didn’t feel a need to realign their expectations of service. They had head counts of participants, but beyond a quick scan of who was in the room, they couldn’t always tell who was using the program and if they were reaching populations who would benefit the most from their programs.

We suggested having her organization start collecting demographic data. The collection could be voluntary/opt-in and done in a way that kept it anonymous. Such as have a sheet where people could fill out their demographic data and turn it into an envelope for collection. This way the program staff can begin to count and see who was attending their program — were people of color attending their programs, were they from harder to reach groups (non-English speakers, lower income, etc.) participating.

Why Counting is Important
Demographic data allows us to evaluate who is using our programs. Without this data we make guesses which allows us to make excuses that sound like this: “Sana came today, she likes the program so I must be doing something right,” or “I looked across the room and it looked diverse,” “The program today was great, we were really full.”

Demographic data is important for so many reasons. Having demographic data allows us to look objectively and remove some of the bias and affinities that we have. It also allows us to do a deeper look at how the goals of the program line up against actual service delivery:

  • Are resources deployed in ways that are reaching priority populations?
  • Are clients reflective of the overall demographics of the neighborhood? Are priority service clients (people of color) over represented in the service data (which is good)?
  • Are some communities taking advantage of a program more than others? It is important to disaggregate data to determine this answer.

Having demographic data is the beginning of ‘doing equity’ right. We need to know who we are serving and why we are choosing to serve them.

How to Collect Demographic Data While Being Open to All
As we continued happy houring with Tyler we talked about how the drop-in nature of her program needed to figure out how to begin collecting data on participants. The collection methods for demographic data had to be opt-in, quick, and anonymous. Several strategies emerged:

  • Simple forms that people chose to fill out and return in a box
  • Optional questions on sign-up forms
  • Have a tablet computer or laptop set up where people quickly answer demographic questions

Once the data is collected it is important to look at the data and figure out what is the data telling you.

  • Are the attendees or program participants reflective of the community?
  • Are outreach methods need to be adjusted to recruit more from priority populations?
  • Does translation and interpretation services need to be brought in to help find families who might not have heard of the program?
  • Does the program have to rethink the content of the program to attract the priority population?

These strategies and questions gave Tyler a starting place to helping her colleagues begin to understand how to adjust their programs to get towards more equitable results.

More Happy Hours
These were the beginning steps to building more equitable programs. Our small Fakequity Fighters team stands ready for the next time Tyler (and others) comes up with more questions about how to move their programs and organizations toward finding more equitable results—that is what happy hour is for.

Posted by Erin

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