Leading with Race: Are we Talking Racial Equity or Equity?

Every few weeks I have the conversation around why we need to focus on race. Someone will say “what about [fill in the blank foster youth, special needs, LGQBT, people who live in a particular neighborhood, vegans, lactose intolerant, people who hate spiders, etc.]? They are often left behind and have a lot of needs.” I understand why they are naming specific populations; they are being inclusive and thoughtful and doing their job as an advocate. When this happens I pause the conversation and say “yes focusing on [fill in the blank population] is important but we lead with race because if we don’t we may still miss people of color.” It is at this point I get confused looks.
We lead and focus on race first because if we don’t we may miss people and communities of color all together. We have to design our work to have a focus on race because when we lead with race we ensure we are capturing people of color, and inevitably white people will come along. Defaulting to regular practices leaves communities of color behind.

Here is an example:
My organization just wrapped up a big survey project. We received 639 survey results, majority from people of color and very representative of the demographics of our community (e.g. high rates of eligible for free and reduced lunch, many immigrants and refugees, etc.). We had the survey translated into ten languages and used interpreters to help lead focus groups and trusted partners to reach out into the community. Our design team was all people of color. We designed the project with a racial equity focus – everything from whom we recruited for the survey design team, what questions included in the survey and how they were worded, translating the lengthy surveys into multiple languages, having both an online and paper copies available and using focus groups, who collected the surveys, and our community feedback Summit were all designed to cater to experiences of people of color. All of these efforts helped to ensure we were reaching people of color. We didn’t leave it to chance, we led with race and as a result we got what we wanted, an over representation of diverse families included in our data set. Along the way we worked with many white people and they were included. In a later blog post we’ll share more details about the survey project.

Had we said “we believe in equity” and not led with race our whole process would have looked different and maybe we would have found people of color to complete the survey but probably not in the high numbers that completed it.

Here is another example in reverse:
A library just got a big grant to do outreach to foster youth. Educational outcomes for foster youth are lower than non-foster youth and the library has a lot of great services which can help. The library system uses their traditional models of outreach – fliers in English, talking to library branch staff about whom they should send emails and information to, and scan their collection of books on foster youth experience. After a few months of work they review their work and see they are making a difference, however a staff person grimaced and says “I think we’ve missed our mark, we’re reaching mostly white foster youth. Foster youth of color and immigrant and refugee youth aren’t included in our numbers.” Everyone around the tables said “ohhhh…”

Focusing on a high needs population, such as foster children, is important but it isn’t


photo by Erin Okuno

enough. We need to use a racial equity priority or lens and focus deeper and ensure we are capturing foster youth of color. As you can see from the example above leading with a general purpose of ‘equity’ allows people of color to be forgotten.

We need to lead with race in order to make sure people of color don’t get lost or left behind. When we focus on racial equity we ensure people of color are talked about and focused on. It also means we are doing the harder work of capturing people of color who have more disparities and are further behind. By leading with race it also gives the project a better chance of having the work led by communities of color, versus having it happen to a community of color. If we only focus on broad strokes efforts or special populations we may default to practices which have historically left people of color behind. We need to lead with race, talk about race, and work with communities of color to ensure people of color are being served.

How to lead with a racial equity focus:

  1. Be clear with your team you are talking about racial equity. And be clear about how you think about racial equity.
  2. Recognize when your project defaults back to standard practices (i.e. email communication which works for those with internet access, English only, meeting times that are inaccessible to whom you’re trying to reach, serving food only some can eat such as pork, etc.).
  3. Look at your data and see if there are racial disparity gaps, do you need to further target your efforts to respond to the data, such as do you need to focus on Asians or Latinos.
  4. Design your project around your racial equity goals – location, food served, who to recruit, etc. should all be influenced by your racial equity lens.

When we lead with racial equity we see the results and we leave less to chance. Be bold and brave and do your part to lead with race.