Back to Basic: Equality, Equity, and How to Spot the Differences

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Analogy: While all of these LEGO fish are equal size, one might need something different to achieve the same prosperity.

Today we’re going to look at the difference between equality and equity. And because this is the Fakequity blog, we’ll throw in some real life examples. Sorry bro (as in my real-life bro) no infographic or web-comic since those take a little longer to develop, you’ll actually have to read.

Equality versus Equity

A few weeks ago I was playing a matching game with my two kids, they are three years apart which makes finding a game we can enjoy more challenging. My older kid has a strong sense of fairness and doesn’t understand or fully empathize his younger sister can’t play at the same level. My older one caught me helping the younger and said “Hey! No cheating!” I shot back: “It’s not cheating, it’s [age/development] equity [when I help], we’re not practicing equality.” He gave me a look of annoyance and went back to playing, he’s seven so I’m sure most of the conversation was lost on him. Even I’m surprised I reflectively gave him that answer, might as well start his social justice education young.

Most people understand what equal looks like – give everyone exactly the same thing, cut a sandwich in half and you have two equal parts, order two milk teas and they mostly have equal amounts of boba tapioca balls. Equality has its place, there are times when equal is the right thing to do. When we are in meetings giving everyone equal speaking time ensures we are all heard, or we set a meeting location equally between people to equally inconvenience everyone, or giving equal funds to two identical organizations is fair.

Equity is very different than equality. Equity takes more practice to understand and achieve. My favorite definition of equity is from Junious Williams who shared it when we were on a panel together at PolicyLink’s conference. He said “I go back to my law school definition of equity: What will it take to make a person whole?” I like this definition because it allows us to think imaginatively and roots us back in the sense of giving differently to different people which is at the heart of what equity work is about – changing systems, processes, and allowing people and communities of color to say what is important and what is needed to make ourselves and communities whole.

Don’t Confuse Equity and Equlity or I’ll Throw a Pen at You

Here is where it gets tricky. Equity has also become the latest buzz word, so it gets thrown around and misused all the time. Here is an example: “…school librarians have founded a Library Equity Team over the last few months. They plan to work together to demand a $10 per student budget for every school in Seattle.” Can you spot the misuse of the word equity? The Equity Team wants to demand $10 per student regardless of race, social economic status, etc. This demand is actually equality because it is demanding the same for every student. If they had said they are demanding a base rate of say $3 per student, and an additional $7 for students in schools with higher rates of free an reduced lunch (code for students of color), Title 1 school (again code for students of color), etc. that would be equity. Equity work is harder than trying to achieve equality. In the example above it is easy to say we’ll demand $10/per head. It will be harder to try to figure out which students need more or less.

I sometimes fall into the trap of equality versus equity too, so easy, so enticing like halo halo, a Filipino sweet treat, that is easy to drink and mysteriously disappears just like equality work. About a year ago I put together a project budget and set aside $5,000 to provide stipends to five partner organizations. I was planning on giving them each $1,000 to make it fair and simple, but in the long run the results don’t last. I had a moment of clarity while running off my halo halo drink; giving each partner $1,000 each was equal, some of our partners were better resourced, were serving fewer children, others had student populations that needed more services, etc. I went back to the group and explained the dilemma and asked if we could switch the system to ‘just request what you need upfront and we’ll work together to allocate the funds.’ In the end everyone’s requests were fully funded and the total ask amount was $5,000 – it is neat when things work out that way and the results are actually sticking because the group gave each other what we collectively needed.

In communities of color we have to pay attention to the nuances of equality versus equity. If we give every community of color the same, we screw over our smaller communities of color. For instance, if we give all ethnic and language based organizations the same stipend amount, we screw over smaller communities which may have more needs because they are newer to the country, have smaller donor bases, less political power to advocate for themselves. As communities of color we have to go into these situations looking for the overall good, which sometimes means saying we will take less to give more to communities who need more. An example is taking a pot of money and saying every community will take a base pay of XX% and smaller communities will get additional funds because they have more needs, higher overhead cost, and less ability to fundraise. This is what equity looks like – again harder to do, but the right solution.

One final thought about equity, every few meetings I hear someone say “It’s the equity factor…” and I want to throw a pen at them. There is no such thing as the “equity factor,” that is code for saying it’s about race or some other judgment we want to make. Be clear in your communication and don’t say equity unless you really know what it means – don’t make me throw a pen at you across a meeting room.

Posted by Erin