Equity Requires Action – Stop Using the word as an Attention Grabber


Photo Credit Moonpig77, Flickr

Several weeks ago, I blogged about the overuse of the word equity. This week I’ll expand on the misuse of the word equity. Lately, I’ve heard the term equity used as a descriptor, as in “it’s an equity problem,” “equity high needs,” or this headline “Soda Tax Will Include Diet Products Because Equity, Say Mayor and Councilmembers.” The problem with these statements is the word equity is misused. It is used as a descriptor and a substitution for other words such as diversity, or equality or parity in the case of the soda tax.

The danger with misusing the word equity without tying it back to a problem is nothing changes. It also leads to overuse of the term equity which makes it harder to achieve racial equity progress.

If you must use the word equity you must do the following:

  1. Describe the root cause and structural barrier to the problem – Example: The root cause of the problem is people of color are losing affordable rent options because of underinvestment in low-income neighborhoods, as gentrification happens communities of color are displaced as new wealth is buying old houses and displacing people of color. To address the structural barriers funding and resources should be devoted to affordable housing measures and tied to culture, language based communities, and focus on historically underserved communities of color.
  2. Define actions to remediate the root causes and structural barriers to inequities.

If you can’t talk about equity in these ways then you don’t get to use word equity. Find another word to describe what you want. Since I’ve recently written about linking equity to a root cause and structural barrier, we’ll focus on the action part of the word equity.

Equity Requires Action

To justify the word equity, you need to demonstrate an action and prove how the action addresses a structural barrier. As an example, I spend a lot of time sitting in on task-force meetings for government organizations and departments. The meetings are often long and drawn out over months. Whenever the task forces are put together and recruitment notices come out there is often a tagline screaming the word “EQUITY,” and language that sounds like this: “Our goal is for the task force to include community members who represent the diversity of the city/state/district/etc.” If I’m being asked to help recruit people from my network I email the organizers and ask what actions they are taking to remove barriers to participation for people of color. In other words, how are they practicing equity in the design of their task forces? My questions include:

  • Are you providing stipends to community members to participate in honoring their knowledge and helping offset time away from other work?
  • Will child care be provided or stipends to cover child care cost provided?
  • Will interpreters be provided? Are documents translated (high quality – no Google or Bing Translate)?
  • Are transportation stipends available if the meetings aren’t held closest to community members?
  • Meals provided if working long hours?

These questions drive towards equitable actions. You can’t just say you want equity without working for it, all talk with no action is fakequity.

Equity isn’t easy, it takes work at thinking about undoing long-held barriers for people of color. A commonly used definition of racial equity is: Racial equity is achieved when race is no longer a predictor of outcomes. … “This includes elimination of policies, practices, attitudes and cultural messages that reinforce differential outcomes by race or fail to eliminate them.” As this definition clearly articulates there is an actionable component of eliminating problematic policies, practices, and beliefs.

The Problem with Saying “It’s an Equity Problem” or “Equity High Needs”

The problem with saying “it’s an equity problem” is we’re not talking about race. The word equity is being used as a placeholder and not tied to actionable steps. It is masking the real problem of needing to acknowledge race but being too timid to name race as a factor in the problem. I get it, we don’t like talking about race because race is tied to people and we don’t want to call out people, we’d rather talk about problems without humanizing them. How different would the statement be if the person said “It’s a diversity problem” or “People of Color are over-represented in low-performing schools.” These statements change the problem and more clearly articulate the root causes – diversity and low performance. These new statements also humanize and contextualize the problem needing to be solved.

As for Equity High Needs, we just need to stop that phrase. Stop using the word equity as an attention seeker. Equity and high needs are redundant, it is describing the same thing. Also, the phrase doesn’t make sense if we think of equity as an action. What action is taking place to modify the high needs schools? Many of us know high needs is coded racial language, so why not just come out and say our Diverse High Needs schools/programs/housing/etc., our Under-Resourced Program serving a High Needs Program, or just plainly our High Needs School/Program/Project. If you must use the term equity here connect it to a barrier and a solution.

Use the Word Equity Correctly

As I wrote before, please stop using the word equity to label everything. Equity isn’t a tagline, equity needs actions to address historical racism, structural barriers, and to bring about racial justice. Unless you’re willing to do the hard work of undoing racism you don’t get to use the word. The word equity must be earned through action, prove it to use it.

Posted by Erin Okuno

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