Let’s Not Confuse ‘Access and Inclusion’ with Racial Equity: An Interactive Post – Part I


By Heidi Sohn

Gather some colleagues, poster paper, markers, sticky notes, and cold (or hot) beverages. This blog post is meant to be interactive, and it will be more interesting with others. I’ve had this topic at the top of my list of ideas to write about for over a year. But haven’t had the motivation to organize my thoughts on paper, although this is one of the topics I talk about the most in my workshops. Erin is off-playing, so it’s time to gather some motivation. I feel most comfortable writing up workshop exercises, so I decided to stick with that format for this post.

Background Context: Racialized Power Systems

Equity has become the new buzzword. It is used so frequently it has almost come to have no meaning at all. The misuse or appropriation of the term equity is so common and so annoying it spawned this blog site, Fakequity. As the term equity started gaining traction, people and organizations started calling all their diversity, engagement, and inclusion efforts equity. I call B.S. to this catch-all definition of equity. I developed this tool to help us get honest with ourselves about what we are truly doing (and not doing) to pursue equity, specifically racial equity.

At the very foundation of this work, we must acknowledge that business as usual or standard best practices default to upholding systems of white supremacy. If you have issues with the term “supremacy” consider it means control, authority, and power. Ask yourself how many of our institutions have been built and continue to cater to the comfort and control of white, middle-class, English speaking community members?

Many smart people have written about how access to our current system does not equal racial justice. So rather than try to summarize their brilliance, I will just ask you to read a few resources direct from the source –

It is important to mention people of color and communities of color can also uphold the current system. We are often tokenized, individually incentivized, and/or have internalized the superiority of the current system.

Set Up

Pause and answer this question before you continue reading: What are current strategies or actions that are evidence of racial equity in your organization? Write each idea on a separate sticky note (or index card). Generate as many ideas as you can. I often ask people to generate future ideas you hope to implement in your organization as well. You can color code the current and future ideas on different sticky notes to capture a visual of where your current ideas versus future ideas fall on the racial equity mapping tool.

When you are ready to have a group discussion, have everyone answer the question above and read the blog post. Or even take scissors to your current work plan or strategic plan to use with the map. Then print out the racial equity mapping tool or create it on a poster chart. I often create a large map of the floor with tape, so the exercise is even more visual and interactive. Please remember tools are not magical. Using a tool does not ensure racially equitable results or organizational transformation. The tools help us to slow down, be more explicit, brave, and intentional in challenging racism and in our pursuit of fairness and justice for every member of our community. Continued hard work is needed to implement ideas with fidelity and with the intentionality of power-sharing with communities of color. Please also consider who is and isn’t in the room as you have this conversation.

I have also added a PDF of a sampling of ideas collected in workshops, slightly edited for ease of understanding. You can print these ideas out and use them in your discussion as well. In a future Part II blog post, I’ll tell you where I would categorize the ideas on the PDF. I’m not sharing my analysis of these ideas right now because it would a) make this blog post too long and b) the point of the tool is not to convey there is a right answer, but to help us have more explicit conversations about what is and isn’t racial equity.

Conversation and Analysis

Are you ready to start diving into the conversation about where your ideas fall on the racial equity mapping tool? As a group or in small groups, spend time discussing what quadrant you think your ideas fit into. Map the sticky notes on poster paper (or index cards on a map on the floor) to create a powerful visual. I remind people this is not a “game to win” but a framework to help us have different conversations that hopefully lead to different actions and outcomes. I’ve used this tool regularly for over a year with many different groups, and I continue to learn and shift my thinking. So, engage in this conversation and analysis many times.

The tool was designed around concepts of “comfort” and “control” inspired by the article, The Subtle Linguistics of Polite White Supremacy. It asks us to consider how comfortable are communities of color and how much (decision-making and resource allocation) control do communities of color truly hold. I’ll give you short descriptions of each of the quadrants, but I have also found the visuals (triangle, spiral, etc.) to be helpful as well. The visuals come from the video What Our Movements Can Learn from Penguins. The video uses an hourglass to help us understand the current system, but I use a triangle here to express a simpler version of the racial hierarchy that our system has embedded.

Business as Usual: Organizational practices that uphold white power structures. Communities of color have low comfort and low control. Efforts default to Fakequity and majority white people as primary final decision makers. Focuses on standard best practices, dominant society data, “efficiency,” limited or no budget for ideas.

Access & Inclusion: Organizational practices that influence white power structures. Communities of color have comfort, but no real control. Efforts default to tracking outputs and majority white people as primary final decision makers. Focuses on engagement, input, inclusion, access, and assimilation.

Programmatic Racial Equity: Organizational practices that build and share power within limited areas of white power structures. Communities of color have some decision-making and resource allocation control but limited broad comfort in the system. Efforts default to communities of color (most impacted by racial inequities) as primary decision makers over a limited scope project or initiative. Focuses explicitly on communities of color (most impacted by racial inequities) controlling narratives, agendas, and resources.

Structural Racial Equity: Organizational practices that default to shared power system/organizational wide. Communities of color have high comfort and high control. Effort default to racially equitable outcomes. Focuses on whole system/organizational redesign and structural transformation (the spiral in the penguin video) that impact racially equitable outcomes. Hint: Almost nothing falls here, but it’s our aspirational vision and goal.

Once you’ve mapped out your ideas, engage in some reflection about what you notice. Here are some sample debrief question ideas to get you started:

  • How does seeing the current results of this map make you feel?
  • What do you notice about where most of the ideas are placed?
  • What do you wonder about the current distribution of efforts and resources? How much is truly focused on racial equity work?
  • What are some important distinctions your group talked about between the “access and inclusion” quadrant and the “programmatic racial equity” quadrant, especially regarding decision-making power?
  • Are there any cards you think have been misplaced? Discuss them as a large group.
  • What will you do next?

This could be a much longer blog post (it’s usually at least a four-hour workshop), but I have already exceeded my suggested word count. I promise to dig deeper into specific examples for each of the quadrants in Part II of the blog post. But hopefully, this is enough to get you started.

Final Thoughts

This tool was originally developed for the City of Seattle Office of Sustainability & Environment, with funding from the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. If you plan to use the tool, please credit Equity Matters.

If you want to use this tool in your consulting work (or any other capacity where you are compensated) please contact Equity Matters and obtain a license. Please contact Equity Matters before adapting the tool or using it in paid work.

In the spirit of not just “extracting” if you find this post and tool, or any other Fakequity blog post useful, please consider financially contributing to an organization that is people of color led and community of color embedded. If you need some ideas here are a few –

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