Equity equations don’t work


Picture: Alicorn doing math with an abacus and feather pen

I spend a lot of time in policy meetings. In these meetings we often will do a round of introductions, then we get to the good stuff – the stuff that makes grown people cringe – binders are opened, pens are flipped, a PowerPoint presentation will glow on a screen, and the talking starts, eyes start to squint, and my poker face fails me. After a few minutes, someone will throw out the word ‘equity’ and people will nod. It happens at every meeting. At some point, someone will say “what about data…” which leads to a  newer thing I’ve noticed – using a mathematical formula to defend decision making in the name of equity. It annoys me.

We can’t and won’t get to equitable solutions through closed-door conversations and mathematical formulas. I’ve never heard a community member say: “I know the answer to the problem, let me pull out my laptop and find that spreadsheet!” I’ve heard the opposite, one friend said “I gave up on the spreadsheets. They are all bogus, the numbers change and are all made up.” The truth lies somewhere between – hard data has its place in helping us understand, define, and focus and narratives and lived experiences are also necessary to contextualizing and bringing in real-life problem-solving.

I know someone is wondering “Wait, there is a magical mathematical formula to get to equity?” Yup, someone made one, and I’m not sharing it because I think it is bogus. I will say it looks at ‘risk factors’ such as races or ethnicities, socio-economic status, housing, language, and a few others and crunches those into a formula that recognizes the need in resource allocation discussions. I’m all for giving more to people who need more, but it is bogus to call it ‘equity.’

We’ve written before about weaponizing data. My colleague Jondou Chen, PhD, talks about how we need to make sure we’re not turning a person’s data into an object and stripping away their autonomy on shaping how the data is used and the stories behind the data. ‘Formulizing equity’ into a mathematical equation does this.

Why Narratives Matter

When we only create policies and practices that look at numbers we fail to understand and grow our racial literacy. We also fail to create an equation that is accountable and felt by people of color. In other words, we recreate the systems the formula is trying to undo. We are failing to do the harder work of building relationships and being in conversation and accountable to communities and people of color. We are failing to have the moral courage to acknowledge the harm and transgressions of the past and owning our parts in upholding racist and patriarchal systems.

Instead of turning racial equity into a mathematical formula, we must learn to listen with our heads, then move through our hearts, and have the courage to change. When we only look at formulas we fail to understand the racism embedded in our systems and we also remove a layer of accountability to people most affected by racism.

Having relationships in place are essential. Relationships force people to be accountable to each other and propel change. We must be willing to say we can and must act differently. We must be bold and brave and defend our decisions that might not be popular to some but right for those who are the farthest from justice. This is easy to say, but harder to do when people accustomed to having their needs met fight to protect the entrenched ways of doing things.

Who’s in Control

Formulas have their place, they can help to ensure the systems we put in place drive towards equity in the long term. Equity isn’t just about shifting resources, it is about centering the communities most impacted and allowing them to have self-determination and to define problems and solutions. Simply using a formula or a matrix allows those in control to remain in control of how we define and see problems. For a shortcut in understanding this principle, read Heidi’s previous post explaining the racial equity mapping tool.

Our challenge is to take data, stories, and relationships and marry those into policies and practices that recognize histories, strengths, racism, trauma, cultural understanding, and are accountable to BIPOCs (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). If you need an example of why this is important watch this TED talk about a youth project collecting stories and how to use those stories in understanding race (h/t to CiKeithia and Heidi for sharing this). Using just a formula or matrix doesn’t get us a complete understanding of a problem.

When we see people and not just numbers, we’ll begin to unravel the racialized gaps and create new policies where luck isn’t a key to achieving and where we live with true racial justice. Your work is to build a relationship with someone whom you don’t know and who’s story is different than yours. Acknowledge your privileges and use those privileges to benefit someone else. This is how we can create a ripple effect of change.

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