Fair vs Just

Mural in International District/Chinatown Seattle — Orange background, silhouette of a person with their hands up, words “Hands Up, Dont [sic] Shoot.” Boarder has the names: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Bettie Jones, Eric Gardner, Charleena Lyles, Philando Castile, Manuel Ellis, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin.

Note: The trial in the death of George Floyd started this week. Please take a moment to understand the significance of the trial. Background information here.

I’ve worked in the nonprofit field for 98% of my career, the other 2% was a college job serving pasta – it was a great job. Having worked in the nonprofit field for so long I’ve been part of many conversations where assets, including money are divvied up. These conversations are never easy since it means some will receive something, others won’t, and there is never enough in the nonprofit world to meet all of the request or needs. It feels like there are winners and losers even if that isn’t the intention. It brings out a lot of scarcity mentality, impulses to hoard, and a lot of feelings. When these feelings come out, we often default to wanting things to be fair, versus understanding justice based approaches.

Recently I was part of a group that had to divide up grant money to sub-grantees. We didn’t have the luxury of time to work with the whole group to do the allocations. We did have a commitment from the group to base the allocations on racial equity principles. Those making the initial allocation decisions committed to transparency and documenting the thought process in how decisions were made. What felt like a justice based decision, in this case giving more to some that had more need and less money, felt unfair to others who felt they were penalized for having more resources in reserves and they expressed their disappointment. I recognize the hurt and disappointment involved. They felt they had worked hard, done the hustle, and it didn’t feel fair to receive/take less than others who they perceived didn’t do as much work. The belief in meritocracy is deep in our society.

I’ve also seen this scenario happen in other places: school boundary assignments, sharing PTA money raised with other schools that have less, scholarship selections, and so on. As a side observation, in many of these cases those arguing for fair/equal based decisions and bring up the value of meritocracy are often white. The pocs in the discussion are often pushing for more wholistic and justice based decision making. This is why diverse selection teams are important as we place value on different aspects and need to surface different parts of a situation to make better decisions.

Fairness and justice can feel like opposing forces or they can also feel congruous.

Fair — In an equality-based situation we would have given everyone the same amount regardless of prior work or need. Fairness says we treat everyone equally – everyone receives the same, no biases, no preferences, and no extra considerations. This might have been fairer – everyone receiving the same amount. It would have felt better for some people and we could argue everyone’s programs deserves an equal amount of support, but it wouldn’t have achieved equity or justice.  

Just — Justice is harder to wrap our minds around. Justice takes into account more factors, such as starting places, access to resources, privileges granted because of race and skin color, systemic treatment, etc. Racial justice means we take into account race and how race influences the systemic treatment of people. That is a lot of factors to consider, and it takes a lot of self-awareness to understand how justice and fairness feel different to different people.

For the project I mentioned above, we took into account many factors and came up with an allocation that gave the most money to the group that had the fewest monetary assets. They also had a larger poc population. By giving them more we were trying working towards racial justice. They shouldn’t be penalized for not having as much access to wealth, networks who could support their work in other ways, etc. These are systemic problem they are forced to deal with and not of their making. We were trying to recognize they were at a different starting point than other groups and therefore we should give them more to create an overall more fair situation. The group receiving less argued that their efforts should be rewarded, which we said they were by receiving a base amount of funding.

We also reminded the group we were working for social and community stability and equal dignity. We recognize the interdependence we have with each other to create a more stable community overall, even at the risk of temporarily creating a feeling of unease with some of the members of the group. We also trusted that in the future the group receiving the most now, will prosper and return the support in some unknown way now.

Sometimes justice is a long game and creates temporary pain and may seem cruel. But hopefully we can also see the overall social good and dignity when we share and realize it isn’t just about merit, taking as much as we can, or being seen as the savior who brings resources. It is about creating a community where we share and take turns.

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