All is a Dangerous Word

REIMAGINE – Patrisse Cullors. Artwork by Noa Denmon, Amplifer Art

All is a dangerous word, especially when coupled with the word equity.

It is time for the annual reminder, there isn’t such a thing as equity for all. That would be equality. Equality for all is redundant, see where I’m going with this?

Equity is not meant for everyone, all, to have the same. Equity means we look at where people are, look at the goals, and figure out different ways for different groups of people to reach that same goal. Equity also requires us to do the harder work of being in justice-based relationships with people and making resources, sharing or giving power, and sometimes stepping back so others can lead.

One group may need a head start because they are further behind, another group may need different tools or access to different instruments to achieve the same goal, and so on.

Here is a practical example. If the goal is every student receives an education, the way each student gets there might be a little different.

Group A – Regular classroom support, basic classes, and relationships with teachers.

Group B – Immigrant students who are new to the country and do not understand English, will need more language support, and ongoing support around settling into a new community.

Group C – Students with various disabilities will need different support than other groups. Such as they may need access to elevators, learning aids such as screen readers, or accommodations such as more time to turn in assignments.

Group D – Black students, recognizing the education system has not been equal or inviting to many Black students and currently many Black students are not graduating at the same rates as their white counterparts. Working with the Black community and learning about their needs and the diversity within Black communities is important to getting to equity.

Group E – Indigenous and Native American students, understanding how education was used as a tool to systemically decimate Native communities.

And so on. Everyone gets what they need, but not the same. Equity is not equal, and it is not for all. While everyone may get what they need, we don’t need to say equity for all – there is no such thing.

Equity for all would allow one group, Group A most likely, to take more than they need. It also wouldn’t recognize the starting point for each group is very different.

All is a dangerous word

When I edit writing and I see the word all, I have to pause to see if it is really necessary. Ninety-five percent of the time I strike the word and the sentence doesn’t change much. All is dangerous because we use it often, but we rarely work towards serving all or everyone. If we worked to serve everyone we would fail miserably and waste a lot of time and resources. Instead of focusing on all or even using platitudes like “Equity for all,” or “Justice for all” we focus and get clearer about our goals.

When we say all we let ourselves off the hook for drilling in deeper and articulating what needs to be done. My friend CiKeithia likes to remind me, people and organizations really good at saying what we don’t want around race work, but they forget to say what we’re building towards.

The word all gives people permission to default to access versus practicing equity. A few days ago Heidi emailed me a screenshot of a press release talking about tree equity. Do trees need equity? The movement to ensure there is ACCESS to trees is a good one, but access isn’t equity. If you need a primer on this make sure to review Heidi’s really great mapping tool. Equity requires harder work of ensuring people most impacted by disparities have a say in determining their futures.

Equity is hard. All is easy. Do the harder work and stop saying equity for all.

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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawai’i; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.