Introduction: Making Real Change
We have reached a tipping point in our society where a critical mass of people is demanding a new social contract. Alongside this wave, our clients and partners have been expanding their focus of attention from their own organizations and single-issue coalitions to movement networks oriented around a shared vision and aligned action. Leaders are committing to nurturing movements over the long term and forging values-based relationships across issue areas, sectors, and generations.
This shift—from competition to collaboration, from single issues to intersectionality, from scarcity to collective abundance—requires something different from us as actors for justice and as the intermediaries, capacity builders, and grantmakers who support them. By listening to our clients and partners and looking to people whose history, knowledge, and experiences have been forced to the periphery, MAG has come to believe there are five elements that are critical to advancing a thriving justice ecosystem.
We hope that calling out these elements will bring greater attention to them, encouraging all of us to embody them in our day-to-day practices, structures, mindsets, and culture as we work towards justice. As we share our thinking on these elements in this series, we invite you to participate in contributing to the evolution of what these elements mean in practice.
For the Alameda County Public Health Department, thinking in terms of race equity meant changing the way it did business. In 2015, the department began participating in the Northern California cohort of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity. Previously, the department’s thinking about race had been framed around diversity and inclusion; it was focused on making sure women and people of color were included among the organization’s staff and leadership. By examining how equity issues interacted with the root causes of health problems in the county, the department began to incorporate a more systemic understanding of race and equity into its work.
Evaluating health outcomes in the county, the department saw that heavily African American communities suffered disproportionate health difficulties. Getting to the bottom of why this might be the case meant examining how issues such as transportation, housing, and air quality—all issues intertwined with histories of racial bias and discrimination—were affecting the wellbeing of county residents.
Looking at the health data with race equity in mind meant changing the way the health department designed its programs and whom it served. In one project, the department partnered with community organizations to examine the impacts of the foreclosure crisis on health. “After that,” Kimi Watkins-Tartt, Alameda County’s Deputy Public Health Director says, “we did another piece where we partnered with them around displacement, gentrification and health.” Recently, the department gave public testimony about how proposed projects to transport coal through the county and build new crematoriums in low-income communities would increase already-high asthma rates.
“We weren’t doing any of those things before,” Watkins-Tartt says. “The diversity and inclusion approach really is very focused on diversity and inclusion inside of the workforce. That’s a part of a racial equity lens, but a racial equity approach doesn’t stop there. We also then are talking to the people that are impacted by the issues we’re dealing with. I would say that this new initiative is allowing us the opportunity to more explicit about how racism plays a role in creating the social inequalities that are actually driving the health disparities.”
Shifting the Field Toward Deep Equity
The experience of the Alameda County Public Health Department reflects a wider shift taking place in the government, nonprofit, and social justice sectors—a shift toward what we call “deep equity.” This awakening in the United States is partly a result of the increased visibility of reduced quality of life, incarceration, and lack of access to basic needs for people of color, low-income communities, LGBTQ, and other marginalized communities, as well as increased visibility of needless loss of life for too many in these communities. In this context, more and more nonprofits, foundations, and capacity builders are seeking to delve deeply into the implications of equity for their work both externally and internally. In the last few years, high profile killings of people of color, including Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and many others, have propelled the multiracial Movement for Black Lives into prominence and highlighted the need for us to place racial equity and liberation at the center of conversations about deep equity.
Core Aspects of Deep Equity
Honoring Difference & Working at Multiple Levels
Like others, we’ve learned that to achieve deep equity, we need to understand and address its multiple systemic, structural, institutional, interpersonal, and individual/internal causes (both historic and current), and recognize the social construction of identity, power and privilege over time. Deep equity requires ongoing attention to hearts, minds, behaviors, and structures. Any one of these areas is an entry point, but eventually deep equity requires attention to all areas. This goes beyond quantitative metrics and outcomes and includes spiritual, mental, and cultural dimensions that are often left out. Deep equity honors the unique differences and gifts of culture and recognizes how they influence what we see, how we listen, how we communicate, what’s important to us, and how we strategize and assess, while being grounded courageously and responsibly, in goals for our collective thriving.
Focus on Relationships, Intersectionality, and Addressing Trauma
Deep equity means working toward outcomes in ways that model dignity, justice, and love without re-creating harm in our structures, strategies and working relationships. It asserts that relationships really matter because genuine relationships allow us to move beyond simple notions of “niceness” or “politeness,” which can be harmful if they are not authentic. Instead, deep equity seeks kindness, which is rooted in empathy and feeling one another’s joys and sorrows.
“I’m not sure there’s any way except to be human together,” says Gayle Williams, a veteran leadership coach and facilitator. “That means through storytelling and direct experience, with the capacity for deep listening and asking open, honest questions that take us beyond our own experience of the world. No matter what our work on equity, we can always go deeper.” Committing to deep equity includes forming authentic alliances among people who experience both oppression and privilege to transform society, recognizing the centrality in that process of the leadership of people who are marginalized.
While deep equity recognizes the central importance of race in the U.S., it also highlights the intersectionality of gender and gender identity, socioeconomics, immigration, caste, sexual orientation, language, religion and other areas in many U.S. as well as international contexts. In the formulation of law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who first coined the term “intersectionality,” the concept does not deny the pivotal importance of race. Rather, it shows how racism overlaps with and compounds other forms of oppression: “Intersectionality is an analytic sensibility,” Crenshaw writes, “a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power. Originally articulated on behalf of black women, the term brought to light the invisibility of many constituents within groups that claim them as members but often fail to represent them. Intersectional erasures are not exclusive to black women. People of color within LGBTQ movements, girls of color in the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline, women within immigration movements, trans women within feminist movements, and people with disabilities fighting police abuse—all face vulnerabilities that reflect the intersections of racism, sexism, class oppression, transphobia, ableism, and more. Intersectionality has given many advocates a way to frame their circumstances and to fight for their visibility and inclusion.”
Increasingly, practitioners are also recognizing that addressing trauma and healing must be part of an equity agenda. In the Portland, Oregon area, the Multnomah County Office of Equity & Diversity states in its “Foundational Assumptions” that a “reciprocal relationship exists between racial equity and trauma.” The office explains that, “Trauma-informed racial equity approaches transparently value healing as part of the change process, integrate the realities and effects of historical oppressions in analyses, and address racial microaggressions and implicit bias, in addition to structural barriers.”
Finally, leading equity capacity builders have long coalesced around the idea that deep equity must include eliminating and reducing systematic discrimination, disparities, and structural inequity in the outcomes of our work. This goes beyond increasing the representation of women, people from ALAANA (Asian, Latinx, African, Arab, Native American) backgrounds, LGBTQ, differently-abled people, and people with different educational backgrounds in organizations. Foundations and nonprofit organizations must also make cultural shifts, addressing the deeper dimensions of beliefs and values that affect their work. In the case of the Alameda County Public Health Department, embracing an equity agenda meant going beyond just increasing the diversity of the staff, but instead talking explicitly about race and looking at how it impacted health outcomes throughout the county—and how the department responded.
It is also the case that deep equity means foregrounding a framework for justice, not merely decreasing discrepancies in distribution of injustice. For example, eliminating disparities in homelessness or incarceration would not be adequate from a deep equity perspective, since we would still be required to examine the justice of homelessness and incarceration writ large. As one of our clients commented, we may eliminate “disparities” but there are some social conditions (such as homelessness) that we would not want to exist for any population, at any level.
Addressing all these areas together—honoring difference, working at multiple levels, understating relationships and intersectionality, addressing trauma, and eliminating disparities—is more difficult than taking them on piecemeal but has the greatest capacity for lasting change. Advancing a more robust definition of equity in the nonprofit field is essential to building the type of alliances needed to promote systemic change.
“The communities and leaders who can form a new majority won’t come to the table just for the sake of diversity,” says Derecka Mehrens, Executive Director of Working Partnerships USA. “They will come to the tables where they can build power—the kind of power it takes to change the systems that have broken trust and blocked true equity, all while praising diversity.”
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
Practices of Deep Equity
A first critical step in the pursuit of deep equity is that organizations experience a reckoning about power and privilege. This reckoning includes recognizing privilege and oppression present in society and in our organizations and networks, understanding one’s relationship to privilege and oppression, and forming authentic alliances among people who experience both oppression and privilege to transform society, and recognizing the centrality in that process of the leadership of people who are marginalized. Throughout the system in question, a critical mass of people—including power holders—must experience this reckoning.
“It takes the ability to have an honest, self-assessment of your history and the way your organization was founded,” says the Meyer Foundation’s Maegan Scott. “Until we own this, we can’t show up in the world in any authentic way…unless we own what we’ve done and been part of.”
Alongside this, we must recognize when we are hiding, cowering, or checking out, and use inner practices—such as mindfulness or any number of secular or sacred approaches—to support us to stay present and go deeper for the benefit of our shared vision and missions.
Second, cutting edge practitioners in deep equity recognize that we need to build the courage and muscle to skillfully and gracefully “raise elephants” in a group. These include fears, taboo areas, and places where an organization’s efforts are getting stalled. For example, “discussing race isn’t always easy,” says Rinku Sen, executive director of Race Forward. Sen’s organization emphasizes that we must use “plain talk,” saying what we really mean. “We call people of color ‘the disadvantaged,’ we talk about ‘the inner city,’ we come up with terms like ‘minority’ and assume that those terms are going to signal the same things to everybody,” Sen argues. “We’ve gotten accustomed to these proxies, and they constitute a kind of jargon. That is not serving us; we have to be able to say the words.”
Third, key leaders in the system must be willing to step up to deeper awareness of power and privilege. They must be willing to build capacity to address dominant culture norms (including white, heterosexual, affluent, able-bodied, and male norms) that may be excluding people who express themselves differently, have different life experiences, and demonstrate competence differently. Power and privilege are not inherently “wrong” or “bad.” It’s lack of awareness of them and the way they are wielded that is the issue.
In their article “Systemic Change and Equity,” Mary Scheetz, former Assistant Superintendent of the Waters Foundation and Peter Senge of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, contend that, “The leader must be a zealot for equity who sees the big picture of challenges, but recognizes the opportunities to be a change agent.” While Scheetz and Senge make this argument in the context of education and school leaders, their observation applies across the nonprofit field. Leaders who are vocal about their own growth provide important modeling for their peers, allowing staff the support they need to face up to staggering and sobering realizations.
Fourth, organizations must get clear about their shared vision and destination. This includes making explicit notions of success and quality for the organization that deeply embed equity. With a clear vision in place, leaders can determine what changes are needed pertaining to how the organization measures and rewards success, if equity is to become a central driver. John Kania, Managing Director at FSG consulting, noted that the firm went from equity being something it cared about in the abstract to “really trying to define a vision for ourselves.”
Beyond charting goals, practitioners must unearth deficit-based myths and beliefs about communities of color and other marginalized groups, and note how these may be playing out and influencing your organization, network, or group effort. They must practice strength-based and appreciative approaches to viewing and engaging individuals and communities, while not losing sight of real systemic needs and individual growth areas.
Fifth, organizations must take a systems approach to equity, recognizing that it is not an “issue” to be solved, but rather is pervasive and embedded throughout every aspect of a group’s efforts. FSG has come to discover in its work that “making progress on equity both internally and in terms of how we approach the work, is essential to our becoming a more effective player in social impact. It’s absolutely essential…and core to our essence, as opposed to something that we need to do as an initiative.” Staff discovered that the firm’s work around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) impacts every aspect of their system, not just parts.
Intersectionality is a critical part of a systems vision—with practitioners recognizing the intertwined nature of race, gender, language, socioeconomics, sexual identity, ability, religion and other dimensions of difference. At the same time, race is a primary lever for U.S. communities. While economics and control of resources is critical to how oppression and inequity play out, race cannot be sublimated under economics.
Sixth, practitioners must balance urgency with depth. There are times to reflect and times to act. Organizations that attempt to move too fast and do not thoroughly examine their efforts, risk falling into the trap of implementing purely operational or technical solutions and not making the more difficult internal, interpersonal, and institutional changes required.
Seventh, groups should seek to crowdsource deep equity expertise from within and throughout their organization, networks, and communities. This is critical to embedding capacity in the DNA of a system for the long haul, for going beyond surface-level change, and recognizing and drawing leadership from multiple levels of an organization or initiative. In pursuing any work around development, we have found there is always experience in the room. Groups undertaking deep equity work in U.S.-based organizations and networks realize that we all have had experiences based in equity, whether conscious or unconscious, and therefore have various types of expertise to bring forward. While working with Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy for example, staff were able to share tools and resources with other staff as well as offer grounding reminders that “this is not just about more effective strategy; this is about people’s lives—the people in our communities, and the people sitting next to you in the office.”
Finally, the field is recognizing that it is necessary to build muscle and capacity in inner work. The area of inner work allows practitioners grappling with equity to address inevitable anger, pain, and hurt, as well as connect with one another more deeply, evoke compassion, and heal trauma. This work can include coaching, storytelling to promote safety and understanding, approaches to grounding in the midst of emotional intensity, allowing space for grief, and experiencing nature and the outdoors in between meeting topics, among other strategies. In CAARE’s Leadership Development Initiative Team (LeaDIT) program for example, we used a storytelling process to unearth origin stories about participants’ understandings about racial and cultural identity. With a widely diverse group of mostly women from ALAANA backgrounds, and having spent two days together prior to this process, the group had built enough trust and relationships to be honest and vulnerable.
Ultimately, deep equity demands that organizations and groups look not merely at the composition of those on their staffs, but allow a commitment to honestly honoring difference, working at multiple levels, attention to relationships, healing, and a focus on dignity, justice and liberation to permeate very concrete approaches to how they pursue their mission. “When you don’t have an approach that causes you to look at [equity] in a particular way and ask certain kinds of questions, it leaves a lot of room for our unintentional and implicit bias to seep into how we set things up and how we make decisions, and how we do all the work that we’re doing,” reflects Kimi Watkins-Tartt.
Embracing an equity agenda, she argues, goes “beyond the good intentions of the people who are in an institution, because all of us have bias. Even though you have people of color who step into leadership roles, we step into systems and structures that aren’t designed to achieve equity. They’re actually sometimes designed to the contrary. In order for us to get different outcomes, we have to very intentionally redesign some of the [key] ways we do business.”
We hope you enjoyed this article. The next in the series is “Cultivating Leaderful Ecosystems.”