Equity is the Way to Equity

I recently sat in an education policy meeting where a funder was considering offering resources towards an education equity initiative.  It sounded great, but there was a problem. There were very few people of color in the meeting, which took place in the middle of the day in a high-rise office, overlooking the central business district.  These well-meaning, liberal white professionals were rolling their eyes and mocking the state of our government, preaching about how the need for equity was more important than ever.  It was almost comical to me, if it weren’t so aggravating. I left early for the sake of my sanity.  But before I left, I had one thing to say, “Maybe we should look at the larger thread of this work because there is a long history of equity work in the community. It’s not new.” I named one organization in particular, run by an African American woman who I admire for her congruency between what she says is her commitment to equity and how she does her work.  She develops community leadership and lifts up the voices of those most impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline.

Equity isn’t easy.  It takes a lot of hard work to break the habits ingrained in us as a result of our society. We are steeped in cultural norms that value dominance, hierarchy, and efficiency over cooperation, shared leadership, and time for relationship building. But in order to obtain equitable results, one must understand how to infuse the process with equity.  Policymakers, school administrators, and social justice organizations are trying to obtain equity, but find it elusive because they don’t know how to create it for themselves within their own structures and processes.

Which is why the results of the recent release of Urban League’s education equity report is no surprise.  The report simply highlights the results of inequitable systems and processes.  Low-income students and students of color in New Orleans are:

  • more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers
  • more likely to be suspended out of school
  • less likely to have access to the most in-demand schools
  • less likely to have access to advanced placement classes.  

The report does a wonderful job of highlighting the issues and posing challenging questions to policymakers regarding their equity strategies being taken. I’d like to add a few other questions regarding the process to those listed in the report:

  1. How do we make the education policymaking process in New Orleans more equitable?
  2. How do we give parents, teachers, and students a prominent role in the decision-making processes?
  3. How might school and organizational leadership implement an equitable approach where the community guides the strategies and culture of their schools?

I certainly don’t claim to have the answers. In fact, as irritable as I was with the meeting that day, I too am guilty of replicating the same inequitable processes.  I hold education equity meetings at times that are not accessible to parents, teachers, and students. I sometimes give more weight to organizations with a history and reputation in the work, instead of acknowledging their history and reputation were enabled by privilege.  I don’t always go out of my way to make sure the smaller organizations run by people of color are not only represented, but also given the chance to lead. Though, in that room with mostly white representatives of predominately white organizations talking about equity, the incongruence became clearer.  I went back home and thought about some of the equity organizations I’d been working with over the past few years.  I thought about whether they were diverse and whether their leadership was diverse while they went out into the world asking for equity.  I thought about how funders, like the one at this meeting, have an implicit bias towards white organizations because they have more power, staff, and resources and then perpetuate this by offering them more funding — for projects that could and should be going to organizations run by people of color.  In this case, the dynamic was so unseemly that it was glaringly obvious what was happening. As the group talked about equity, they were perpetuating inequity.

As a result of that meeting, I realized that although I don’t have any control over the decision of the funder, I wanted to try harder to advance equity in my own sphere of influence.  I decided to begin by continuing to ask the question, “How can we make this process more equitable?” Because not only do I not have the answers, I shouldn’t even try to come up with them on my own. I need to find ways to broaden the conversation, to go beyond the usual circle of community leaders who end up at the table because they can afford to be there.  Certainly, it will take more time and resources to do this, but that’s exactly what equity is. We don’t reach equity like some endpoint or destination. We begin with this step, the opportunity right in front of us, this meeting.  If leaders such as policymakers, school administrators, and organization staff ensure that the process is equitable, we have a better chance for equitable outcomes.

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