Posted Thursday, June 18, 2015 at 6:55 pm

It feels like equity is the new buzzword. It has become the new “diversity.”

My question is, “How are you defining equity?”

I ask because it feels like we have different definitions.

I define equity as elevating the voices of those most impacted by disparities, often people and communities of color, and then working to close disparity gaps. It means removing barriers and acknowledging that different groups need different services to have a fair playing field.

Equity work requires action, taking risks, and acknowledging sometimes we screw-up. But after a screw up if we are humble and we are willing to learn, we achieve equity. Social justice work requires persistence.

There are many aspects, nuances, and contexts to consider when learning about how to approach equity. Here are two recommendations, or rather, two things to avoid. Being aware of these will be helpful when trying to incorporate equity into your collective impact work.


1- The Best Way to Avoid Equity Bombs? Don’t Set Them Off

Can we call a truce?

If we can stop using the term equity in a way that doesn’t actually mean equity, then I’ll stop dropping equity bombs.

What is an equity bomb?

Equity bombs are comments where someone, often a person of color, has to call out the inequity taking place.

If you’re wondering what that might look like, the pre-bomb conversation often starts like this:

Person A: “We’re doing these really great things in our collective impact effort. The programs in our area are full and they have wait lists. This means we’re making progress on our equity goals.”

Person B (aka the Equity Bomber): “Do you know who is attending the program? If these are children already enrolled in three sports, going to the library, and whose parents are on various committees, that isn’t equity. What are we doing to reach children who aren’t enrolled in programs and who may be failing out of school or struggling? Are you asking their parents what their children need to succeed?”

Everyone in the room sits and shifts uncomfortably, and then tries to forget what they just heard. They move on without acknowledging the equity bomb, and the person who dropped the equity bomb wants to crawl under the table.

Dropping equity bombs isn’t productive. For the person being bombed it puts them on the defensive about equity, and for the person dropping the equity bomb it has the potential to marginalize them from the group.

We can all do more to reduce the need for equity bombing.

We can avoid equity bombs if we stop thinking about equity as a standalone item. The principles of equity need to be embedded throughout an entire collective impact effort. For example, some questions to consider:

  • Are meetings diverse? Are affected communities represented in ways that values their participation?
  • Who is able to make decisions at meetings?
  • Is active listening and good facilitation practiced so that all voices are heard?

Finally, are systems changing to get more equitable results? The design of systems will dictate the results achieved. The more equity infused into the system, the more equitable the results.

Let’s create an equity-bomb free zone. Let’s all commit to doing better by infusing equity into everything we do.


2- Avoiding Fakequity

Collective impact work is about thinking big and for the long term. Equity work requires the same big long term thinking—what systems can we change to get better results?

Simply looking at demographic data and impact statements is fakequity (pronounced “fake-quity”). True equity is looking at a problem and figuring out what systems can be changed to get to more equitable results. Fakequity is keeping the system the same, but slapping an equity label on a project.

If you’re not striving to change the system that is preventing equitable outcomes in your community, how are you practicing equity?

Here’s an example to illustrate fakequity:

Wow Excellent Education is a two year old collective impact effort working to improve education in an urban area.  After spending a year planning and gathering people together, the effort decided to tackle attendance. In particular they focused on Somali children because they are falling behind in school. Yet as they developed their strategies and plans, they didn’t engage with the local Somali community. None of the task force members are from the Somali community.

At a meeting the head of a local Somali youth organization asks an equity related question:

“You want our children because you think you can help them, but you feel the road is too steep for us, as parents and as a community. Our understanding is you don’t want to work with parents; you don't want our culture and our heritage. If we feel excluded and you don’t want to understand us, how are you going to help our children?"

Can you spot the fakequity?

The fakequity is in having the collective impact effort say they are working on behalf of a group and trying to fix a community problem without having true representation from the community.

As a friend told me about our work: “If we’re not at the table, it means we’re on the menu.” While that may seem harsh, why not open up your table and share? Equity means we share—we share power, resources, and we share of ourselves. In the example the head of the local Somali organization would love to share her culture with others, but very few mainstream leaders take her up on her invitations. She has amazing thoughts and stories to share with those who listen and act upon her suggestions. I’ve watched too many leaders dismiss her for one reason or another, or they try to take advantage of her knowledge by constantly taking and not sharing resources or paying for her consultation.

Now, does that sound like equity to you?

In order to have equitable practices we need to build trust. Equity requires honest relationships and long term support of each other.

How to avoid fakequity and embrace equity?

  • Share—look at the resources your collective impact has. Do you have access to great funders, policy makers, or money? Share those relationships and funds.
     
  • Listen—it may sound easy, but it is actually harder to practice. Are you listening to what people are saying and not saying? Check your understanding by saying “I heard you say this. Did I get it correct?” Also, be quiet and let others talk.
     
  • Learn—learning about equity is a lifelong effort. Getting to equitable outcomes takes time: hard slow work=equity, fast easy work=fakequity. Find a community of people who can help you think and talk about race and equity. I meet monthly with a group of colleagues, now friends, where we talk and problem solve things that come up around equity. I value their consul and friendship, we laugh a lot, periodically sigh, and I walk away much smarter.


Looking for more examples on what fakequity might look like?

Fans of Vu Le’s Nonprofit with Balls blog may have seen the fakequity chart from his post Are you guilty of Fakequity? If so, what to do about it. We are also sharing what fakequity and equity look like on our Fakequity facebook page.

We have also developed this chart (warning, it has swear words) as a tool to map the progression from Fakequity to Equity.

View Chart Online

I’ve told you of some of my experiences with the term equity, of equity bombs and fighting fakequity. Please share your experiences—we all learn best when we are open and honest about our experiences. No one gets it right all the time, I know I don’t. I’d love to hear from you on what is working or maybe we can problem solve together. Please feel free to share in the comments below or email me at fakequity@gmail.com.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Special thank you to Heidi Schillinger of Equity Matters for her thoughts and perspectives.

8 Comments

Joe Hunt

technical assistance provider / consultant

Thanks, Erin. I appreciate your starting this conversation because I'm constantly "bombed" by people who seem compelled to take an oppositional position to programs that show success for a particular group...and not others. I learned early on in workforce development work that it is much like triage...I have a select group of potential candidates for whom we provide training, and I must accept that not all will "survive" (complete) the training. I have to focus on those who are most likely to succeed. Those that do not qualify or who are unable to complete our program need to be referred to other programs better suited to their skills and abilities.

I, like many others in the field, would like to help anyone and everyone who needs skills training and employment opportunities, but in reality that's just not possible.

We need more programs dedicated to serving the various segments of our communities who are in need. Bombers, in my estimation, do more damage than just put people on the defensive. They diminish the programs and the people who have worked hard to make them a success, and impede the development of new programs. Bombers, like haters, contribute nothing constructive. This brings to mind a Warren Buffet quote that I charish, “Predicting Rain Doesn’t Count,  Building Arks Does”.

Submitted by Joe Hunt on Wed, 2015-06-24 12:58

Tracy Timmons-Gray

administrator, backbone organization, community manager, funder of initiatives, partner organization, other, technical assistance provider / consultant, content administrator, blogger, funder community of practice

Thanks, Joe, for sharing your experiences. I invite Erin to share her thoughts as well, but I wanted to share my experiences with “equity bombing” and how I’ve come to learn that often the action, although sometimes very uncomfortable for everyone, can serve as a great signal that more can be done to achieve more equitable outcomes for those involved or being served.

I have two examples I can share:

1) As an Equity Bomber—as a person with disabilities (low vision), I often find myself the only person in a crowded room that can “see” the issues related to access and inclusion. There’s actually a great stigma to speak up or “equity bomb” about these issues because for People with Disabilities (PWD), we’re often battling the preconceived notion that we’re completely incapable, so even mentioning an access issue is often putting us in a bad, shameful place. On the other hand, if the issues aren’t addressed, we continue a system that promotes inaccessibility and the continued exclusion of PWD from the workplace, education, etc.

My role as community manager here also means that I work for CI Forum co-organizer FSG, and I work from their Seattle office. FSG does a lot of great professional development trainings for its staff, from excel to PowerPoint to facilitation. Having a vision disability, I realized very early on in my tenure here that I could not participate in the trainings with my colleagues because I couldn’t see the projected screen. To my horror, I would be called on to answer a question posted on the screen, and I couldn’t answer it. Something that felt very embarrassing at the time, and compounded a feeling of “shame” around having a disability and being *different* and needing other ways to learn. From there, I approached FSG’s people team and shared with them about the access issues. (In essence, being the equity bomber.) What I appreciated out of that hard experience was that the team really listened and worked to make the trainings more accessible. We started doing them as webinars that anyone could access from any computer. They recorded them and posted them on the intranet so people could go back and review at the timing that they needed.

It’s quite difficult to be the person who points out an inequity issue, so having your concerns received with curiosity, grace, humility, and a shared feeling of wanting to find a solution was really wonderful. As someone who has been a bomber, it made me really reflect when:

2) Being hit by an Equity Bomb: For my volunteer work, I work with LGBTQ communities—a broad spectrum of people that have very different needs depending on the person, and there’s a lot of nuances and complexity. After organizing a LGBTQ-related conference last year at a public library, one of the speakers blogged about it, and said they had a great time, but they had wished the issue around bathrooms had been addressed—there had not been a comfortable solution in place for those who are trans* or who identify as gender queer. They very aptly pointed out that there was a section of our audience that was not being served as well as we would have wished. We took in that feedback, and as we plan the next event, we're talking now with the library about how to solve this issue and make the experience more comfortable for all attendees.

Being equity bombed is hard, especially when it’s public, but it’s also another form of community engagement and feedback loops, something that is especially vital in collective impact work. From my experiences, I’ve come to see that the bombers are normally very frustrated and too used to being ignored or overlooked or seen as too marginal from the dominant group to pay attention to, yet they bring up, sometimes very candidly, the blind spots that exist in our work, and help reveal how we may be leaving people behind or unintentionally maintaining a system that keeps people at unequal outcomes.

I think back to how I would want to be treated when once again, I come upon an area, a policy, a program, or even a way of thinking that locks me out for being who I am. I think back to what I would wish to hear, and try to use that thinking as I listen and take in when someone points out my blind spots and what I might be missing in my work.

So, in that way, I wouldn’t equate equity bombers to “haters”. I see them more as beacons. Sometimes very angry beacons, but they have a right to their frustration too, and part of my job is to navigate within that frustration and help bring them in so they can be part of the process, and ultimately, part of the solution.

If you’re interested, there’s a great panel on system leadership, and Stacy Holland, in the video, talks about having to deal with a “mean girl” on her project, and how she learned to deal with it. It’s a great talk about taking in criticism and frustration from those who feel routinely left behind, and how to move forward together.

Submitted by Tracy Timmons-Gray on Wed, 2015-06-24 19:05

Joe Hunt

technical assistance provider / consultant

Thanks, Tracy, for reminding me that one of the important criteria for the success of Collective Impact is an agreement, or common understanding, of the definition behind the terminology we use. You and I clearly have a different perception about what is meant by “Equity Bomb”.

A good example of my interpretation of an Equity Bomb is a recent post to a veterans’ program site that assists veterans in recovery to gain employment. It read, “Too bad others don’t get a second chance”. While I agree there are plenty of folks who need a second chance, this type of comment only minimizes the good work being done to serve this community. This type of comment is not unique in my experience, and that was the basis for my response.

And from my perspective, I would never regard you as an Equity Bomber. The examples you provided were constructive, in that they pointed out deficiencies that were necessary and actionable to improve the delivery and accessibility of services. I also recognize that it takes courage to speak out in situations such as those, and I applaud you for taking those actions. I would hope your organization would appreciate your contributions.

Prior to my workforce development life, I spent more than 20 years in marketing. One of the most important understandings a business owner or customer service person should have is that a customer who is complaining about the product or service is actually saying, “I am a loyal customer, but this is a problem.” I think your examples fit that model.

Who knows, Tracy, my interpretation of the meaning of “Equity Bomb” might be totally off base; but I appreciate being reminded that others may have a different experience, interpretation and reaction. It’s a valuable reminder.

Thank you.

Joe

Submitted by Joe Hunt on Thu, 2015-06-25 09:49

Tracy Timmons-Gray

administrator, backbone organization, community manager, funder of initiatives, partner organization, other, technical assistance provider / consultant, content administrator, blogger, funder community of practice

Thanks, Joe. I agree with you that our definitions of Equity Bombers might be differing. I see what you're saying related to negative comments. I'm sure we've all seen them--on posts, in meetings, something that resembles what SNL fans might think of as Debbie Downer responses.

For me, the complexity around equity bombing is that even in the smallest, "Argh, what about me?" comments--the ones that may seem off-base or may feel like they're overlooking all the great work that is getting done—they may also have a core truth, and depending on the person and where they're coming from, and what responses they're used to receiving, that short angry retort might be the only way for them to reveal that core truth. If you're regularly marginalized or left out, it can be really difficult to come to a situation from a "centered" place to provide calm, constructive feedback. (This is one reason why advocates are so important, and why even advocates need advocates since it can be so difficult to successfully advocate for yourself.)

Depending on who's receiving the feedback, my actions above could be seen as destructive to workplace culture, adding more work to already very busy people, or trying to "stand out" above others and expect undeserved "special treatment." These are all responses I have received in my life, and I think it is a common occurrence. So much so that, a lot of those who see inequity issues are sometimes too exhausted to say anything or don't want to deal with the potential blowback response.

What I've come to learn over the last 15 years working in nonprofits is that I need to still advocate, but also really cultivate my listening, especially if I'm in a place of power that can change something.

I really appreciate Erin’s “straight talk” about this, and also appreciate the chance to discuss it with you. It’s a hard, complex topic, and but a great evolving conversation as we move forward.

Submitted by Tracy Timmons-Gray on Fri, 2015-06-26 16:54

Joe Hunt

technical assistance provider / consultant

Agreed. Thanks, Tracy.

Joe

Submitted by Joe Hunt on Fri, 2015-06-26 17:29

Hi Joe and Tracy,

Thanks for your thoughts. Apologies for taking a few days to reply. The feedback is really helpful and a good way for me to practice my online ‘listening’ skills.

Joe, I’m sorry to hear about being equity bombed; it doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience. When I get feedback from bombers I take into consideration who is saying it and what groups or communities they represent. If the criticism is coming from a community of color or representing a marginalized group I do my best to build a relationship so I can better understand their concerns. A lot of times I find there are important information that I need to hear.  I also seek out people whom I’ve bombed, because I want them to know I’m there to help and I want to work with them. It comes down to relationships. If the feedback is coming in online, that is a little trickier. In this case maybe it is important to look at trends and data, is it isolated or a recurring theme? Are they complaining or offering constructive feedback? Are they representing a marginalized group?

I hope this helps.

Submitted by Erin Okuno on Sun, 2015-06-28 03:00

Veronica Borgonovi

backbone organization, funder of initiatives, technical assistance provider / consultant, blog contributor

Wow, what a fantastic thread! Thank you Joe, Tracy, and Erin for pushing my own thinking on this.

I think Erin's question about complaining vs. offering constructive feedback is a good one. And Joe suggests a helpful response in his analogy of how a marketer can see beyond "this customer is a pain in the rear" to "this customer is giving me a gift by letting me know of a problem." It's a matter of mindset. It can be really easy to feel defensive and jump to the conclusion that an equity bomber is simply complaining. The challenge is in slowing down and asking the question - is this just someone who wants to complain or get attention by saying something controversial? Unfortunately that does happen, particularly online. Sometimes we do have to let things go. But before dismissing an equity bomb outright, it can be helpful to consider what is actually being said and whether there may be a nugget of truth to grapple with. If there's a chance the equity feedback is appropriate, how can I listen in a way that can enable the bomber to feel heard (particularly if it may be difficult for them to voice their thoughts or if they may feel pretty frustrated or angry)? What might I learn in that process that could improve the way I or my partners work? What are our options, and can I leverage the bomber's perspective to come up with options together? 

As is often the case with this work, it seems that trust and relationships can go a long way in preventing bombs from happening (when relationships are inclusive) or helping to clear the air more quickly when they do happen. Thank you for reminding me that the next time I'm bombed, I can try to look for the gift in what is being said rather than immediately dismiss it as a complaint.

Submitted by Veronica Borgonovi on Tue, 2015-06-30 21:02

Liz Brooks IBCLC

backbone organization

Love this article!  Thank you.

Submitted by Liz Brooks IBCLC on Thu, 2015-07-09 06:17