Pursuing Equity

Sheryl Petty

The following draws heavily from a blog post written by Sheryl Petty for the Management Assistance Group in September 2016. We have tailored it to fit a specific grassroots community volunteer audience and share it here as her framing seems particularly relevant for grassroots groups ‘pursuing deep equity’.

What Does Pursuing Deep Equity Mean?

Equity (beyond “diversity” and “inclusion”) is essential to how we define “quality,” “high performance” and “success.” For us, equity is core to what we seek in the world: dignity and well-being for everyone, and ensuring that resources and power are shared in ways for all people to realize our full potential, and contribute to thriving, sustainable communities.

Intention and Action are Not the Same

In our work toward equity it is critical to distinguish between:

  • Beliefs and intentions – what underlies and informs our perspectives and actions;
  • Seeing – what we do or do not notice, what is and is not visible to us, (whether deliberate or unconscious; including cultural awareness and responsiveness);
  • Doing – the necessary individual, group and institutional capacities, muscles, structures and processes that we do (or don’t) exercise; and the
  • Impacts (or lack thereof) – of those beliefs, seeing and doing.

Committing to deep equity also includes recognizing privilege and oppression present in society; understanding one’s relationship to privilege and oppression; and forming authentic alliances among people who experience both oppression and privilege to transform society, recognizing the importance and central role in that process of the leadership of people who are marginalized.

Working at Multiple Levels

There are multiple levels of transformation necessary in advancing deep equity (as many have written about):

  • Internal change: Excavating and surfacing our own apprehensions, misgivings, fears, anxieties, assumptions, unconscious beliefs, and concerns, as well as our strengths.
  • Interpersonal relations: How we view and treat other people, where that may cause us pain, joy, anxiety, release, confusion, or discomfort; and where and when we feel courageous.
  • Institutional changes: Policies, practices, structures, and organizational culture, which can seem most inflexible. This level requires the first two levels in order to be sustainable.
  • Cross-institutional and systemic changes: This level speaks to historic and current patterns that are pervasively recognizable across social systems, including housing, media, education, community membership, economic well-being, health outcomes, and pervasive beliefs across society about “certain groups” of people and their/our characteristic traits, habits, practices, capacities and value.

We must address all these levels to pursue a more just, equitable society and really tackle inequity. This work is often uncomfortable. If we are not at least somewhat uncomfortable, we are not digging deeply enough to excavate, unearth, surface and heal. It is important to note that this work must be entered skillfully and with compassion.

Willingness, Risk, and the REAL Questions

Sometimes we may need to develop greater strength to stay engaged with the challenges of pursuing deep equity and justice. At some point, the question comes to what we are willing to risk; recognizing where we may be defensive. We have to be brave, humble and willing enough to let go at all costs; when commitment to the betterment and liberation of the whole becomes more important than our comfort or “rightness.” The questions become, How will all boats rise? and, do we really want that? and why wouldn't we?

How Do We Pursue Deep Equity?

Now that we've clarified the “what” (i.e., what it means to pursue deep equity), we turn to the “how.” If we are not clear enough about the “what,” the “how” will not matter because it will be uncertain whether we are actually moving toward ‘equity’ or toward a less-than-transformative version of the same outcomes that have not served us well.

Before beginning work as a group, it is important to assess readiness by reflecting on whether the group members have the necessary threshold capacities needed to begin work. This includes leadership receptivity, a set of individuals internal to the group who have the skill, willingness and time to spearhead the work, and baseline existing structures to manage the work (or willingness to create such structures). Once these prerequisites exist, a series of three, major non-linear phases roughly include:

Phase 1: Listening & Reflecting

In this phase, a group reflects on every aspect of their system, from an equity perspective. This phase (which can be scoped to meet specific needs) is designed to:

  • Understand the current perspectives on equity and inequity in the group;
  • Assess the starting point overall and the multiple starting points that may be present in a group;
  • Hold up a mirror and make each aspect of the group’s functional areas, habits, structures, processes, practices and culture visible to all (particularly when they have not been);
  • Reflect the elephants or “undiscussable” areas that are typically taboo to raise;
  • Give voice to the various perspectives in the group, including those that are often invisible, marginalized and/or silent; and
  • Assess the relative bench strength in the group to take on and deeply embed equity into each technical and relational aspect of the work.

Those driving the process focus on gathering a robust set of information through tools like interviews, focus groups, surveys, observation, storytelling and document review. They then synthesize this data in order to clarify aspects of the system from beliefs and intentions, ways of seeing and doing, and impacts. It is important at this stage, that the data gathered is confirmed by people in the system overall. The data should give air to aspects of the group in a way that lends them to improvement (in the case of challenges) or more powerful leveraging (in the case of strengths).

Phase 2: Reckoning & Promoting Collective “Ahas”

Here a group uses processes that promote alignment among a critical mass of key people in the system leading them to a point of no return, a point where they cannot “un-see,” where they are compelled to act toward profound personal, group and institutional transformation and a deeper, more impactful manifestation of their mission, with equity infused throughout.

This phase includes preparing and supporting people in the system to hear the results of the data via coaching, rollout conversations, practice with understanding and working with emotions, alignment sessions, etc. This is the stage where a group sees areas of traction and resistance in the group or network, which can change and evolve over time and over the course of the work.

Groups work diligently in this phase to build the capacity to hold both the depth and the urgency of equity for the place-based work. Core volunteers also prepare for the emotional labor that will be required to process the data and move into implementation.

Phase 3: Embedding & Implementation

In this phase, the requisite capacity is built to be able to take the deeper seeing, understanding, reckoning and alignment, and translate it into personal, team, organizational and systems-level changes that stick, including structures, processes, norms and behaviors.

This phase is the longest and is actually indefinite. It often includes:

  • Redefining or refining the vision/destination/goals and notions of “success” for the group overall;
  • Refining notions of “quality” for core aspects of the group’s work; and
  • Agreement on a path, strategic approach and next steps in a sequence appropriate to that group’s work.

This phase sometimes requires a group to address triage or crisis issues while building toward long-term, systemic change. Groups develop strategy that embed equity into the work and that are explicitly tied to their existing plans and directions. This is essential so that equity is seen as systemic, and not silo'ed or compartmentalized, affecting only certain structures and processes. It is key to find a ‘right-sized approach’ so that groups develop clear priorities and next steps that fit within their existing capacities, while building for the future.

Final Thoughts On What We Are Learning

  • Motivation for pursuing equity influences the process.
  • Inner work is vital.
  • Balancing momentum and spaciousness is important.

What brings people, groups, and networks to pursuing deep equity is a key influencer in the process. With groups who are experiencing unexpected or unprecedented internal and/or external challenges, prompting from core volunteers and/or are reflecting on current events in society and concluding that it is important to begin to address equity – questions of “why,” “whether,” and the potential impact on their core efforts, are paramount, and must be addressed first, before questions of “how” can be defined (which takes longer). With groups with social justice values, the centrality of equity is unquestioned. The issue with such groups is mainly “how” not “why” or “whether.” With all groups, synchronization about vision and values becomes essential, before any operational considerations can be tackled.

Sometimes groups want to move quickly. Reasons for this range from alleviating pressure from constituents, to challenges with the emergent and emotionally uncomfortable nature of the work, to budget constraints. However, it is important to move at a pace that is fast enough to maintain momentum and slow enough for people to build mutual understanding, alignment, capacity, confidence and healing in the ways that best support individuals and their system. In all cases, we have found that balancing urgency with depth is worth the time.

Throughout all phases, groups do well to create more space for creativity, compassion and resilience by bringing in what is called inner work practices. Such approaches support clients to remain present, open, engaged and curious when reactivity is triggered and we may consciously or unconsciously want to shut down and leave the process; and when we are having physiological, emotional, and/or psychological and cognitive responses that can impede progress in the work. Examples of such practices can include coaching; mindfulness and somatic practices; guided writing, visualization, artistic or other creative practices; and other approaches.

Here is a short (by no means comprehensive) list of resources and organizations advancing deep equity work:

As the Grassroots Fund continues to go deeper on equity, reviewing our internal programs and processes, we look forward to sharing this journey and creating more spaces and places to engage in dialogue and share our questions and struggles. Please use the comment space below to add any thoughts and reflections and never hesitate to contact us with feedback and suggestions