Drop the performance and claim the purpose of your equity intentions
By: Dr. Sophia Bolt
Equity, along with other terms such as diversity and inclusion, have become buzzwords in recent years. Yet as our systems and institutions continue to uphold and reproduce injustice, equity as a stand-alone addition to an organization's, school’s, or district’s “to-do” list will do little in the way of cultivating any sort of transformative, liberatory change. Equity is not a singular, finite task; rather it should be understood as the foundation, as the lens through which all decisions, policies, and practices are made. Only when using an equity lens becomes the default process will schools, districts, and organizations move from a space of performative equity commitments to continually cultivating the conditions for culturally responsive environments where everyone has what they need to grow and thrive.
What are performative equity commitments?
When it comes to equity commitments, the focus is often on “checking-the-box” activities, such as implicit bias trainings, diversity workshops, etc that are disingenuously used as evidence to show an active equity commitment. While these activities may have value as initial efforts, they fail to be transformative of thinking, and thus behavior, because they are typically unaccompanied by the opportunity for deep, intentional, and sustained reflection (Cerco et al., 2022). Trainings and workshops without sustained reflection will not translate into accountability of action and practice shifts that foster equity. In fact, these short term commitments work to conceal the effects of systemic and institutional racism and other forms of oppression. Such an approach reflects an equity trap that Dr. Jamila Dugan labels “Boomerang equity,” described as “investing time and resources to understand your equity challenges but reverting back to recycled, status quo solutions” (2021). Thus, equity commitments remain performative and inauthentic when engagements are highlighted and celebrated, but no real change can be felt by those most harmed in the space, often Black and Brown folx and others with historically excluded identities. The performative nature is further expanded when there is little effort or concern from leadership to assess the impact of such engagements. Rather, these engagements remain shallow items on an ill-informed to-do list.
Another form of performative equity efforts is perhaps more active, but equally ineffective. The creation of a role, such as a DEI officer, or equity committee has the potential to be a catalyst for change, but more often than not, “equity work” remains siloed to that role or group, inherently signaling that “equity work” is disconnected from the overall ecosystem. Dr. Dugan calls this equity trap “Siloing equity” and defines it as, “locating equity work in a separate and siloed policy, team, or body.” Again, performativity occurs when the person or group or published strategic plan to address equity can be held up as evidence of a deep commitment to change, but the status quo of inequity remains untouched.
In reality, as long as equity is treated as something that we can just “check-off” (i.e. run that workshop, hire that DEI role, release a statement of commitment), our commitments will always fall short. Instead, a system wide approach must be taken, one that fosters the collective use of an equity lens.
Defining an equity lens
At RE-Center, we define an equity lens as “one through which decisions and actions are made: 1) centering the organizational value of equity, 2) mitigating the influence of bias, & 3) elevating the experiences, needs, and voices of folx from historically excluded identities (McCabe Zwerger, 2022). In using this lens, leaders, staff, educators, families, and students come to critically understand their individual and collective roles in disrupting inequity and promoting racial justice.
When operating from this lens, the equity trap of “Doing Equity” can be avoided. Dugan describes this trap as “treating equity as a series of tools, strategies, and compliance tasks versus a whole person, whole system change process linked to culture, identity, and healing” (2021). When equity is the foundation and not an afterthought, decisions from their inception work proactively to mitigate bias and center the needs of historically excluded folx. It works to avoid the need for reactionary responses down the line to fires that would inevitably arise fueled by a lack of equity considerations. For example, when implementing a dress code policy, the use of an equity lens aids the decision makers in seeing that a policy banning head coverings (with the exception of religious garb) would likely disproportionately impact Black men and boys who often wear durags to “help protect their hair and maintain a wavy hair texture” (Singleton, 2022). Thus this policy that on its face projects neutrality in fact will create inequitable outcomes and consequences for already vulnerable groups.
An equity lens in practice
While leadership operationalizing a commitment to equity undoubtedly involves shifts in policies and practices, equally important is building the capacity of all stakeholders to utilize an equity lens. Leadership can make practice and policy changes in writing all day long, but ensuring collective understanding of the needed shifts is a crucial step for implementation. An updated or newly adopted policy can only impact outcomes as far as it is operationalized in practice.
An example of this in schools may be the adoption of a policy to protect LGBTQIA+ students that designates access to all gender bathrooms. This policy will fall short if some staff members deny access to the all gender bathrooms and push students to use the bathrooms that match the adults’ perception of each students’ gender. In this instance, there is a clear disconnect between the policy adoption and the understanding and/or buy-in from those who play a role in enacting the shift. An instance such as this highlights the crucial need for community members to be a part of the equity conversation and the need to capture the ways in which their daily experiences have been impacted (or not) following a policy shift or adoption. Policy creation is only the first step; implementation and assessment of its impact must also be prioritized.
In the workplace, a timely example of the need for an equity lens is that of considerations for returning to in person working environments in a “post-pandemic” world. While there is a palpable societal desire and push to uphold a post-pandemic reality where masks are a relic of the past, in truth, we are still living through a pandemic. Immunocompromised folx continue to be at greater risk everyday from the complications of contracting COVID-19. As reported in The Atlantic, for the 3% of the U.S population, at least 7 million people, taking immunocompromising drugs to address a medical issues, “policies that protected immunocompromised people, including mask mandates and vaccination requirements, are disappearing, while accommodations that benefited them, such as flexible working options, are being rolled back” (Yong, 2022). Utilizing an equity lens when re-evaluating flexible working options, which requires elevating the experiences, needs, and voices of folx from historically excluded identities, would illuminate the ways in which a rollback of these policies will place an undue risk on immunocompromised staff. This is especially the case when work has been completed successfully in the flexible, remote world. Removing flexible working options will either force immunocompromised individuals to seek other employment or be forced to face unnecessary risk every day to secure their livelihood. As Dr. Dena Simmons shared in a tweet earlier this month:
In another tweet this month, she called out the performative nature of higher education institutions’ DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging) statements, especially when attending to the continued challenges created by COVID-19.
Institutions and organizations serious about operationalizing their commitment to equity would unquestionably recognize the need to maintain flexible working options despite the pressure to return to “normalcy.” Furthermore, in maintaining pandemic accommodations, messaging about the continued flexibility must emphasize that the decision is one grounded in equity, proactively pushing back against predictable criticism, and preventing workplace culture that works to discourage or punish those who remain remote.
From these examples, it is clear that operationalizing equity cannot be done through a one-and-done approach. Operationalizing equity requires the continued practice of utilizing an equity lens to embed equity in all parts of an institution, organization, district or school. This will require not only developing the capacity to critically question the status quo, both on the part of leadership and all roles with positional power, but taking sustained action towards justice. And when this action is taken, building in human-centered ways to continually assess the impact, elevating the voices of those most at risk if the shifts were to fail.
Before taking action, RE-Center Executive Director, Natalie McCabe Zwerger, offers the following questions for leadership to ask as they operate from an equity lens:
- Have we considered the influence of bias and what mitigation strategies are in place?
- Who is most impacted by this decision or action? How are folx from historically excluded identities impacted?
- What disparate impacts have we seen manifest in practice with similar decisions or actions?
- How are we advancing our values for equity, inclusivity, and anti-racism with this decision or action? How might we be contradicting them?
(McCabe Zwerger, 2022)
And once enacted, the following questions can be used to assess the impact of decisions, actions, or intended shifts:
- How have the lived experiences of folx from historically excluded identities been impacted by this change? Where do gaps still exist?
- What challenges have come up in operationalizing this new or updated practice or policy?
- How have our values of equity, inclusivity, and anti-racism been expanding by this change?
- How has this change informed other areas for growth?
With this inquiry in mind, we can embody a stance and approach that takes us out of the realm of performing equity and into a space of operationalizing practices that advance equity with purpose, thoughtfulness, and intention.
Dr. Bolt is a white, cis hetero non-disabled researcher & policy analyst.
Cerceo, E., Zimmerman, M., & DeLisser, H. M. (2022). Diversity, equity, and inclusion: moving from performance to transformation through the arts and humanities. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 37(4), 944-946.
Dugan, J. (2021). Beware of equity traps and tropes. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 78(6), 35-40.
Singleton, S. (2022, September 14). The history of the durag and how it became a cultural symbol of pride. Byrdie. Retrieved from https://www.byrdie.com/history-of-durag-4798963
Yong, E. (2022, February 17). The millions of people stuck in pandemic limbo. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2022/02/covid-pandemic-immunocompromised-risk-vaccines/622094/