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So you want to improve Equity?

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

Three considerations for organizations committed to change. In recent years, a growing number of organizations have made explicit commitments to equity. Compelled by mounting numbers of people resigning from dysfunctional or toxic workplaces and global demonstrations calling for racial justice, these organizations have made known their desire to chart a new course. For many such organizations, hiring an Equity lead is their first step. These leads are tasked with the difficult task of implementing an “equity agenda” that has not taken the time to consider just how much work is truly necessary to shift the culture of the organization. Instead, the organization is concerned with optics, public relations, and grant deadlines—all timelines that are much shorter than what Stephen Covey calls at “the speed of trust.”

Often, when an organization pursues equity, it does so with the same systems, frameworks, and ideas that led to their exact predicament. Equity is treated as a crisis that must be addressed to preserve the organization’s reputation and credibility. When equity leads land in such environments, the physical and mental toll is often exacting. They find themselves in an uphill battle that bridges the chasm between an organization’s stated goals and its daily practice. For organizations seeking to engage in this work, here are some things to consider:

1. Fear of meaningfully engaging Frontline workers

Equity leads are frequently sandwiched between the organization’s desire to keep up appearances and the reality that building trust and shifting workplace culture is often difficult, messy, and unglamourous. Many organizations avoid thorough self-examination for fear of what may be revealed, especially from frontline workers most connected to equity-deserving communities.

2. Top-down Approach

Many equity initiatives begin in the minds of executives with little-to-no connection to the communities and clients they serve. Rather than meaningfully engaging with community members to discuss lived realities to inform priorities, executives often bring their ideas, already finalized, to communities in search of approval. Sometimes, partner agencies may sign-off of these ideas on the grounds that something is better than nothing. The absence of opposition, however, is not the same as a resounding and enthusiastic support. When Equity leads raise this point, they are often told there’s no time for a different way: “We told the granting agency that we’d complete this task by March!” In a truly equitable environment, the accountability must be to those directly impacted, not upper management.

3. The limits of representation

While representation is an important part of improving equity, it is not the only contributing factor. Representation and tokenism are two sides of the same coin, with concrete supports being the distinguishing factor. Frequently, these managers have been hired into positions where they are encouraged to prove themselves by promoting the workplace culture. If equity leads are put into a situation where they cannot speak freely and are not provided with support, they face a difficult decision. They can either continue pushing for change and risk reprisal, burnout, and ‘moral injury’ or, alternatively, “play ball” and advance the organization’s agenda. Sadly, many equity leads are given little authority to make decisions that could impact equity and have experienced discrimination at the hands of their supervisors.

The work of equity is work that must be modelled internally before it can be rolled out externally. Equity leads must be empowered to observe and assess the organization in its entirety—not only the parts the organization is willing to show. Similarly, these leads must have access to the financial, cultural, and institutional supports they need to effectively implement change. Top-down approaches, fear of community, and tokenism—which are mainstays of many organizations—are clear barriers to this work. Rather that moving quickly, organizations must be committed to moving intentionally. At times this will require fast, urgent action and at other times, it will be slow and steady.

Paul & Laëtitia

Evenings & Weekends Consulting

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