Time inequity: What it is and why it’s no-good, very-bad

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[Image description: A black-and-white photograph of two hourglasses standing side-by-side within a black box frame overlooking an indecipherable background (it might be a city, out of focus). The hourglass on the left has white sand, and the one on the right has black sand. Both seems almost full and are trickling sand, culminating in small sand piles in their respective bottom chambers. But the black-sand hourglass seems to have less sand in the top chamber.]

People have been asking me, “Vu, how do you manage to write a blog each week while running a nonprofit and parenting a toddler and a baby, and yet still retain your youthful good looks?” The secret is simple: I don’t sleep, and also, personal hygiene and nutrition standards have been lowered. Having a second kid, especially, has sapped our time so much that we tend to eat over the sink in five-minute increments; I don’t mind, because it allows me to rinse pureed peas and quinoa from out of my hair.

I can’t blame the baby for flinging food at us though. We haven’t been paying nearly as much attention to him as we did with his brother. He just turned one, and I think half the people we know aren’t even aware that we have a second baby, so little have we mentioned him. One person seemed irritated; he cornered me one day and said, “Hey, I heard you have a new baby? Why didn’t you tell me?” I felt terrible. All I could reply was, “Sorry, Dad…”

All jokes aside, let’s talk about time inequity and how it relates to our work. Time is the one thing we all have a finite amount of. None of us can create or buy more time and add it to our lifespans. In fact, it’s been proven repeatedly that poorer people and those most affected by racism have shorter life spans. In general, people from marginalized communities—people of color, people with disabilities, transgender individuals, low-income families—have less time on average. Many have to work, even from a young age, to support their families. Some give up their dreams because they have no time to pursue it, due to a parent or sibling who is ill, for example. And in this political climate, so much time is used by many communities simply for survival.   

Yet when we talk about equity, it is often about tangible resources: Income, funding, food, housing, access to green space, etc. Rarely do we recognize that time is just as critical a resource, and that it is also inequitably distributed. This is a huge deal. People from marginalized communities often have less time to spend with their kids. They often have less time for self-care. Many have less time to think strategically. And they are often punished because they do not have as much time as others.

If we don’t see the element of time and how it intersects with other elements of inequity, we cannot effectively address injustice. As a sector need to do a better job considering how we are using people’s time and whether it is equitable or not:

Funders: We have an unfortunate joke in our sector that that the smaller a grant is, the more irritating and time-consuming the application is. This is hilarious, until we realize that many organizations led by marginalized communities can only access these small grants. These are often organizations doing some of the most critical work that only they can do due to language and cultural skills. We are saddling the organizations doing some of the most urgent work with the most time-intensive and burdensome grant applications for the smallest amounts of resources.

I mentioned a while ago about how one of my Executive Director colleagues of color had been on the verge of tears because she had spent over 40 hours writing and rewriting a grant proposal and getting it rejected for the second time. It was for $5,000.

Funders need to be aware that time is not distributed equitably. Many of my colleagues of color who run nonprofits are getting paid part-time but are doing way more work than they’re paid. They often have other jobs. As community leaders, many have community obligations and crises that the rest of us simply don’t have to worry about. Do not waste their limited time. If your grant is less than 10K, it honestly should not be more than a 3-page narrative and one or two attachments. Or even better, just accept a grant proposal that they already spent 30 hours writing for another foundation. Save people the time, and allow them to use it to implement programs and services.

And keep in mind that organizations led by marginalized communities will have less hours in the day—because they tend to have fewer staff and more community obligations—to research your foundation’s priorities, seek support, write the proposal, and rehearse for the site visits. They may not be able to study and play the funding game as well as an organization that has more time in the form of a development team or contract grant-writer. If we want to address injustice, we have to focus on community needs, not simply reward whoever has the most time and resources to prepare the best application.  

Donors: This will be elaborated further in a future blog post, but as with funders, please be aware that many smaller, grassroots organizations, a significant number of which are led by marginalized communities, do not have a development team or even a half-time development person. Which means that they may not be able to send acknowledgements for your gifts as fast, or be able to focus on cultivating a relationship with you as effectively as other organizations. If you think that time is equally distributed, you will get frustrated with these organizations and may even think they’re incompetent. But since it is not, and since leaders of color, leaders with disabilities, etc., may have less time because they have all sorts of other stuff to deal with, please try to be understanding and supportive.

Hiring managers: I’ve talked a lot about how crappy and inequitable our hiring practices are, from requiring formal education as a default, to not disclosing salary ranges on job postings, to overly valuing immediate actions over long-term relationship-building potentials. But there is also the element of time inequity that we need to factor in. People with disabilities may need more time to get to your office, for example. People of color and those from rural communities may have less time because they may be more likely to be supporting their parents or siblings financially through working a second job, etc.

So list salary ranges; don’t waste people’s time. Don’t make unfair requests like “please prepare a 10-page development plan, based on your research of our org.” Think carefully before punishing people for being a few minutes late, for not writing a thank-you note fast enough, etc. Individuals with lower-incomes, single parents, people with disabilities may be left out. If you don’t understand time and other forms of inequity, you may eliminate many diverse candidates for consideration. Besides possibly helping to perpetuate the same injustice you are seeking to fight, you will lose out on the skills, talents, and perspective that your organizations desperately needs to remain relevant.

Service providers: As a colleague mentioned in the comments below, we need to recognize that the people seeking services often have even less time than we do. It may take them longer to get to our services, wait hours in line, fill out paperwork, and otherwise meet all the requirements we have. We also get frustrated by clients who don’t fill out evaluation surveys or attend focus groups to help us assess our programs, when it may be that they are pressed for time. We all need to be understanding and figure out how to streamline our processes in order to save our community members’ time.

Larger organizations, including foundations: I’ve written about this before, in Trickle-Down Community Engagement, but it bears repeating: Stop asking leaders of color and staff of smaller nonprofits to do stuff for free. We get asked all the time to run a workshop, sit on a panel, organize a focus group, help with outreach, serve on a committee, deliver a keynote, etc., often with no consideration of how limited our time is. If you seek our advice or expertise, be willing to pay organizations and leaders from marginalized communities. It is inequitable to ask us to spend our time to help you do your job without giving something back. These leaders’ time is limited, especially right now, when immigrant and refugee communities are being attacked and many of us have our hands full trying to protect and defend our friends and neighbors and keep civilization from collapsing.

Volunteers: If you volunteer at an org led by communities of color, keep in mind the dynamics of time. For example, you may think that an organization is disorganized because you got a crappy orientation, poor direction, lack of general communications, etc. Try to be understanding. I remember visiting an ED friend of mine. She is a wonderful and well respected leader of an immigrant community, but terrible with email and phone communication, so I decided to swing by to catch her in person. When I got there, she was unloading sacks of potatoes and onions for the organization’s food bank. While we talked, she told me about the sudden death of a community member, and how as a community leader she had to rally support for the family. It made me realize how privileged I was that I had the time to drive around the city to visit people, while my colleague was handling a crisis that she never asked for. If an organization seems disorganized, that may just be the case. Or it could be that their time is finite, their staffing is limited, and they must prioritize. Think of things you can do to free up more time for this organization. If they have no time to at organize volunteers, maybe what they need is for you to volunteer to be a volunteer coordinator, for example.

We all need to understand the role that time plays in our work. When our work is at its most inspiring, it is more than just restoring tangible resources to people. It is also adding and restoring time, arguably the most valuable resource of all. Meals on Wheels, for example, delivers hot meals to seniors. But the visitations, this sharing of time, bring hope and well-being to many older adults who may be lonely, who may not have others spending time checking in on them. (Don’t get me started on the administration’s plans to cut funding that supports Meals on Wheels).

As much as I complain about how much my kids sap my time and energy, I think about all the parents who have to work multiple jobs to support their families, who have to trade in the limited few hours they have to spend with their kids each week. I remember my own parents working 15 hours a day six days a week and the toll it took on us as a family. 

The lack of time combined with the lack of financial resources, all within a system that favors some and punishes others, continues the cycle of injustice. We need to be more thoughtful and reflective of the role time plays in this work, with the people we serve, with our colleagues, with our grantees. I am reminded of the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, when Will Smith’s character, Chris Gardner, was desperately poor and experiencing homelessness, with only five dollars left, and this wealthy coworker asked him to spot him five dollars. Five dollars meant nothing to this other dude. But that five dollars, which I think Chris Gardner needed to be able to take the bus home, meant a lot to him and to his son. We all tend to treat other people’s time the way the coworker treated Gardner’s five dollars. We in this sector need to be more aware that five minutes or five hours of time is not the same to everyone.  

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