9 questions to help you develop an equity mindset

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Hi everyone. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the anti-transgender laws in Texas, the “don’t say gay” bill in Florida, the murders by right-wingers in Portland, the CDC continuing to be OK with letting disabled people die, and other forms of injustice everywhere, this blog post today may not be too polished and probably not very funny.

The reality is that inequity is pervasive. This is why our sector exists. However, because inequity can be complex and not always obvious, it takes intentionality to develop a mindset of equity, one that often runs counter to how we have been trained or conditioned to view the world. The failure to understand and use this mindset, means we often inadvertently perpetuate inequity. I see a lot of well-meaning colleagues defend or perpetuate terrible philosophies and practices in our sector because they don’t use this mindset, and I sometimes also make these mistakes myself. None of us are infallible.

So, let’s talk about some questions we can use to assess the equity implications in any given situation. To illustrate these points below, I’m going to use various examples but will focus on a situation that has been divisive in our sector: The question of whether staff should be asked to donate to their nonprofits. I am passionately against it, and I wrote about it here. And I know some colleagues are strongly for it. But today’s post is not about rehashing the arguments. It’s about assessing the equity around the arguments. It’s gonna be a little meta!

OK, here are some questions we all need to think about for almost every situation to assess what’s equitable and what’s not. Use them when you determine new policies or practices or ending old ones, create new programs, etc.

1.Who are the most marginalized people and how have they been affected?: The default mindset is to assume that everyone is affected equally in a situation. But this is not true. Often, it will be people of color, LGBTQIA, disabled people, women, neurodivergent, and other marginalized people who will be most affected. When it comes to asking staff to give to a nonprofit, it will be the lowest-paid staff who are and have been most affected, and who are lowest-paid staff? POCs, disabled people, etc.

2.How are the voices and opinions of the people most affected by this situation centered? We must get out of this “all opinions matter equally” perspective. To advance equity, the opinions of the people most affected must be given greater weight. If it’s a situation where disabled people are most negatively affected, for example, the voices of disabled people must have priority. If it’s a situation where transgender people are most affected, the most weight must be given to transgender people’s voices. In the case of asking staff to give, since it’s POCs and low-income people who are most affected, their opinions should have most weight.

3.What power dynamics are involved? Who holds the most power in this situation? It is challenging if not impossible to have equity when there is a power imbalance. In the instance of asking staff to “donate” money back to the org, it can never be OK because there is no way to get out of the power asymmetry. A friend asking you to donate money is different than your boss asking, no matter how nice your boss is or how nicely they ask. Combine this with the fact that supervisors tend to be white and we have another situation where mostly white people have power that they then use to impose on mostly people of color.  

4.Who developed this system in the first place? We need to stop assuming that philosophies, systems, and policies just sprang out of thin air, or that they were co-created. Most systems we’re trying to undo or make better were created and maintained by white people. For instance, the unwritten expectation that job candidates send thank-you notes after job interviews, which I am also passionately against. It is a white, middle-and-upper-class, US-centric practice that punishes many people who don’t fall into those categories.

5.Who benefits most from things remaining unchanged? Those who create systems tend to benefit most from them, financially and in other ways. The thank-you-note-after-interview practice is biased towards white middle-and-upper-class people who grew up in the US, and it often leaves behind immigrants, lower-income people, people of color, etc. As another example, a few weeks ago I testified in support of a law in my state that would require employers to disclose salary range on job postings. After I and a white woman spoke in favor of it, there was a string of white male business owners who testified against the law, which came as no surprise, since they would benefit most from salary secrecy.

6.Who is asking for change, and who is defending against it? In any argument and discussion, stop and acknowledge the demographics of who is taking which sides. In the conversations about whether staff should be asked to give to their org, the side that is in favor asking staff to give tends to be overwhelmingly white. And the side that is against it is majority people of color, with white allies. There’s also divisions in terms of socieoeconomic status and upbringing as well, with people who have experienced low-income or poverty more likely to be against this practice.

7.Who created the evidence that supports status quo? In the argument around thank-you notes after job interviews, many people who are for it (who, again, are mostly white), bring up the multiple articles written with advice for job candidates on how they can write the best thank-you notes. So taking it at face value, there seems to be lots of support for this practice. But if we dig deeper, we find that most of these articles are written by white, likely middle-or-upper-class people. This should be taken into consideration.

8.What does the data say when you disaggregate it? Data/articles/reports that are not examined with an equity lens can do significant damage. For example, if you survey people about practices such as post-interview thank-you notes, should staff be asked to donate to their orgs, etc., you may find that 75% of respondents are OK with these practices. But if you disaggregate, you may find that 80% of white colleagues are ok with them, and 90% of colleagues of color are not, but because there are fewer POCs in our sector, the averages are skewed. (I made up these numbers as an example, so don’t run with them).

9.How do your identity, upbringing, culture, education, privileges, and biases affect your perspective? Anaïs Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” So many people, including me at times, get into supporting or opposing a position without examining how our identity, privileges, how we were raised, etc., affect how we view things. Once we stop and make this assessment, we may be able to see things differently, and hopefully more equitably.

I’m sure there are lots of other questions that could help us all develop an equity mindset; please put them in the comment section, along with other thoughts you have. We need to practice asking these questions and analyzing situations through this lens. If you do this enough, after a while, you may recognize patterns, and it does become faster and more intuitive with time.

You may also find that basically everything is inequitable. This can get overwhelming. But, isn’t finding and addressing inequity the main purpose of our work?

From NPR: “Want to support the people in Ukraine? Here’s how you can help