At United Way of Southeast Louisiana, we are committed to achieving our vision, shaped with guidance from community stakeholders, of equitable communities where all people are healthy, educated, and financially stable. That’s a big task, and we know achieving it will require long-term commitment and investment in every aspect of the way we work. We also recognize that one of the critical factors in driving investment, engagement, productivity, and success in an organization is the diversity of perspectives represented at the table, and the inclusion of diverse voices, experience and decision-making.
So, what is equity?
What do we mean by “equitable communities”? Equity is more than equality. Many of us are familiar with the ballpark fence depiction frequently used to illustrate the concept. In the first picture, three individuals stand behind a fence, and each is given a box on which to stand. The tall individual gains no substantial increase in benefit, the short individual is now just able to stretch to see over the fence, and the individual with a disability is not helped at all by the box.
(Image by Maryam Abdul-Kareem, adapted from the original drawing by Craig Froehle)
This is equality; everyone is given equal resources, but those resources don’t provide equal access to opportunity. In the second picture, the tall individual is given no assistance, but can still see the game easily, the short individual has two boxes, allowing them to see over the fence, and the individual with a disability is provided a ramp to view the game. All three individuals receive specific need-based supports, and all three enjoy equal opportunity to watch the game.
This is the first part of equity - acknowledging that everyone is starting from a different place, with different abilities and advantages, and some need different supports to have equal access to opportunity.
The second part of equity involves removing the structural barriers that limit access to resources for some while providing an advantage to others – removing the fence that prevents everyone from equal enjoyment of the game.
Addressing structural inequities is crucial to our work. One proposed means of doing so is to think deeply and challenge our assumptions about why individuals are struggling in poverty, suffering worse health outcomes, or lagging behind in the classroom or the workforce.
Equity is about assuring everyone has an equal voice, and not just equal resources, but the resources necessary for equal access to opportunity.
Why does it matter?
The work of charitable institutions has always been focused on helping those with limited access to resources and opportunities. Shifting that focus to include a lens of equity tells us more clearly who those people are, and why those circumstances exist.
How we are promoting equity
In alignment with our Blueprint for Prosperity, United Way launched a new grant process with a focus on eradicating poverty in 2016. Embedded in the Blueprint and the grant application are six guiding principles to which all funded partners, programs, and collaborations must commit. Those principles are: Connectivity, Equity, Lived Experience, Long-term Commitment, Shared Responsibility, and Systems Change. We are currently taking this one step further and developing specific indicators to help track and measure our collective impact around equity.
The catch is that we are not asking our partners to do anything that we are not whole-heartedly invested in ourselves.
A grant from Toyota through United Way Worldwide enabled us to dive deep into internal equity last year. Dr. Toya Barnes-Teamer of HCM Strategists led us in figuring out where we stood from an equity perspective by surveying staff, our board, and partners, and leading a staff training and partner meeting.
This process identified areas where we are doing well and places where we are missing the mark – along with a path to improvement.
We’ve committed to actions like diversifying our Board of Trustees, examining our hiring and promotion policies, and bringing an equity perspective to everything we do as an organization. We are thoughtfully considering what voices and perspectives are missing from the table, and being intentional about including them.
Equity is written into everything we are working for at United Way – a Southeast Louisiana with thriving, equitable communities and no poverty. Without acknowledging, challenging, and fighting against sources of inequity in our community, we will never achieve our goal.
Conversations around equity aren’t always easy – but the topic should not be ignored. How are you addressing inequity in your organization? Drop us an email and let’s chat!
Director, Office of the President
United Way of Southeast Louisiana
Senior Vice President, Community Impact, Equity, and Education
United Way of Southeast Louisiana