I was recently asked about the thought leaders I admired in the equity field. I must admit this question caught me off guard. Although I have read books and articles that cover the subject, I’ve never really experienced equity as an academic pursuit. Some of the people who have made the greatest impression on me are not necessarily ones who would be considered equity thought leaders.
There are four concepts, however, that continue to guide me in my understanding of equity:
1. The “we”
2. The personal equity journey
3. Leading with grace
4. Actions over thoughts
Being grouped by the social construct of race for the purpose of marginalization has encouraged many black people like me to think of the success of the “we” over just me. It is why events like the first black U.S. president, NYC Ballet’s Marie in the Nutcracker, or a South African as Ms. Universe has meaning.
I was taught by my elders the responsibility I have to advocate and work for all black people and not just myself. This has been the foundation for my awareness of the unacceptability of systems that work for some while limiting the success of others. When extending this thought to others who may have different equity challenges than my own, it helps to be reminded that it’s not always about me. This means true inclusiveness is about leaving space for the needs of others and centering their voice and not my own when the discussion is about their needs. I find that this makes it easier for me to grow in my understanding and to learn how to do better in my actions.
I learned from Maya Angelou that any aspiration to live your values is a journey and not a destination. Upon being asked if she had been saved, she responded that she was put off by the finality of the question, was still working on it, and didn’t think she would be finished in her lifetime.
We know more today about the components of racism, the non-binary aspects of human sexuality and the complexity of many perceived disabilities. This necessitates the need for individuals to factor this new knowledge into the ways they engage with others and to support the change of systems traditionally built to serve and advantage male, white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, Christian and non-disabled people.
It is not about our self-perception of “goodness” in the moment, but our journey toward becoming better people. It’s very common to let our own need to think of ourselves as “good people” get in the way of whether we are actually acting like the good people we claim to be. This is why one group can mistreat or limit another based on their own religion, sex, gender, race or ability. It’s the “me” over the “we” and the lack of introspection along the way.
I was required to take a workshop titled Managing Social Dynamics over 25 years ago. The international company I worked for at the time was determined to establish a culture and climate that allowed the full range of employees to work together effectively. They were also probably tired of being sued for discrimination.
We were all, at some point, sequestered from Friday night until mid-Sunday to do one thing — to think about our values and our perceptions of ourselves and to compare that to our actions. Activities were designed to help us reconcile who we thought we were with who we actually were, based on our actions and the impact we had on others. Discussions were interesting, but the internal work was the most intense. Anyone who left before Sunday would be obligated to start over again within a year; and there were quite a few folks who fell into that category. There were other trainings, but this is the one that stuck with me most because it required that we reconcile our actions and not just our thoughts.
Today we talk of implicit bias and the need for courageous conversations. However, it is the actual changes in behavior that are integral to changing the climate and culture. Individual education is important for buy-in and sustained change.
But I am concerned that we don’t just see the pursuit of equity as an academic endeavor. Real systemic change that can be felt by the marginalized and measured over time must be the goal, not just personal growth. It’s about the “we.”
The journey is not about becoming “woke” but the process of continuously awakening.
More on grace and action next month.