What is Equity?

March 2024

Just over a year ago, Judy Woodruff began a series called America at a Crossroads that “examine[s] the many differences fracturing the United States.” One episode that has really stuck with me delved into how to address our country’s past, sharing perspectives from U.S. voters and those elected to represent them at the local and state levels. This segment underscored just how muddled current conversations can be, including when we use words without shared meaning.

I encourage you to watch this 15-minute segment and take note of the personal experience of community activists, the thinking of the city mayor (who “comes from a long line of Tulsans, as well as former city mayors on both sides of his family”), and the dedication of a city council member whose efforts put a store called “Oasis Fresh Market” in the middle of a food desert.

Around 11 minutes in, you’ll meet Janice Danforth, a woman who has two sons, one in public school and the other in private school. As Woodruff explains, Danforth worries that Tulsa Public Schools, “which for years have struggled with low funding and test scores, need to focus on academics.” 

I believe we can all agree academics are important. What comes next gets complicated when Danforth says: “[E]quity is making everyone equal. […] We can’t be — all have the same thing. That is Marxism, literally. We want equitable, not equity, where everyone has the same opportunity.”

As an advocacy communications professional who has worked at organizations focused on equity and as a citizen tired of bitter divisiveness where we actually have huge room for agreement, my ears perked up.

What did I hear in her words? Another reminder that lack of shared understanding might be obscuring a shared goal.

“Equity” is often misunderstood, and it doesn’t help that the term also has a financial meaning. By 2016, a year of particular political note, the nonprofit and philanthropic worlds were abuzz with the term “equity,” even as they — we — weren’t sure how to define it. A program officer at a national foundation quoted in this article astutely noted:

“The fact is that we don’t know what equity looks like as a society, because we’ve never actually had it.”

Knowing the power of visuals, we tried to depict what equity would look like. Over the years, those attempts have evolved to be more helpful. Take a look through the six images associated with this blog.* You'll see an early iteration of people standing on boxes and peering over a fence to watch a baseball game. If you look at that image and wonder, “Why are these three, who appear to not be White, shut out from the baseball stadium and why do they have to watch from behind a fence?” you are not alone. Unfortunately, this image is still in use today.

Another attempt to distinguish between equality and equity with boxes depicted people reaching for apples in trees instead. Subsequent designs used trees to explain equity as well as justice, which involves addressing the underlying causes of inequality. These images are powerful, even as we can all agree that a visible tree is easier to change than the myriad intangible systems that impact our daily lives.

In 2017, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation created an image with people and bicycles that better captured nuances of equity and how to provide people not with “the same thing” (which Danforth calls Marxism), but with what they need.

But even that helpful image had room for improvement and in late 2022, the Foundation shared two new graphics, one an update on the bike metaphor and the other depicting a curb to demonstrate how people’s needs differ in various environments.

Both images underscore that equity is about understanding where people are now — their circumstances, conditions, and any barriers they face — and what they need to thrive.

In short, just as Danforth said, we want a world “where everyone has the same opportunity” — whether it’s to live a fulfilling life, support their family, feel understood and loved — or simply to cross the street.

- Piper Hendricks, Founder & CEO

*On a different website platform, I'd embed images within this blog. When finances allow, we'll develop a robust website with a learning management system (LMS) to provide flexible - and affordable - learning opportunities for people wanting to be effective advocacy communicators. If you'd like to help make that vision a reality, I'd love to hear from you. Please email me at: [email protected]

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