Equity is Not Just a Word

The term “equity” seems to have arrived in full force. I now see it in initiatives, articles, and proposals. I hear it in presentations, reports, and speeches. A term  that was once viewed as divisive, particularly when associated with racial justice, has become commonplace.
Of course, seeing equity getting attention is a welcome change. But as I’ve seen the word’s usage increase, I’ve also seen little action occurring to back up the rhetoric. Saying equity is not the same as doing equity. What I fear that I’m really seeing is “equity” being added as a discussion point to policy agendas and becoming a checkbox term that people include in their documents — all of it with no actual results.
As with mostly everything, money is driving this. The now-fashionable urgency around increasing the number of college-educated adults in the United States is generating millions of dollars to support a staggering array of policy and practice reforms, many of them claiming equity with no clue about what that means and no idea on how to practice it.
Not long ago I was invited to speak at one of these initiatives claiming to have an equity focus. I reviewed the proposals submitted by several university teams and was astounded to discover that not a single one of them had any real action plan to address equity. The word was present, but an understanding of what it meant or required was not evident.
More recently, I viewed another multi-million dollar initiative, also claiming an equity focus but completely lacking the expertise or knowledge (or possibly the motivation) to actually address racial equity. On occasion, I have been asked to review proposals and initiatives AFTER they have been funded, when they’re tidily past the stage where one could make changes.
Based on what I’m seeing, it seems “equity” is a word people have become very fond of using, despite knowing very little of what it truly means, much less how to achieve it. To ensure that equity is addressed rigorously, grant makers must examine their grants review system and include key indicators of equity and core practices, such as:
  • Create new grant guidelines and a review process that is explicit about racial equity.
  • Audit one or two years of funded proposals and analyze them using CUE’s tools to assess their focus on racial equity.
  • Use a set of critical race questions to interrogate how a given initiative supports or inhibits racial equity.
  • Adopt CUE’s equity-minded principles and translate each principle into practices that would be standardized in grant-making, hiring, evaluation, and communication.
This is just a start, of course, but at the most basic level, we must agree that newly-conceived structural solutions cannot solve systemic conditions. Private foundations, intermediary organizations, and others are issuing new structures, curriculum, data practices and more, with their sights set on that vast pool of funding rather than envisioning how to back up the equity rhetoric they’ve become so fond of using. Naive equity solutions do far more harm than good. And as so many seek to transform education, we must hold all of them to account for doing equity, not just saying it.
Estela M. Bensimon
Founder & Director
Center for Urban Education
USC Rossier School of Education

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