Embracing the Equity Elephant


Prior to attending PolicyLink’s 2015 Equity Summit as part of EPIP National’s People of Color Network, I had a conversation with my supervisor. We were talking about the best way to frame our case for support on needs-based scholarships. As the equivalent of a programs officer at a community foundation, I frequently draft project summaries to share with donors and other funders. Long story short, she asserted that we needed an equity lens rather than the economic development lens I had developed. I was floored.

Didn’t she understand that our conservative donors would balk at this perspective? Or how about that the concept of equity is so overused to the point where equity rebel rousers take on the appearance of simply complaining? In the end we found a compromise, but I wanted to share this story for a reason: I was that person. The person who sees equity-related Facebook posts on her feed, and though she agrees with the overall message, she doesn’t like or share the post. Instead, she simply thinks: Why can’t people post more pictures of their dogs in sweaters? When it came to equity conversations, I was at best indifferent and at worst dismissive.

My initial perspective is important to know for two reasons:

  1. I changed. I came to the conference with one standpoint and came out with another.
  2. People like me exist. I believe I have good intentions and common sense, but many times it’s just easier to not engage or take the time to understand. I am assuming that I am not the only one who doesn’t always warm to equity conversations. But, if I changed, it’s possible for people who thought like me could also change.

In other words, attending the Equity Summit drastically shifted how I see equity issues. Granted, though I’m not a full blown rebel rouser, I now approach equity differently. I’m no longer dismissive. Instead, I’m curious, I feel a personal connection, and I’m able to empathize easier. Most of the time, I get angry because I understand the importance of not ignoring what others are experiencing and to stand with them. I’m experimenting with incremental stands like sharing a friend’s post or applying a more thoughtful equity approach in my work. Overall, it’s a small change, but it’s an important change and one that will continue to affect my perspective on life and work down the line.

So what exactly happened at the Equity Summit that had such an effect on me? It boils down to one aha moment – Acknowledging and embracing my equity elephant.

The Equity Elephant

Prior to the conference, equity was the elephant in the room for me. I knew in the back of my mind that it was there, but if move carefully, I could maneuver around the elephant and pretend that it doesn’t affect me in my life. I wasn’t avoiding it, but I wasn’t fully acknowledging it either. At the Equity Summit, this elephant was on full parade.

People were calling it out by name, sharing experiences, and giving tips on how to improve our inequitable systems. There was an equity manifesto, tote bags, the whole shebang. And all of this was very foreign. For me, calling out equity as part of a community foundation is an unspoken no-no. I feel that this is a culture that expands beyond my workplace and is experienced in other community foundations. Recently, in a meeting with other community foundations in California, we were sharing presentations with each other and I was intrigued by one foundation’s power point that spelled out equity in multiple slides. However, upon asking them if their initiative was equity-focused (I was excited that maybe they were on the forefront of shifting the culture), I was suddenly met with the deer-in-the-headlights fear and colleagues exchanging worried glances. After a pause, they responded that no, of course not, this is not an equity initiative; it’s an initiative to focus on a specific underserved population. This is the same answer I would have if put in the same situation if I had not attended the Summit. Within some community foundation circles, it’s more acceptable to talk about the possible outcomes equity initiatives may deliver: increased economic development, better quality of life for all, etc. So why the fear?

Shifting Perspective

The fear stems from organization self-preservation. For a community foundation, especially young community foundations with smaller endowments, living donors with donor advised funds are our bread and butter. We have a big incentive to ensure that the direction of the organization aligns with their beliefs and values. Some of our largest donors can be on the more conservative side, who may have adverse reactions to equity-focused initiatives. As such, a safe blanketed language is developed to appease donors, and this practice has seeped into operations.

The mistake is assuming that ALL donors will balk at equity. And unfortunately, by lumping donors in one bunch, I prevent donors from expressing their own beliefs and learning from them. Essentially, I’m closing the door before the donor even gets a chance to weigh in.

During the conference, I found myself wanting to ask panelists how to engage donors around equity. But I know the answer – Share the data on equity, provide the space to explore and learn, and be accepting of those that want to engage and those that don’t. These three steps were essentially on repeat throughout the conference. The last part was my biggest fear: What if after the data and the discussions, some donors aren’t on board?

What I neglected to consider was that though some donors may disengage, other donors may be reignited, just as I was at the conference. Putting equity in the spotlight may guide them to their own aha moment. It could help others embrace their own equity elephant.

|Vi Calvo

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