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“Our movement could be so much more powerful if it really represented the people it served, more people would get served, and real harm reduction would occur and real change could be possible. We’d be serving more from the inside than from the outside as agencies.”

– Gayle Guest-Brown

What else might be possible if we are bolder and more intentional about aligning our organizations with our equity values? 

This was a question that ten folks working in domestic violence organizations in California came together to consider in the spring of 2017. They took a step back from the very real sense of urgency in domestic violence work to dig into what it might look like on a practical level to intentionally build organizational policies and practices with equity at the root.

The group—who were participants in the Equity Thought Innovation Lab, an outgrowth of the Strong Field Project—understood that inequity is at the core of many of the challenges that lead to domestic violence and frequently influences access to services. They also understood that intentionally taking action to undo habits, policies, and systems in their organizations that uphold or exacerbate (even if unintentionally) experiences of inequity for staff and/or clients is a vital part of their work.

Through their time together, they created an important offering to domestic violence and other social justice groups: 11 principles for rooting organizations in equity values. Here we share the principles and the journey they took to craft them by actively living into the equity they wish to see in the world. 

What Do We Mean By Equity?

First, the group had to settle on a definition of equity. Here is what they came up with:

Equity means being able to see the different paths, remove or compensate for the barriers placed by oppression, and share the shortcuts created by privilege such that everyone has what they need to be successful as they define it.

  • People in power reflect the life experiences of those who are impacted by their decisions and make decisions that honor the lived experiences created by injustice, unfairness and inequality to restore balance and wholeness such that everyone experiences human dignity.
  • True equity breeds ingenuity and gives space to all for self-evolution and growth.
  • Equity is an aspirational state that is a constant process—a verb.

11 Equity Principles for Domestic Violence Groups and the Social Justice Field

  • Employ a transparent compensation scale policy, which is at least 1:3. This means that the lowest full-time salary is at a minimum 1/3 of the highest salary (or up to 1:5 depending upon the size, scope, and budget of the organization).

  • Encourage internal promotions by providing training and skill building opportunities and experiences for all staff members, and pro-actively having aspirational discussions. Some organizations routinely send white staff to conferences and give them special growth opportunities while not making an effort to grow staff members of color, or explore their growth objectives.
  • Ensure that organizational leadership practices honesty and transparency, and creates feedback loops throughout the organization to gather and consider suggestions, perspectives, and ideas.
  • Ensure that organizational leadership creates, and has staff create, an array of opportunities for self-care. This includes institutionalizing and modeling self-care.

  • Maintain compensation policies and access to benefits that have the goal of “making people whole” and attending to human well-being. Consider what it really takes for people to show up fully. When staff members are sent on overnight meetings, compensate them for their child care and/or elder care needs.

  • Create advancement pathways and opportunities to grow into different roles in organizations or in the broader field. People of color, including staff members whose first language is not English, should be able to attend conferences or participate in collaboratives and speak on behalf of the work.

  • Conduct annual checks regarding the number of hours and workload responsibilities of all staff. This is important in order to ensure that time worked and workload align with pay, expectations, and well-being.

  • Recruit and maintain management and board leadership that is diverse by race, experience, and perspective to better reflect the diversity of the community.

  • Remove salary caps or raise them appropriately to reflect local economies and recognize the invisible labor of line staff, who are often people of color, doing emotionally and psychologically difficult work. Some organizations have salary caps for lower level positions, and not a lot of opportunity for promotion (if any). Some people of color enjoy the work associated with these positions, but are not justly compensated for their work.

  • Make hiring decisions in inclusive and equity-centered ways. Organizations should use hiring committees that are diverse by race, experience, perspective, and positional power. This helps avoid managers hiring someone they can relate to, which is often someone that looks like them or has similar life experiences.

  • Recruit and maintain staff that reflect the local communities served. Clients can see themselves and be more comfortable, engagement can be more effective, and staff’s understanding of the community needs and desires can be expanded.

Many thanks to Maro Guevara from CompassPoint who created this downloadable version of the principles (download at the link below!). 

Co-creating and Living the Principles 

It was clear to everyone that aligning organizations in the field with equity values—and practicing the principles above—is urgent and critical to changing conditions in the field. Conditions such as: 

  • Too few women of color in leadership positions and leadership not reflecting the people served;
  • Salary inequities between management and frontline workers with people of color doing much of the hard service work;
  • Communities not having adequate access to services (or access at all); and
  • Certain kinds of education and experience being regarded and rewarded differently than others in a way that isn’t helpful to the organization or people served and can be harmful.

There are huge differences in salaries [in many shelters]. Often times the management structure does not have a lot of people of color, but people in the shelter and clients are often people of color as well as the team that is working directly with them…[And] people are simply not receiving services. We tried to move a client to another shelter in another county, and …the shelter would not accept her because she didn’t speak English well. There has always been a lot of talk in our field about creating a more just and equitable world….We talk about these values and ideals, but we are not living them. ”

– Nilda Valmores

As the group came to a shared understanding that inequities in the field are preventing transformative change, we realized that we need to embody the change we wish to see now. Therefore, a good piece of this story is about how this group of leaders wrestled with implementing the equity principles while co-creating them. We didn’t just talk about them. We tried them on and practiced them.

One of the most important ways we did this was by applying the equity principles to the lab’s compensation policies and practices—in other words, how we would divide up the funds amongst us. These conversations explored the intersections of inequity. Experiences of class and race were brought up together as people shared their experiences growing up. Behaviors were being ascribed to different identities until they were discussed. These were not easy conversations as people had to speak up and step back; at times, it was uncomfortable. As we went deeper together, we began to see the wholeness of the people in the process. 

This led us to the concept of bringing your whole self to work. Part of the challenge of even considering bringing our whole selves to work was that internalized oppression is deep and ingrained. Some of us were flabbergasted by the thought that bringing your whole self to work could ever even be a thing. The thought had never even crossed some of our minds. And yet, as we waded deeper in, realizations emerged from the group that the cost of participating in the lab was very different for each person.

“I have children at home. I need to do an overnight-er and how can I be made whole? That’s a new question.”

–Lisette Sweetland

Making people whole really speaks to what equity is all about. The cost of participating in the lab was not just about reimbursement of travel and payment for hours worked or a stipend in recognition of hours worked. Compensation goes beyond salaries—whole compensation for whole people. 

What do people really need to thrive? We began to consider how we could make each other whole in coming to our lab convenings. A few of the considerations we discussed were: 

  • Emotional and psychological labor and carrying weight of “educating;”
  • Who was holding logistical planning for the group without compensation;
  • Pay while being there, use of vacation days, and unpaid time;
  • Child and elder care costs; and
  • Work coverage.

Asking these questions brought up some real challenges for us. In the first round of hypothetical calculations about how we might distribute this pot of money, the white male in the group would have been the most highly compensated. This was really eye opening for people. No one had done anything untoward or intentionally bad. The whole discussion was completely transparent. He wasn’t aggressive or insistent. He just wasn’t afraid to ask and the group calibrated to his request.

We had to overcome fragility and step into trust to get to equity. The dynamics of oppression showed up in our conversations about oppression. We also had to consider the intersection of white supremacy and human resources systems and laws and how HR can get in the way of equity. We discussed how we might show that equity principles can exist “lawfully” so that human resources can actually facilitate resourcing whole people. For example, one white woman who is an executive director, described getting to choose to come to the meetings, getting paid for it, and not having to check with anyone. Another member of the lab, who was not an E.D. and is a woman of color, had to use vacation time to be at the meetings. This led us to discussions of the considerations people grapple with when considering if they want to go to conferences and convenings, knowing this impacts one’s ability to expand their career.

“The process required people to speak up for what they need. It was hard for me to share what I needed. If you are introverted or less bold than I am, it must be really hard to speak up. The process required a lot of trust. Nobody would know what you needed to be whole unless you spoke up. It was to serve your own interest and still tough.”

– Gayle Guest-Brown

A Compensation Formula

In the end, the group took everyone’s self-reported costs not covered by “travel” funds for things like child care and and volunteered time and reimbursed those off the top of the stipend pool to make people whole. The group then considered how folks engaged in the process and lab in order to create a formula for sharing the rest of the funds in the pool.

The dimensions to consider for equitable compensation that fulfills what people really need to thrive would differ in every context. So a compensation formula will be different depending on who is present in the group as well as the context, but the things we ask and the factors of making people whole are somewhat consistent. 

Our resident math whiz actually made our compensation formula into an algebraic formula! Here is the famous formula for fellow algebraic math geeks:

Starting formula: x + (_x *3) + (__x *2) = y

  • y = stipend pool 
  • x = lab participant stipend amount

To apply the formula, we created a breakdown of roles and how folks engaged in the lab’s process:

  • 5 = number of new lab participants without coordinating committee responsibilities
  • 5 = number of coordinating committee members involved since 2015 who held decision-making, budgeting, reimbursement, reporting, hosting, and coordinating responsibilities
    • Additional breakdown of coordinating committee roles:
      • 2 = number of coordinating committee leads
      • 3 = number of coordinating committee general participants

Based on these roles, here are the ratios we came up with:

  • 2x for coordinating committee members
  • 2.5x to reflect additional admin time for the 2 leads

The final formula was: 5x+ (2x*3) + (2.5x *2) = y

So if the stipend pool is $16,000 the break down is: $5000 + $6000 + $5000

  • 5 people received $1000
  • 3 people received $2000
  • 2 people received $2500

Since the Lab: Principles in Action in the Field

“There are people in leadership positions with good intent, but they don’t realize how they are being oppressive or contributing to inequity. We need to highlight stories about how that is occurring.”

–Nilda Valmores

Since the lab, many of the participants have begun living out the principles within their organizations in order to more powerfully align with their equity values. For example, one organization, whose director was a lab participant, has been engaging staff in a process to centralize equity in recruiting and retaining board and staff. The director, a white woman, notes, “Every week a white man wants to be on our board and we need to shut that down. … I am bringing up to my board what it means to live into these equity principles.” As a part of this process, and considering inclusion and retainment, African American staff voiced a need for a meeting space of their own, so the organization has allotted this space including putting it into the budget. 

Another lab participant, a white woman, has shared that being transparent instead of “information hoarding” has been a key part of her organization adopting these principles. For example, they made a commitment that staff do not share hotel rooms anymore for a number of reasons. This means less people can go to a training. Talking about this change openly created an opportunity for people to talk about access to professional development in positive and productive ways.

Finally, another participant, a woman of color, has been walking the talk personally. When her board did her evaluation and suggested a raise, she told them she didn’t want a huge discrepancy between her and other staff, pointing to the principles as reference. 

We hope that by sharing our story, and the ways in which some of us have successfully adopted these principles, that others in the field are inspired to take action. 

Join Us in Living Our Values to Advance the Field Today!

Download the equity principles and start trying them out. Let us know how it goes. We are hopeful that, together, we can build stronger organizations and movements to advance transformative, equitable change towards love, dignity, and justice. 

More About the Lab

The Equity Thought Innovation Lab grew out of the Strong Field Project—a four-year initiative launched in 2010 by the Blue Shield of California Foundation and led by CompassPoint in partnership with many others. Its aim was to build a strong, coordinated network of domestic violence service providers in the state. Conceived at a time when domestic violence organizations across California were facing considerable economic hardship and closing down or cutting staff, the Strong Field Project sought to help the field chart a path to sustainability and innovation in the midst of challenges and uncertainty. As a part of its ongoing work, the foundation supported alumni of each cohort in developing a project that could support learning. The first cohort of alumni created the Thought Innovation Lab to test out ideas that came up during in-person gatherings outside of a traditional research model. 

In its first iteration in 2015, the Thought Innovation Lab (TIL) began working with Change Elemental in a process of reflection, experimentation, and co-creation to explore ideas and test what was working to create change inside their organizations and the field. The cohort grew to include people who were not Strong Field alums, but working in the field of domestic violence. This group became the Equity Lab.

Lab Participants

David Gillanders
Gayle Guest-Brown
Beth Hassett
Marsha Krouse-Taylor
May Rico
Laura Sunday
Lisette Sweetland
Nilda Valmores
Yvette J. Visconte
Dawn Watkins


With gratitude to Maro Guevara of CompassPoint for collaborating to share this story, including creating the infographic and other images for this project.

Banner photo credit: Valery Arev | Unsplash

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