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Recently, we have noticed a great deal of energy and focus from organizations and groups wanting to pursue equity in their work. In our experience, this is a significant increase from past years. This level of attention and intentionality is inspiring. Equity (beyond “diversity” and “inclusion”) is essential to how we define “quality,” “high performance” and “success.”

For us, equity is core to what we seek in the world: dignity and well-being for everyone, and ensuring that resources and power are shared in ways for all people to realize our full potential, and contribute to thriving, sustainable communities.

Below you will find some of what we have learned in partnership with our clients and peers, about what transformation toward deep equity is and what it takes to advance equity and liberation (with a strong emphasis on racial equity), within our organizations, networks and beyond.

What Does Pursuing Deep Equity Mean?

Intention and Action are Not the Same

In our work toward equity with individuals, organizations and networks, we have found it critical to distinguish between:

  1. Beliefs and intentions – what underlies and informs our perspectives and actions;
  2. Seeing – what we do or do not notice, what we are or are not aware of (whether deliberate or unconscious; including cultural awareness and responsiveness);
  3. Doing – the requisite individual, group and institutional capacities, muscles, structures and processes that we do (or don’t) exercise; and the
  4. Impacts (or lack thereof) – of those beliefs, seeing and doing.

Committing to deep equity also includes recognizing privilege and oppression present in society; understanding one’s relationship to privilege and oppression; and forming authentic alliances among people who experience both oppression and privilege to transform society, recognizing the centrality in that process of the leadership of people who are marginalized.

Working at Multiple Levels

There are multiple levels of transformation necessary in advancing deep equity (as many have written about):

  • Internal change: Excavating and surfacing our own apprehensions, misgivings, fears, anxieties, assumptions, unconscious beliefs, and concerns, as well as our strengths.
  • Interpersonal relations: How we view and treat other people, where that may cause us pain, joy, anxiety, release, confusion, or discomfort; and where and when we feel courageous.
  • Institutional changes: Policies, practices, structures, and organizational culture, which can seem most intractable. This level requires the first two levels in order to be sustainable.
  • Cross-institutional and systemic changes:  This level speaks to historic and current patterns that are pervasively recognizable across social systems, including housing, media, education, community membership, economic well-being, health outcomes, and pervasive beliefs across society about “certain groups” of people and their/our characteristic traits, habits, practices, capacities and value.

These are the levels we must address to pursue a more just, equitable society and really tackle inequity. This work is often uncomfortable. We have found in our work with groups that if we are not at least somewhat uncomfortable, we are not digging deeply enough to excavate, unearth, surface and heal. We have found that this step cannot be skipped, but it must be entered skillfully and with compassion.

Willingness, Risk, and the REAL Questions

Sometimes we may need to develop greater fortitude to stay engaged with the challenges of pursuing deep equity and justice. At some point, the question comes to what we are willing to risk; recognizing where we may be defensive. We have to be brave, humble and willing enough to let go at all costs; when commitment to the betterment and liberation of the whole becomes more important than our comfort or “rightness.” The questions become, How will all boats rise? and, do we really want that? and why wouldn’t we?

Now that we’ve clarified the “what” (i.e., what it means to pursue deep equity), we turn to the “how.” If we are not clear enough about the “what,” the “how” will not matter because it will be uncertain whether we are actually moving toward ‘equity’ or toward a less-than-transformative version of the same outcomes that have not served us well.

How Do We Pursue Deep Equity?

MAG guides organizations, initiatives and networks on journeys to deepen equity through a series of three, major non-linear phases. How we pursue each of these phases is particular to each client. 

Before beginning work with an organization, network or group, we assess readiness by reflecting on whether the client has the requisite, threshold capacities needed to begin work.  This includes leadership receptivity, a set of individuals internal to the organization who have the skill, willingness and time to spearhead the work, and baseline existing structures to manage the work (or willingness to create such structures). Once we decide to partner with a client, the phases roughly include:

Phase 1: Listening & Reflecting

In this phase, we work with a client to reflect on every aspect of their system, from an equity perspective. This phase (which can be scoped to meet a client’s needs) is designed to:

  • Understand the current perspectives on equity and inequity in the group;
  • Assess the client’s starting point overall and the multiple starting points that may be present in a group;
  • Hold up a mirror and make each aspect of the group’s functional areas, habits, structures, processes, practices and culture perceivable to all (particularly when they have not been);
  • Reflect the elephants or “undiscussable” areas that are typically taboo to raise;
  • Give voice to the various perspectives in the group, including those that are often invisible, marginalized and/or silent; and
  • Assess the relative bench strength in the organization to take on and deeply embed equity into each technical and relational aspect of their work.

We gather a robust set of information through interviews, focus groups, surveys, observation, storytelling and document review. We then synthesize this data in order to clarify aspects of the system from beliefs and intentions, ways of seeing and doing, and impacts. It is important at this stage, that the data gathered is corroborated by people in the system overall. The data should give air to aspects of the organization in a way that lends them to improvement (in the case of challenges) or more powerful leveraging (in the case of strengths).

Phase 2: Reckoning & Promoting Collective “Ahas”

Here we use processes that promote alignment among a critical mass of key people in the system leading them to a point of no return, a point where they cannot “un-see,” where they are compelled to act toward profound personal, group and institutional transformation and a deeper, more impactful manifestation of their mission, with equity infused throughout.

This phase includes preparing and supporting people in the system to hear the results of the data via coaching, rollout conversations, practice with understanding and working with emotions, alignment sessions, etc. This is the stage where we see areas of traction and resistance in the organization or network, which can change and evolve over time and over the course of the work.

We work diligently in this phase to build the capacity to hold both the depth and the urgency of equity for the client’s mission. We also prepare the client for the emotional labor that will be required to process the data and move into implementation.

Phase 3: Embedding & Implementation

In this phase, the requisite capacity is built to be able to take the deeper seeing, understanding, reckoning and alignment, and translate it into personal, team, organizational and systems-level changes that stick, including structures, processes, norms and behaviors.

This phase is the longest and is actually indefinite. It often includes:

  • Redefining or refining the vision/destination/goals and notions of “success” for the organization or group overall;
  • Refining notions of “quality” for core aspects of the group’s work; and
  • Agreement on a path, strategic approach and next steps in a sequence appropriate to that group’s work.

This phase sometimes requires supporting the client to address triage or crisis issues while building toward long-term, systemic change. In addition, we work with clients to develop strategy directions that embed equity into the work and that are explicitly tied to their existing strategic plans and directions. This is essential so that equity is seen as systemic, and not silo’ed or compartmentalized, affecting only certain structures and processes.

We partner with clients to right-size our approach so that they develop clear priorities and next steps that fit within their existing capacities, while building for the future. We realize that it is neither possible nor desirable to try to “boil the ocean.”

Final Thoughts On What We Are Learning

  • Motivation for pursuing equity influences the process.
  • Inner work is vital.
  • Balancing momentum and spaciousness is important.

What brings people, organizations, and networks to pursuing deep equity is a key influencer in the process. With clients or groups who are experiencing unexpected or unprecedented internal and/or external challenges, prompting from their constituencies or staff, and/or are reflecting on current events in society and concluding that it is important to begin to address equity – questions of “why,” “whether,” and the potential impact on their core business, are paramount, and must be addressed first, before questions of “how” can be defined (which takes longer). With clients with social justice values, the centrality of equity is unquestioned. The issue with such groups is mainly “how” not “why” or “whether.” With all groups, synchronization about vision and values becomes essential, before any operational considerations can be tackled.

Sometimes clients want to move quickly. Reasons for this range from alleviating pressure from constituents, to challenges with the emergent and emotionally uncomfortable nature of the work, to budget constraints. We have found that it is important to move at a pace that is fast enough to maintain momentum and slow enough for people to build mutual understanding, alignment, capacity, confidence and healing in the ways that best support individuals and their system. In all cases, we have found that balancing urgency with depth is worth the time.

Throughout all phases, we support clients to create more space for creativity, compassion and resilience by bringing in what we call inner work practices. Such approaches support clients to remain present, open, engaged and curious when our reactivity is triggered and we may consciously or unconsciously want to shut down and leave the process; and when we are having physiological, emotional, and/or psychological and cognitive responses that can impede progress in the work. We support clients in both subtle and overt ways, including through the use of: coaching; mindfulness and somatic practices; guided writing, visualization, artistic or other creative practices; and other approaches.

Here is a short (by no means comprehensive) list of resources and organizations advancing deep equity work:

We wish you the very best in your own equity journey…

Banner image credit:Jose Nicdao | CC BY 2.0

2 thoughts on “Seeing, Reckoning & Acting: A Practice Toward Deep Equity

  1. Thank you Sheryl and colleagues at MAG! I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve put forth here. At the Interaction Institute for Social Change, we see similar quests for equity and do our best to lead people into the depths rather than the shallows. And, the very need to coin the term "deep equity" (which I love, by the way) signals to me what I have suspected would happen as soon as "equity" became more common parlance in public and institutional discourse. It’s in danger of being watered-down, neutered, and robbed of its clear-eyed, hard-edged focus on dealing with tough realities and bringing meaningful change. May you continue to bring folks to the depths and may we all steer folks clear of the shallows. Peace!

    1. Thank you Cynthia. We have so appreciated IISC’s work in the world. Our peer organizations, learning and growing together…

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