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Beyond the rhetoric: Struggling to institutionalize equity

Breannah Alexander

The reason we fail to see meaningful gains in equity efforts is undoubtedly tied to inequities still perpetuated within organizations that publicly champion the cause, writes Breannah Alexander, who works as an equity and inclusion consultant in Grand Rapids.
This article is part of Rapid Growth's Rapid Blog series, which highlights the voices of leaders making positive change in Grand Rapids. This week's post comes from Breannah Alexander, who lives in Grand Rapids and is working as an equity and inclusion consultant. When she is not designing programs that get people talking, she is fiercely advocating for and elevating the narratives of women and girls through women reVamped. She is also co-chair of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Grand Rapids board and a leader with Opportunity Nation, a national campaign to increase economic mobility for young people in the United States.

Equity work is complex. Over the last decade we have seen crucial narratives around racism and poverty shift to elevate systemic inequities that create structural inequalities. What was a conversation about an individual is now a discussion about the system that sustains the very harsh realities those affected by it face. Theoretically this is a good shift. We know addressing root causes of inequities create solutions that live beyond a day of service or a soup kitchen visit. We know advocating for policy that ensures no child is malnourished is necessary work, as nonprofits are not meant to be a solution (nor do they have the capacity to be) to addressing basic developmental needs for individuals lacking access to adequate food supply’s because negligent governance and poor urban planning has left our most vulnerable populations behind.

These are meaningful shifts in the narrative, and it is reflective of lessons learned over decades of looking at failures and successes in the field. As best said by nonprofit practitioners more seasoned than myself, our field was created to put itself out of business. Certainly there is a case that can be made around for-profit entities that have taken on equity issues as a piece of doing business and the expansion of social enterprises working to also create spaces where systemic inequity is addressed as well.

However, there seems to be an element of the equity conversation that is absent and undoubtedly married to issue: addressing workplace inequity. It is far too common of a practice to skip self evaluation in championing equity work – which is perhaps the reason equity work has not been as effective as it could be. If your organization does not pay its employees a livable wage – you shouldn’t be discussing external solutions to equity. If you do not have human resource policies that encourage transparency, whether it is addressing workplace discrimination or microaggressive behavior, you should not be discussing what equitable spaces look like in public because chances are if your workplace isn’t modeling those practices you are espousing untested hypotheses around workplace productivity and conduct. Furthermore, the blatant disregard for the satisfaction of those you directly impact calls into question the legitimacy of your rhetoric.

There is no doubt that rhetoric is important – history is the greatest teacher on how words impact people. But actions are vital. What rhetoric met with inaction does is institutionalize poor behavior by teaching direct reports that actions are irrelevant as long as you’re saying the right things. In a world in which we inherently model certain behaviors especially of those we aspire to be, the inconsistency of rhetoric with action becomes damaging. Within an organization, talent attracted to the rhetoric soon become jaded by the inaction and deterred from positively shaping the space. This subsequently means that equity efforts fall short every time because you cannot expect disgruntled employees to authentically engage in dialogues around systemic inequities when they are struggling with toxic work environments in which their exploitation becomes the aftertaste of equity performance in public only.

The reason we fail to see meaningful gains in equity efforts is undoubtedly tied to inequities still perpetuated within organizations that publicly champion the cause. We cannot expect our employees to be champions of equity when they are battling to survive working one to two additional jobs simply to pay their bills because they are not being paid a livable wage. We cannot discuss equity without evaluating what mobility looks like for our employees as a commitment to equity inherently involves a commitment to people and their growth. We cannot discuss equity without discussing how to hold ourselves accountable for the treatment of people affected by the policies we enforce. Equity hasn’t seen the gains it could because we have not held ourselves accountable to the rhetoric we pen.

We’ve perfected talking about equity – it’s time we move to implementing and holding ourselves accountable to equity frameworks in the spaces we occupy. 
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