Equity: Asking One Tough Question

Michelle DePass, Executive Director of Meyer Memorial Trust, speaks on advancing equity in Oregon. In this post, I unpack one tough question we can all use to guide our decisions around equity. 
michelle depasse

Meyer Memorial Trust, an iconic foundation in Portland, recently announced that it was appointing a new executive director, Michelle DePass.  While reading the press release, I was struck by a quote from DePass that I found quite brilliant:

“Meyer Memorial Trust believes that everyone in Oregon deserves to live in a safe place, that the educational experience that we provide for our children will provide a world of opportunity, that the environment surrounding us should be a source of strength and health, and that our communities sustain us with a sense of belonging and possibility, regardless of race or class. For this to happen and make Oregon an equitable place, we must dismantle systemic oppression and have the discipline to ask ourselves over and over again: does this decision remove barriers or reinforce them?

The last part of this quote is something I want to unpack briefly, piece by piece, because the wisdom is too important to be lost to nuance.

In three parts:

1. Have the discipline to ask ourselves
2. Over and over again
3. Does this decision remove barriers or reinforce them?

I want to unpack these parts in reverse order to reveal their brilliance:

Does this decision remove barriers or reinforce them?

Notice, in this dichotomy, the lack of a possible neutral answer. “Does this decision remove barriers or reinforce them?” There is no “neither” option. The decision either removes or reinforces.

If you think that a decision is neutral, then it will reinforce the status quo by default. It will reinforce barriers.

In the book Blindspot, Drs. Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald discuss the consequence of implicit bias. The authors state that overt displays of racism are rare in comparison to actions that help the dominant group (or one’s in-group). These actions, although they are often undertaken with positive intention, reinforce barriers and further marginalize people outside the dominant group.

One study they reference involved an experiment in which a white person asked for help from white strangers, and a black person asked for the same kind of help from white strangers. The study “show[ed] that white Americans consistently received more help than black Americans. The only harm done to black Americans in the studies was a consequence of inaction—the absence of helping. This left them without advantages that were received by the white Americans who were, by contrast, helped. We call this “hidden discrimination.”

Life is complex, subtle, and nuanced, but the barriers that are in place for people are held there by complacency. There can be no neutral answer.

Over and over again

Just because you asked the question once in the beginning of the decision, doesn’t mean the work is done. Things change. Situations change. People change. A project that once removed barriers may reinforce them later.

Here’s a story that came to my attention recently. A clinic in the U.S. launched an initiative in which parents of children with feeding difficulties could access free help from clinicians. The goal was to provide these services to people in the community who otherwise could not afford them. The clinic was wildly popular and helped many children; however, when the organization did an audit, they found that almost 100 percent of the parents using the clinic were from white and affluent neighborhoods. The clinic did not attract patients from lower-income homes and communities of color. The clinic was actually reinforcing the health care disparity, not eliminating it.

There were a lot of reasons for this. The location of the clinic made it difficult to get to by any means other than a personal vehicle. Information about the clinic was only available in English. Appointments required access to a computer as they had to be made online. The organization had to reevaluate its objectives and develop new strategies to specifically target the people who could benefit most from a free clinic—those who needed these services and could not access them in any other way.

For our programs to be successful, we have to constantly reevaluate the role they play in removing or reinforcing barriers. And we have to ask this same question at every decision, at every critical moment.

Have the discipline to ask ourselves

This work is not easy. The fact that DePass acknowledges that this work takes discipline should not be lost on anyone. We may be tempted to feel like good intentions are good enough. That in working for a nonprofit, anything we do is benefiting the world in a positive way, but that’s not the case. We must have the discipline to ask ourselves this tough question so that we can hold ourselves and our programs to the highest standard.

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