By Richard Marker
Equity is the philanthropy word of the year. And last. And next.
And well it should be. After all, what are we about if we don’t have societal outcomes that redress systemic injustice, inequality, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, age-ism, misogyny, nativism…? And to be sure, any of us who are philanthropoids know that it is a topic, or THE topic, at virtually every major philanthropy gathering. That doesn’t mean that answers are easy, that funding decisions are obvious, that evidence of solutions is persuasive, or that the destructive current political ethos will be responsive, but it does mean that we are consistent in naming our goals.
However, just because we insiders in the field think we know what we mean when we use the “equity” shorthand, I can attest that this is far from true among those just outside our convo zone, and even among partisans within.
Many of us have tried for years to distinguish between equality of access or process vs equity or equitability of results, but not everyone buys in. There are many who resist the idea of systemic and endemic injustice, and assume, just as justice is supposed to be blind, so should philanthropy. Or that educational standards should apply across the board, even if the resources and support systems don’t make those standards fair. Or that passing laws against discrimination guarantees that deeply engrained attitudes and behaviors will simply dissipate.
Fortunately, much of the philanthropy world has largely bought into the concept that outcomes and desired changes matter more than best intentions. It is incumbent on us, then, to find a way to explain to others what we mean. And, since public policy, behavior, and the public square depend on us getting this right, I have struggled with ways to communicate what we mean. How is this one as a metaphor? Pedestrian-Friendly vs. Pedestrian-Normal.
But first the background:
Many readers know that some short months ago, we relocated from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to Washington, DC. As folks fully committed to not owning a car, we were only willing to live in places where one wouldn’t be needed. And we do.
We live in downtown Bethesda, in an apartment building on a major street, 2 blocks from the Metro, easy walking distance from markets, restaurants, and most other accoutrements of urban living. There are sidewalks, traffic lights, crosswalks… the only thing missing are actual pedestrians.
Coming from New York, of course, we are used to pedestrians. Cars wait for us to cross at intersections, the sidewalks are bustling with us – everywhere. We couldn’t understand why we don’t see them in our new downtown.
It seems we have a case of a pedestrian -friendly area devoid of pedestrians. And since there are so few, cars are not as careful in turning, stopping at crosswalks, and otherwise knowing that intersections need to be shared. And when we called a couple of problematic intersections to the attention of the county, they responded that not enough pedestrians cross there to warrant a marked crosswalk!
Having a “pedestrian-friendly” community is a first step, a veritable indispensable input. But while the intention is to make things “pedestrian friendly,” it is not [yet?] “pedestrian-normal.” In other words, the actual outcome does not fulfill the goal. And thus, pedestrians are still needlessly at risk. Something about the system still needs to be addressed. [this is a metaphor, folks; I am not addressing all of America’s systemic car-centric dependency or other causes, or even solutions. Only trying to illustrate the difference between funding for a result and getting the result.] This is a case where the desired systemic change has not happened. When pedestrians become normal, cars will slow down, or stop, or otherwise exhibit different behaviors. Probably not until.
Sometimes the dilemma goes the other way: I have been sufficiently sensitized to speaking on all-male panels that I make it a point not to do so. Yet not long ago, I found myself in such a situation – but with a difference. This is an organization that rarely has a gender imbalance, and in the past, I have been the only male on some of their panels. Under the circumstances of their proven record, would it be right or appropriate to make a stand in this case? I consulted with others – women – who are also regulars and who would normally be outspoken, and they all encouraged me to speak since this organization’s record is beyond reproach. The result of the organization’s consistent demonstration of gender sensitivity meant that any single exception was neither a symbol nor a case. Where the desired change is internalized and normal, an exception is not an aberration, and does not require disruption.
In our world, the challenge has become greatest in convening or collaborating for system change. There are too many who espouse a “you’re with me or a’gin me.” There is no middle ground. That means that if I have a political stance, or even a preferred solution that you don’t fully endorse, I am not welcome. It can be political correctness run amok – or more specifically, to an unproductive level.
The issue is real: we all know that true systemic change requires an understanding and appreciation of the interconnectedness of many things. And it also requires an appreciation of how that interconnectedness impacts others. But, since no one can do everything, fund everything, or endorse everything, if we happen to disagree on priorities or approaches, that need not be an absolute red-line that prohibits collaboration.
While readers are well aware of my personal political leanings, and perhaps our funding priorities, this is one area where, if there is fault, it is on all sides of the political divide.
Absolutism can be a stumbling block on the way to equity. If we need to communicate that equity is a measure of outcomes and impact, we also must communicate that the pursuit of equity need not be so rigid that it prevents us from achieving the very impact we desire.
I wish that we lived in a pedestrian-normal community. But we will still continue to walk even though it isn’t.
Richard Marker advises funders and foundations on their philanthropy strategy through Wise Philanthropy, and teaches philanthropists and foundation professionals at both Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy and NYU Academy for Funder Education.