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Equity: Time to Get Real (Part II)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Parisa Vinzant
February 3, 2023

As we enter the second month of 2023, it’s time to check in on our equity and social justice goals. Since racial and other inequities exist across all systems, how ready are we to tackle these challenges in our individual fields and unique situations?

Doing equity right—with real, substantial impact—can feel either uplifting or a lonely, soul-crushing experience. The latter is too often the case when operating within difficult, change-resistant environments where a rigid chain-of-command structure may hamper an equity champion’s best efforts, or where superiors operate under an informal, unwritten playbook that perpetuates administrative evil or administrative racism (check out Part I of this short series). But when we begin to prepare ourselves for the collaborative work of equity, the feeling of being overwhelmed lessens, our field of vision opens and new opportunities for equity emerge.

It is our responsibility to advance the work toward equity. No one will ride in to save us. We’re not alone, though. We continue the work along the path blazed by social justice leaders who’ve come before—and if we’ve put in the hard work to build authentic relational trust—alongside those in the community who struggle to realize the promises of democracy.

We must recognize that being resilient and proactive are part of our job description if we’re to effect positive change and improve the lives of community members who have been harmed far too long by inequitable policies and programs. Doing this work right means partnering with communities as the rule rather than the exception.

How do we ensure that we do not inadvertently repeat the existing patterns from dominant culture norms that cause inequity? It is vital that we, as public servants, learn about and grow confident in applying an intersectional lens in our work so that liberatory design processes can be used.

First, create your own intersectional liberatory equity toolkit. Learn the liberatory design process from the National Equity Project (NEP), including key mindsets necessary to help individuals increase self-awareness, build relational trust, embrace complexity, recognize oppression and realize alternate ways of being and doing, and expand creative reference and courage. But to interrupt deeply rooted habits and patterns of inequity, the NEP added two “modes” to the list—Notice and Reflect. These two modes are best used together and are easy to put into practice to quickly begin positive change. The Notice mode is most useful to build systems awareness, explore historical context and name power dynamics. The Reflect mode is very helpful in collective sense-making, to process conflict, to name emotions or rethink work. Seven other modes guide the liberatory process, including using empathy to build relational trust and learn stories from the people most impacted by equity challenges.

A 2021 article by Stephanie Dolamore, which includes a case study and instructive examples, revealed the importance of empathy in public organizational culture in the context of providing equitable service to all of the public. In their 2022 article Seth Meyer, Richard Greggory Johnson III and Sean McCandless take it further by including empathy alongside engagement, equity and ethics as the new pillars of public administration—a more optimal foundation for tackling the “complex and wicked problems” of our time than the reductive values of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. As government increasingly relies on automation and artificial intelligence, grounding service delivery in equity and empathy will become ever more important.

As I’ve found in my experience as a commissioner and work as a consultant, the tool of empathy needs to be continually examined and put into context within systems, power dynamics, culture and histories. Further, public servants and consultants who facilitate community engagement with equity and empathy must be continually applying the lens of systemic oppression on all levels—individual, interpersonal, institutional and structural. Otherwise, the transformative power that empathy can offer is hallowed out or may even be weaponized by those with power.

The fact that public servants are short on time and resources are often a stumbling block in this work, reduces community outreach efforts to the “Inform” or “Consult” end of IAP2’s Spectrum of Public Participation, the least equitable form of engagement. Even those with the will and time to do substantive equity work can be thwarted by organizational pressures. Whether or not such pressures materialize, it is important to build your own community collaboration and engagement toolkit to establish an ongoing, effective relationship. Equity toolkits from such cities as Seattle, Long Beach and the City of Ottawa provide useful learning tools and resources. Portland’s equity strategic plan stands out because it embeds multiple measures of success from external sources as part of its Goal #2 from “communities who are currently and historically impacted by systemic racism and ableism.”

Ultimately, if we are committed to advancing enduring equitable change, we must create our own personal codes of conduct to push back against injustice. To do so will likely involve familiarizing yourself with the professional ethical codes you’re subject to, such as from ASPA and ICMA, covered in previous columns It’s Part of the Job Part I and Part II.

Plenty of resources exist to help us meet the challenges of making government equitable for all its people and to remedy past inequities and discrimination. The only thing left is to make the decision to move forward. Let’s get to work.

Author: Parisa Vinzant, MPA, is an equity/inclusion consultant, strategist, and technology/innovation commissioner in Long Beach, CA. Parisa applies a social/racial equity lens in her writing exploring topics ranging from ethics, education, democracy, technology, and community engagement. Any views expressed herein are hers alone. Contact her at [email protected] and @Parisa_Vinzant (Twitter).

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