Pitfalls to Avoid When Pursuing Equity


The Collaborating to See All Constituents Reach Their Full Potential memo by GEO and the CI Forum, observes that developing and applying an explicit focus on equity to community collaborative work and the work of philanthropy is not easy. Incorporating an explicit focus on equity requires a consistent and intentional effort to create the time and mechanisms that help us to examine whether we are actually changing our practices, processes, policies, and systems so that “equity” does not become just another buzz word. In my experience in public health practice, there are three common pitfalls that have tripped-up many programs claiming to advance equity but missing the mark.

The first is imagining that serving low-income communities and communities of color equates with advancing equity. Public health is a field rich with essential services targeted to populations experiencing poor health outcomes; low income communities, communities of color, the LGBTQ community, and so on. However, a focus on helping those in need is not the same as working to advance equity. An equity practice expands to include uncovering and eliminating the very causes of the poor health outcomes in the first place. To guide our TCE Building Healthy Communities investments, we’ve adopted the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative Framework for Health Equity, which traces health disparities all the way back to the discriminatory belief systems at their root. Truly advancing an equity practice means expanding the focus of our collective efforts to include interventions aimed at the structural causes of poor health – shifting the public narrative and building power to support equity-focused policies and practices across all social sectors.

The second is confusing being client-focused with being community-centered. While ensuring high-quality, culturally competent care is an incredibly important advancement, moving toward equity requires that we meaningfully engage those most impacted by health inequities in the effort to eliminate them. Those experiencing a problem first hand are very knowledgeable about what is needed, what solutions will work, and who is best positioned to move them effectively. Furthermore, eliminating the root causes of inequities is not a technical issue; it is a power issue. Every effort to advance equity must build the voice and power of those most impacted.  This can include everything from giving those most impacted the decision-making power in the collaboration, to organizing the community to address the structural causes of inequities, to everything in between.

Finally, many organizations and collaborations who are striving to advance equity but falling short have not reflected on how power, privilege, and oppression play out in everyday relationships, collaborations, organizations and institutions. As I learn from our community partners all the time, we need to examine our own individual and organizational power and privilege and how we may unintentionally be perpetuating the very inequities we are trying to eliminate. This examination requires courage, humility, and vulnerability. It requires connecting to your heart, your purpose and lived experience. This can often be difficult in an organizational culture that values professionalism, the mind, and analysis above anything. Like Terry Keleher of Race Forward says, we need to “Cultivate equity mindfulness – creating space and support to act consciously, consistently and courageously for our values”.

Examining our individual and organizational power and privilege is critical to working across difference and in solidarity to transform community to places where everyone belongs. Unexamined privilege is always more likely to result in discriminatory behavior.  By embracing an explicit focus on equity and consistently reflecting on our efforts to operationalize it, we can help to create a society where everyone belongs.

Read the Report: Collaborating to See All Constituents Reach Their Full Potential

More Voices from the Field

Contributors to this research scan share more recommendations on how organizations can add an equity lens to their work to help better serve their communities.

3 Levels of Racial Equity Work within Collective Impact by Juan Sebastian Arias and Jeff Raderstrong (Living Cities)

If You Don’t Know Who You’re Impacting, How Do You Know You’re Making an Impact? by Kelly Brown (D5)


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