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What is Equity?

Moving Beyond This Picture of Equity

Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire


A common picture of equity

Have you seen this illustration of equality vs. equity? In both pictures, people of different heights are trying to see over a fence to watch the game. The fence is so tall that, without any assistance, you can imagine only the tallest person’s view wouldn’t be blocked. For equality, despite the spectators’ different heights, they all stand on the same number of boxes. The tall person is raised higher than needed, and the shortest person still can’t see over the fence. For equity, the people are each standing on a different number of boxes, meeting their individual needs so they can all have the same view.

What if this picture of equity is flawed?

This popular illustration is problematic. Each person is a symbol for groups with varying degrees of advantages or disadvantages. Representing groups of people who face the most disadvantages as “shorter” suggests that these people are born with a different baseline ability (height) to see over the fence (succeed). This is flawed because it would mean the limitations a group faces in seeing over the fence is its own fault. In truth, our society’s inequitable systems and injustices are the determining factors in how easily a group can look over that fence.

What is a more accurate picture?

In reality, given equal footing, all people have the chance to thrive and see over the fence. But our society doesn’t give everyone even ground. A more realistic snapshot? Three figures try to look over a fence, but only one stands on solid ground. The other two stand in holes dug by factors such as:

  • a lack of safe and affordable housing
  • uncertainty about where they will get their next meal
  • attending under-resourced schools
  • not having access to good healthcare

Maybe one of these figures has been given a board to put over the hole and stand on for a better view. It’s just a single board, though, over a big hole, so this person must spend all their time balancing on the board rather than seeing the ballgame. And the hole keeps getting wider. The board will only reach so far for so long.

So, what is equity?

Equity is working to make the ground even and stable for everyone as we work to create a just future. Equity—the big picture—is working with individuals affected by the unstable ground to shore it up and create firmer footing through raising awareness, offering opportunities and programs, and investing in communities that have been ignored or actively avoided.

That’s one way of looking at equity, but there are many, many ways to describe it. Here’s a more formal definition from Equity in the Center:

“The guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. The principle of equity acknowledges that there are historically underserved and underrepresented populations, and that fairness regarding these unbalanced conditions is needed to assist equality in the provision of effective opportunities to all groups.”

What’s the goal?

The goal? To create a just future. A just future goes beyond simply filling the hole or covering it up. To succeed means getting rid of the systems digging the hole—systems in place to benefit some and disadvantage others based on race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, religion, or country of origin.

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