No Easy, Quick Answers in Equity Work

Equity work isn’t about finding absolute answers to anything. It is about asking questions over and over and over again and making good decisions about how to address particular problems in particular areas through an equity lens. That’s according to Gita Gulati-Partee, Founder of OpenSource Leadership Strategies, who led over 60 fundholders and community leaders through a discussion at the Foundation’s October Donor’s Forum.

The Forum continued the theme of equity after last year’s Donor’s Forum that brought John Quinterno of South by North Strategies and David Dodson of MDC to discuss mobility and access to resources, and the 2016 What Matters Community Luncheon: A Region of Opportunity where Dr. Tony Iton of the California Endowment spoke about birthplace and identity as an indicator of health outcomes. In an effort to dig a little deeper, the Foundation brought leaders in all four of Our Focus areas to lead table discussions with donors that were specific to their interests.

Gulati-Partee kicked off the Forum with food for thought, leading with a definition of equity (an equitable society would be one in which there are improved outcomes for all and the distribution of resources, opportunities and burdens is not determined, predictable, or disproportionate by identity or zip code) and highlighting the difference between equality, inclusion, diversity, and equity as well as sharing with the group her vision of inequity as a weed in our society.

“Structural inequity is like a weed, appearing above ground as negative personal experiences and disparities across identity groups. The goal is to transform it into a flower, equity, of positive experiences and positive outcomes,” she said. “But to do that, we have to first dig out the root structure that holds inequity in place, and transform it to help structural equity take root and grow in our communities, in our giving, and in our work.”

With Laura Benson of Durham’s Partnership for Children and William Jackson of Village of Wisdom leading education tables, John Parker of the Duke Endowment leading the community development table, Justin Robinson of Conservation Trust for NC and Hawley Truax of Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation leading the environment table, and Deb Royals-Mizerk of Justice Theatre Project leading the Arts table, participants self-selected and jumped right into discussion with those questions in mind.

After 30 minutes of discussion, the group was candid in their observations of how challenging even entering the discussion of equity in the program areas, and in their own giving, is.

“This is really hard work, and it takes a lot of forethought and introspection. Each and every decision I make, each and every organization I look at; it’s important to be intentional in how I approach my giving,” said Michelle Serrano-Mills, Foundation fundholder with Next Generation of African American Philanthropists (NGAAP). “I’m going to have to be engaged, I have to learn, and I have to ask questions, in order to feel like my giving is a part of the solution. That’s challenging, but worth it.”

Jackson, who led one of the education tables, spoke about the interesting discussion in his group surrounding equity in our nonprofits, and approaching the issues from that direction.

“I think this discussion we had here about the skills that nonprofits have that are providing services, regarding what their responsibility is to be culturally responsive to the families and people they are working with was really significant,” he said. “For organizations that say they work with low-income families and communities of color, are they centering this conversation in the work they do, and is it responsible for them to do that if they aren’t?”

Fundholder Eileen Welch, also of the Durham Colored Library pointed out the significance of the story structure that everyone brings to an equity discussion, and how important it is to think of that before diving into this work.

“If everyone understood first where people are coming from and what their stories are before they start to work with a community, they would be coming from a place where those people then have a value, and they can value the children, the artists, the economy, etc., “she said. “You have to start there.”

Lori O’Keefe, the Foundation’s President and CEO, addressed the thoughtful donor discussion by reminding everyone that this is a never-ending process, and that the Foundation is dedicated to learning with the community, and becoming a more equitable organization together.

“There are no easy answers because this really is a life-long exploration for us,” she said. “How we reframe access and what our intentionality looks like really resonate with me as we are thinking about this. I want to know how we can be more intentional as we are working in the community through the equity lens, and I know we can work together to figure it out.”

This Forum, Equity and Prosperity: Growing Together, Not Apart was Part 1 of 2 that will be held during the 2016-2017 season. Triangle Donor’s Forum is an educational series that convenes our fundholders with grantmakers and leaders from other regional foundations to learn more about pressing community issues.