At the month’s program for the MMA 2021 Leadership Series, Katena Cain from Nonprofit Network shared a slide of people and bikes to illustrate the difference between equality and equity. The people shown included a person with a mobility impairment who used a wheelchair, someone who was tall, a seemingly typically sized person, and a small child. In the first image, all four had the exact same bike. As you can imagine, that did not work well for the person with the mobility impairment, the tall person, and the small child. In the second image, each person had a type of bike that seemed better suited to them.
The slide reminded me of another set of images I’ve seen showing the difference between equality and equity. In the equality image, several people of different heights were standing by a fence on crates that were all the same size. The tallest person could easily see over the fence and everyone else less so depending on their height. The shortest person could not see over at all. In the second image, the same people were standing next to the same fence, but the crates were all different sizes to bring everyone’s height to the same level. Everyone could see over the fence.
The first time I saw the fence comparison, it really resonated with me. I am relatively short, so I am familiar with the sensation of not being able to see over something. But the simplicity of the illustration doling out the same solution for a problem experienced by multiple people really hit home and I have thought of that image often.
The slide that Katena showed resonated with me in a different way and started a discussion that has continued in my own mind. Of course, it illustrated the same principal as the fence image in that giving everyone the same thing is not going to guarantee the same outcome. However, the use of bikes just hit me differently, because it was a more complex solution than the fence image. In the fence image, the solution for equity was to give everyone a different sized box. Besides the height, all the boxes were the same. In the bike image, the solution was really four different kinds of bikes. That is a much more complicated and challenging solution.
I am not the only person who saw that complexity, because an exhibit designer on the call brought up the issue of scope and capacity. Their comment concerned the very pragmatic problem of trying to create multiple processes and formats with limited resources. The idea of being able to create and provide four different bikes seems obvious, but the application is more challenging.
This is the third time I’ve written this column. I started it two weeks ago, shortly after the session by Katena, but I couldn’t figure out a conclusion. I started a different column, but came back to this because I was still thinking about it. Again, I couldn’t get to a finish. So, I spent some time this morning watching it snow and thinking about why I couldn’t finish. I didn’t have a conclusion because I wasn’t done thinking about it.
Discussions of equity are extremely challenging for a reason - equity is challenging. If it weren’t, we would not be having this conversation. I think the IDEA of equity can be easy, but actually achieving it is difficult. I can look at all the slides I want about different heights of boxes and different kinds of bikes, but that doesn’t mean I can look at my own life or work and clearly see the solution. Even if I can see the solution, it doesn’t mean that I know how I can make four different bikes using the resources I think I have.It is time to do some real work, and learn more about building four different bikes.
Lisa Craig Brisson