Meta-Equity and the irony of inequity around Equity work


dog-1443465_960_720Hi everyone, before we begin today’s post, look: Get a Beer and Undo Nonprofit Power Dynamics Day (#GABAUNPDD) on July 8th is actually happening. Thanks GEO for organizing an actual event! Please use this historic day to build stronger relationships between program officers, trustees, and nonprofits. I think many of our world’s problems can we solved quicker and more effectively if we get a beer together more often. This is going to be an annual thing. #GABAUNPDD #BestHashtagEver


One of my favorite words is “meta,” a prefix that allows something to be about or comprising itself. For example, meta-writing could be writing about the process or benefits of writing. Meta-film-making might be making a film about film-making. A meta-presentation is a presentation about how to make effective presentations. It works for everything. We might want to have a meta-meeting to talk about how to make meetings more effective. And we should make a meta-hummus, which is a delicious hummus that is made out of leftover dollops of other hummi. Try to use meta at your next meeting; it’ll make you sound really smart: “Can we do a meta-financial-analysis? I think we’re spending too much money on our financial reviews.”

So today, let’s talk about meta-Equity—the equity around Equity. I have really appreciated that everyone has been paying more attention to Equity, having thoughtful discussions led by qualified trainers, and incorporating Equity into grantmaking, hiring, and other practices (#OxfordCommaForever!). Hell, maybe Equity won’t just be another fad like coconut water, but will actually stick around and become a timeless beverage that will nourish us all, like tequila.

But I’ve attended enough Equity-focused summits, conferences, karaoke parties, and burlesque shows to notice there is often irony in who is leading, dominating, and getting paid for conversations about Equity. Others have noticed also. After attending one such all-day Equity-focused summit, a frustrated colleague emailed me: 

It struck me a number of times today that this discussion centered around equity, a very racially-charged topic, was being held at a white space in a white meeting format led by a number of white people […] Someone expressed to me that in her small group discussion (again, about equity and race) she felt the contributions of the few people of color in her group (including her) were being dismissed.”

Imagine if we’re having a discussion about the discrimination women face in the workforce, and a bunch of dudes keep dominating the discussion and being dismissive of the women who occasionally speak up. Or imagine if we’re talking about the challenges faced by rural communities, but it’s a mainstream urban consulting firm that gets paid to organize the discussion. Or if we’re talking about challenges experienced by people with disabilities, but the meeting is held on the third floor of a building with no elevator. There is something intrinsically wrong about those scenarios.

So, while it’s great that we’re talking about equity, let’s make sure that this process itself is equitable. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Hire local Equity facilitators and trainers from communities facing inequity. Sometimes, because of something I call the “Outsider Efficacy Bias,” people who are not local are seen as smarter and more “innovative” than the people who are local. And sometimes, yes, outside consultants are great and the right choice to make, especially when local capacity to discuss Equity is in its infant stages. But the assumption that these outsiders are always more qualified flies in the face of Equity, which is about ensuring that the people who are most affected by inequity are getting the resources and the power to lead efforts to address it, and those people tend to be connected to a particular geographic community. If you plan to do Equity work, look around and see if there are already awesome local people from marginalized communities who can lead these trainings and discussions, and invest in them before you hire national folks.
  1. Pay organizations to be involved in your equity discussions. Grassroots organizations get asked by foundations and larger organizations to attend summits and meetings and provide their input and advice about Equity—for free! This destructive practice of Trickle-Down Community Engagement (#TDCE) happens across all sorts of issue areas, but for it to happen when the content itself is Equity is incredibly ironic. If you are asking organizations led by communities of color or other marginalized communities to help you and your foundation or organization understand Equity, pay them, because the more time they spend helping you, the less time they are spending fundraising and advancing their own missions.
  1. Hold the event at an accessible location out in the community at an appropriate time: Meeting space is often seen as just one more logistic. We do not pay enough attention to the power inherent in physical settings. Think of the advantages sports teams have when they play a game at home—the team that plays at home is always much more likely to make the, uh, three-pointer during the, um, home run…at the fifth inning. Yeah, I don’t know anything about sports. But, clearly when you are in a familiar setting, there is a better sense of control and comfort, things that are critical when we discuss heavy subjects like Equity. Assess where you are having a meeting, whether it is accessible not just physically but also psychologically and emotionally, and be willing to be where community members are. You may think that your location is most convenient for everyone, but convenience is often the greatest enabler of inequity. And if you’re using space belonging to and run by diverse communities, pay for it. Also check to make sure your event does not conflict with significant days for different cultures and religions.
  1. Provide childcare, transportation assistance, food, parking validation, etc. I don’t know how many equity-focused meetings I’ve attended where not only did my organization not get compensated, but we actually had to pay for the parking. For foundations and larger organizations, these are small things that often don’t even register. But for many community members and grassroots organizations, these things matter. Especially if you are engaging community members directly, be thoughtful about having childcare available, providing assistance with transportation and parking, etc. And have substantive food, especially if you’re asking people to give up their normal meals with their families to be with you. Ask local restaurants to cater and support small businesses in the area.
  1. Reexamine how you format and facilitate the meeting. Meetings and summits default to hourglass-620397_960_720a very traditional, mainstream format. Time is less flexible. There is a hierarchy of who speaks and when. And there are accepted methods of settling conflicts and making decisions, such as by voting. For some things, this traditional format works. But for a lot of things, we need to reexamine if this default style is the best, and I would argue that it is often not. Robert’s Rules, for example, are confusing even to those of us who are familiar with them. Imagine if you come from another culture; I got used to Robert’s Rules, and even today, the tabling of motions and the seconding of amendments still sound like an alien language. Reexamine the format. Maybe spend more time listening and less on solutions. Maybe build in time for people to get to know one another. Maybe allow for small group discussions. Maybe make decision by consensus. Maybe allow the agenda to be completely derailed in order to respond to the energy in the room. We all need to think more like pterodactyls.
  1. Listen more and stop being defensive. When we talk about Equity, and if people feel safe enough to share, there will be lots of feedback, and a lot of it will not be things that you may want to hear. There may be a list of all the things your foundation or organization is doing wrong or screwed up in the past when it comes to inequitable practices. I’ve seen so many people become defensive and shut down at these criticisms, even during an Equity-focused conversation. You don’t have to agree with everything you hear, but it’s important to lower your defenses and just listen to understand.
  1. Be ready to implement people’s recommendations on Equity. I’ve written about Askholism, one manifestation of which is asking people for their input and then basically just cherry picking the stuff that aligns with your preconceived agenda to implement. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and worse, makes people jaded, which affects future engagement efforts. If you’re asking people for input on how to achieve Equity, be ready to seriously consider their suggestions and implement them. Don’t be dismissive. Otherwise, you’re an equity-askhole, and kids will point and laugh at you.
  1. Check-in with and provide space for those who tend to be quieter. Some people are more introverted and require time to process. But whether someone speaks up also depends on whether they feel safe to share their opinions. As my colleague above mentioned with the people of color in the room being dismissed after they spoke—well, after being dismissed a few times, you start to get more and more pessimistic about speaking up. Facilitators need to understand and acknowledge safety and power in any room when discussing Equity, and provide the appropriate balancing factors, such as changing format, doing check-ins, and asking more dominant voices to step back.
  1. Most importantly: people with privilege, step back. If we’re talking about inequities that communities of color face, white colleagues, please try to be cognizant of how much you may be dominating the conversation. You are often used to being able to speak your mind, and you believe that everyone else also has the same privilege and can also speak up if they have something to say. Plus, you also have the benefit usually of these conversations happening in your space, in your primary language, in your format. But the reality is that for many people from diverse communities, these factors, combined with the often-unconscious burden of being seen as representing our race or ethnicity and the risk of being misinterpreted, mean that it takes us more energy to speak up. And it takes even more energy when the conversation is being dominated by our colleagues who are perfectly comfortable speaking and we have to find the perfect time to “step in.”

This also goes for dudes to be aware and to step back and avoid dominating a conversation beetroot-1383699_960_720about gender equity, wage gaps, etc. And it goes for the able-bodied to be aware when in a conversation about accessibility. And straight allies to be aware when engaged in discussions about LGBTQ issues. By all means, contribute—your participation and opinions matter—but think of it like you’re a guest at a dinner: Look around and maybe don’t reach for second helpings of that yummy beet salad until everyone has had their first serving.

Equity is awesome, and I’m glad that we are discussing it more. It is not easy to achieve, and we will screw up all the time. We have to keep having thoughtful conversations and challenge ourselves and each other. But we also must be aware of who is getting paid to talk about Equity, who is visibly leading conversations about Equity, who is talking the most, who is being tokenized, and whether we are leaving people behind even in conversations about how to dismantle the systems that have been leaving people behind. We must be thoughtful, because we don’t want to perpetuate Fakequity, which you can learn about here and at

And we don’t want to perpetuate the Equity Industrial Complex, EIC, pronounced “Eeeeek!”

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  • Nailed it, Vu! This is a great post.

  • Janet

    Excellent. Will now forward this to many others. Thanks.

  • JL_Laurie

    This came up recently in a conversation about how, as a white, straight woman, do I demonstrate support and solidarity? Reading comments on Facebook after the Orlando shooting, I read about people wishing to grieve and process in spaces for POC only. It was the first time I had encountered that – I (wrongly) thought why can’t they share a space with white allies? Your points above about accessibility and process explained perfectly why there are times when that is appropriate and necessary.

    • Fleur Larsen

      I am also a white woman (cis and hetero) and I’ve been looking at the intersection of white privilege and internalized sexism. Not only has this been useful for my own personal development but also because white women are the largest group within the sector. Thus our norms, strengths and hangups set the stage for our sectors culture. I just finished leading a white women’s caucus to look at all these things. Would love to hear what other’s have experienced and observed on this dynamic.

  • Katie Kosseff

    This is great, Vu. It gives me, as a white and fairly privileged non-profiteer, food for thought and things to be self-aware of during equity discussions. Thank you!

  • kayemtee

    Thankful, because I’m a woman. Guilty because I’m white. Helpful with very concrete suggestions for changing behavior.

  • Diana_Nieves

    Thank you, thank you! Sharing with members of my organization – I feel like I read this just in time!

  • Maya T. Sandifor

    Excellent points Vu! Thank you for the reminder to consider these important steps.


    Auuuguhhgh YES to all of this. I’m studying unpaid internships in the culture sector, and I’m seeing a lot of defensiveness around the idea of even ASKING “Are our hiring practices equitable from a class/race/gender perspective?”. I’ve spoken to so many representatives of big arts institutions who’ve said, “Hey! This research is really important! But we can’t disseminate the survey because we’re nervous about offending our peers, who still use unpaid interns.” This kind of risk-averseness really hurts the struggle for equity. Nobody with a paycheque wants to rock the boat.

  • This makes me appreciate the recent org-wide equity work we’ve done at my organization. After a couple of really bad attempts, we found a wonderful facilitator who really knew how to create a real discussion around equity. I had the opportunity to be part of the least-diverse cohort and it was truly inspiring to see minds opening and getting it.

  • squirlygirl27

    Always on point! For more on #3: ‘Are you on Middle Class Standard Time?” and “Recognizing Middle Class Standard Time”

  • Mehitabel

    My greatest frustration with these discussions around equity is that it always ends up feeling like “equity” is something that the majority is bestowing on the minority(ies). It just feels so inherently and fundamentally wrong, but I really don’t have a solution other than stepping back, as you suggest. But even then… it still feels wrong to me because it still seems like the choice rests with the privileged, whether or not to step back. I wish I knew the answer, but I just don’t.

  • Sara S Lebensold

    This is great and I always love what you write. I have an issue with the fact that disabilities is often left off the table when we talk about equity. You make mention of white colleagues, what about ‘ableists’. And what about when people cannot physically speak for themselves. Diversity and inclusion spans far beyond cultures and races. Let’s speak about true inclusion by included everyone 🙂 Thanks for keeping the convo going!

  • JKoz

    I try not to be cynical, but I wonder how much the discussion of equity is just the latest round of Virtue Signalling. that is oh so common in progressive politics.. Foundations hold confabs to appear committed to social justice. Nonprofits declare their commitment in order to position themselves for funding. Consultants design elaborate programs in order to capture this market. Elites jostle each other to be seen as The Bestest Ally Ever while minority leaders fight tooth and claw to be crowned as The Spokesperson For The Oppressed. (and thus join the ranks of the elites) And in the end…..the day-to-day lives of those struggling to make ends meet remains the same as it ever was…’s all Fakequity (Vu’s brilliant phrasing).

    • wilter3614

      Historically, I would agree. However, the movement to address racial disproportionality is real. And it’s happening across systems. none of us are doing it because it’s a fad, or we’ll get recognition, or any other cynical reason you’ve listed. None of us are elites, nor do any of us want to be. We’re social workers, community members, people whose lives have personally been affected by inequity. It’s really easy for people who aren’t doing this work to judge based on the few bad but public examples. I would argue that’s the same thought pattern that led us to this state of inequity – judging a huge group based on the actions of a few. I have, and will continue to work very hard to affect the day to day lives of people.

      • JKoz

        I hope you are right. However, over the years I’ve frequently heard Oh this time it’s going to be really really different”

  • Commenter

    To talk about an accessible space and not comment on it the need for it to be ADA compliant is a pretty terrible omission. This whole article fails to mention the disability community–which again is a big omission when talking about diversity. If those of who work on issues of equity (and write articles about how to do the work inclusively) are not including the disabled community then who will?

  • Tricia Baker