Want Equity? You’ve Got to Do the Pre-Work

I had the pleasure of seeing Urban Bush Women’s Hair and Other Stories recently at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center. It was raw, thought provoking, and paid homage to all things black and beautiful. I walked out of the theater feeling full, grateful, and empowered.

At the beginning of the show, one of the dancers walked on stage and asked all the women of color in the theater to stand up. We stood, looked around at each other, and gave each other that good old, “Sis, I see you, smile.” It was magical.  We returned to our seats.

The dancer then asked all the white women to stand. She went on to talk about the noble efforts white people have made throughout history to do social justice work within communities of color. She ended by insisting that before attempting to do work in our communities, that they tend to their own.  

A series of claps, snaps, and amens came from the crowd.  

What she said was raw but, in my opinion, very true. I am sure it made some people squirm in their seats because I certainly did in mine.  But, I left the theater wondering: What if more conversations about equity were framed in this way? What if those who have benefitted from the very inequities they question checked themselves before investing time and energy into ensuring that marginalized communities reach their fullest potential?

If you are passionate about equity work within your community or organization, you must start from beginning.  If the goal of equity is to ensure that marginalized communities have access to opportunities, resources, networks, and support based on where they are and where they want to go to be successful, then the starting point must be getting an understanding of why and how inequities exist in the first place, not the so-called equity work itself. It takes learning about the history behind the conditions, as well as the intentional efforts made to rid poor communities and communities of color of their self sufficiency and resources. It’s the understanding and acknowledgment that when Africans were brought to this country, we were considered 3/5 of a person, that even after our emancipation we struggled to hold onto the opportunities we acquired for ourselves, financially and otherwise, and that even after the overt hate that came with Jim Crow ended, hate made its way into our school system, housing policies, food, and water. The list goes on.

The point is this:

If the goal of your organization is to tackle equity within the communities you serve, it takes pre-work to get there, work that should challenge the very assumptions you have around what is fair and just.  It should make you uncomfortable and question your own privilege and position. Most importantly, it should reveal to you that in order to achieve true equity, it may require that you give something up so that someone else has an opportunity to thrive.

What does equity pre-work look like for your organization or company?