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Philanthropy Thought Leadership

Equity will bring a light in darkness

Atlanta Skyline at dusk, Georgia. USA.

By Frank Fernandez, president and CEO, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

2020 was a year like no other.

The Year of COVID-19. The Year of George Floyd. The Year of Great Division. And, The Year of Equity.

Clearly, the struggle for equity, or battle against inequity, is not new. It is a centennial American struggle. Yet, equity, especially racial equity, is in the spotlight today.

Mayors, corporate CEOs, and numerous other civic leaders have started to beat the drum about the need to promote equity in their communities. Indeed, our own mayor, Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms, has made it a central pillar of her administration’s focus and aspiration for Atlanta since taking office. For those of us who have worked on “equity” issues for many years, this newfound zeal is welcome and long overdue. Now that the conversation has started, we have a responsibility to be intentional and thoughtful about not only what we mean by “equity,” but how we talk about it and what our actions demonstrate.

Equity should not be a buzz word that morphs into what we want it to be. It is not a relativistic notion that changes with the whims of public opinion or ideological persuasion. Rather, it is more like how the Inuit think of snow. For Eskimos, snow is not limited to one word. The expression of its full reality requires a multitude of different words to lift up the nuanced shadings and manifestations that collectively constitute that which is snow. However, its essence is still the same – wet, cold, and comprised of water.

Equity is like that. It is a complex concept with multiple dimensions. Some of our colleagues focus on racial equity and the need to explicitly look at racial disparities across issue areas; some on socio-economic equity and the stark reality that Atlanta has the lowest economic mobility rates of any major American city; some on educational equity and our collective failure to ensure that all children have equal access to a quality education; and then others on geographic equity and the role that place plays in limiting or broadening individuals’ life choices. All valid, all capturing a kernel of truth, an important aspect of that which constitutes equity. However, to me it seems that equity’s essence is more fundamental.

These different definitions of equity rightly describe how it plays out in one’s lived experiences, yet, at its core, equity is about fairness. It is concerned with ensuring that each and all of us has a fair shot at a decent life. That our lot in life is a function of our own deliberative will, and not factors that are arbitrary from a moral point of view. Or, as John Rawls, a famous 20th century political philosopher, put it “… those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system.” Race, gender, socio-economic status, where you live or came from should not affect the expectations of individuals with the same abilities and aspirations.

But they do.

The ways in which we, as individuals, are defined become proxies for disadvantage and advantage, oppression and privilege, depending on whether you are white, black or brown, male, female or transgender, rich or poor, Christian or Muslim, documented or undocumented. These proxies dramatically shape your life choices and outcomes; and, for some, in awful, unjust ways that create barriers that preclude large swaths of society from accessing the proverbial American Dream.

2020 has forced us to see these hard, harsh truths and we cannot un-see them. The bigger question for us, collectively and moving forward, is what do we do now?

First, we need to develop a common understanding of what we mean by equity. It is unlikely that we will collectively arrive at a singular definition, but we can agree on core elements that have broad consensus. For me, that’s about:

  • Ensuring everyone has a fair shot at a decent life; eliminating socio-economic disparities by race, gender, LGBTQ status, geography and other relevant factors;
  • Delving deeply into our individual decisions and choices, as well as our institutions and systems, to better understand and root out explicit and implicit bias that circumscribes people’s life choices;
  • Increasing prosperity and well-being for all metro Atlanta residents.

Second, while equity may not exclusively be about racial equity, here in the South, in Atlanta, given our history and this historical moment, race has to be front and center in any conversation we have about equity.

And third, equity, and its pursuit, have to be grounded in the better angels of our nature. It is not vindictive, not shaming, not meant to be used as a bludgeon. Equity, I would submit, embraces the notion of grace, the notion that we all come with good intent even if we don’t always get it right. It requires that we don’t engage in “othering” our fellow metro Atlanta residents, whatever their perspective. We see in each of us what the Torah calls the 70 faces of God and that we demonstrate the humility to understand that we are not the sole owners of wisdom.

At the Community Foundation we are committed to using our resources – grant investments, influence, programs, our voice and more – to help break down these barriers that prevent so many from pursuing their concept of the good life, whatever that may be. And, we are committed to creating a space for all our philanthropic neighbors across individuals, families, private foundations and corporations to have tough, but necessary conversations about the intersection of equity and race. Ultimately, equity demands that we build a region that supports, as much as is reasonably possible, every individual getting what they deserve and need. That is the tenet upon which America was founded, and that is the right, just and equitable thing to do.

 

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