In recent years, diversity seems to adopt a polyamorous lifestyle, coupled with inclusion and equity while also Netflix-and-chilling with accessibility, justice, or belonging, giving birth to a litter of acronyms – D&I, DEI, IDEA, DEIJ, DEIB, and so on.
The Importance of Equity
However, in all these iterations of this field that seeks to transform the cultures of organizations so everyone can have an equal shot at success, equity seems to get the shortest shrift. As I say in my new book Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives, equity seems to be the middle child of DEI – the concept living in the shadow of the bid D of diverse representation and then skipped over so we can get to the warm, fuzzy feelings of inclusion. However, equity is actually vital to accomplishing any of the other ideas we’re trying to adopt, including diversity, inclusion, accessibility, justice, and belonging.
And yet…how many people on your leadership team could explain what equity is? In fact, how many people on your DEI team or council could explain it? I’ve heard DEI practitioners describe equity poorly, so I’m willing to bet the chances are slim that more than 1 percent of your organization understands what equity is.
And that’s because equity is getting at systems and structures and things that make our heads hurt. To design an equitable organization, we need to look at data and systems and have a 10,000-foot view of how interdependent variables work together or against each other to create more opportunities for some and less for others.
However, there is a way to help your people understand what equity is and get it in their bones without so much hand-wringing or drudgery. And that’s through storytelling.
But let me show, not tell.
Helping Others Understand What Equity Is
On a bright August day in 1976, my Indian parents arrived in New York City with one suitcase, twenty dollars, and my mother pregnant with me. Without Google, they found their way from the airport to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where they had secured medical residency positions at a local hospital. They began working at a time when New York City’s financial mismanagement, high drug use, and racist “War on Crime” had created an atmosphere of civil war. My father saw more gunshot wounds in one night in the emergency room than in four years of surgical residency in England. For months, my very pregnant mother slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of their apartment. During the New York City blackout of 1977, my father and his colleagues triaged patients in the hospital parking lot illuminated only by the headlights of local fire engines. On an average day, security guards escorted them to and from the hospital buildings because so many medical residents had been mugged by people living with addiction which had been pushed to the fringes of society instead of being invited into the hospital for treatment.
Eventually, my parents made it out of Brooklyn, moving to the greener suburbs of Staten Island, and started their private practice—my mother in pediatrics and my father in the colon and rectal surgery. (Their waiting room was always a prickly and entertaining cocktail of people young and old, most of whom didn’t want to be there.) They bought a home and an office building, sent two kids to private school and college debt-free, provided for multiple family members, and contributed to their communities. New York magazine included my father in its annual “Best Doctors” issue eight times. They lived the proverbial American Dream, working their way up through hard work, determination, and honesty.
That, at least, is one version of their story. A fuller account of their immigration story starts in 1965 when the civil rights movement successfully advocated for the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which grants US visas based on labor needs and family ties rather than country of origin. Before that, the US government had an immigration system that explicitly sought to “preserve the ideal of US homogeneity,” meaning a White majority. In other words, no amount of hard work, determination, or honesty would have been enough for my parents to thrive in this country if they had tried to enter before the 1965 act took effect.
But even that legislative act of inclusion had its inequities. Starting in 1965, the US government began using its immigration system to take advantage of socialized education in other countries to fill its labor needs. My parents, who came from rather humble backgrounds, earned medical degrees in India for a marginal cost (about fifty dollars per semester, according to family lore). That made them prime recruits for a country concerned with a shortage of physicians in the 1960s and ‘70s but wanting to avoid the expense of training doctors. While my parents came to this country with little monetary wealth, the debt-free medical education they gained in India was a distinct advantage. One might call it a privilege because this opportunity was certainly not available to most Americans then.
When my parents and other Indian Americans are held up as members of a so-called model minority—characters in some Horatio Alger tale in which the world is fair and everyone can succeed if they work hard enough—it reinforces a false narrative at best and is viciously gaslighting at worst. This is not to say my parents didn’t work exceptionally hard; I witnessed many of the sacrifices they made to raise my brother and me, achieve their professional goals, and support their family and community. But suppose the US government offered socialized education as India and other countries do. In that case, I believe the percentage of American-born doctors with dark skin and poor parents would rival those in the Indian diaspora.
My ability to tell this story – to understand myself and my privilege in terms of the equitable or inequitable structures society has set up, both here in the United States and in India– allows me to connect to the concept of equity personally. It is not an abstract concept that solely exists in terms of data and numbers. It is a lived experience that I understand on a visceral level.
Research has repeatedly found that storytelling is one of the most effective learning tools. We human beings are meaning-making animals, and our brains are hard-wired for stories. It’s how our ancestors communicated information before we had the printing press or spreadsheets or databases, or the Internet. And none of those inventions have taken away from the power of story to change hearts and minds and transmit wisdom from generation to generation.
In my work with leadership teams, I often find that helping leaders re-tell their story of success with an equity lens helps them understand this concept far better than any definition or reams of data I could throw at them. But doing so means debunking a very subtle myth embedded in almost all our storytelling in the United States and possibly globally.
Fundamentally, our stories like to adhere to the simple equation that hard work = success.
But an equity lens unmasks the hidden variable in that equation by altering it to read:
Hard work + system support = success.
In working with leaders, I encourage them to research and discover the system support that helped them accomplish whatever level of success they are experiencing. They could be the child of immigrants like me whose families benefitted from the educational system of their country of origin. Or they could be multi-generational Americans whose families benefitted from the de jure segregated housing laws, as beautifully explained in the video at www.segregatedbydesign.com. Or their system support could be more immediate, such as launching their dream business because they are married and able to live off their spouse’s income and health insurance.
The way to often trigger this understanding is to ask leaders, what parts of your story would change if you were a different race or gender? What if you had a physical disability? Or if your sexuality was different?
They then begin to see that the social identity of the protagonist shapes the story as much as any internal virtues like grit, hard work, honesty, or intelligence.
Of course, the point in all of this is that no one is an island. We shape our environment as much as our environment shapes us. When leaders better understand who they are in relation to the system around them, equity ceases to be an abstract concept. And when it ceases to be abstract, leaders can finally begin making equity a reality in their organization.