Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Measuring Up: Assessing Ourselves on Equity

In May, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette staff completed an internal assessment to gauge how well we are doing in creating equal opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds within our organization. The assessment (called the Tool for Organizational Self-Assessment and Shared Accountability) was done as part of our partnership with All Hands Raised.   

The overarching goal of the tool is to help promote improved outcomes for children and youth in Multnomah County schools especially around the areas of racial education equality and social justice. United Way volunteered to pilot the tool along with All Hands Raised.

The assessment took 76 hours to complete and consisted of 72 questions on topics such as organizational and leadership commitment, policies and practices, culture and communications and other areas impacting our practices vis-à-vis diversity. The assessment process included extensive discussion and data collection and was conducted by the culture committee and Maria Rubio, the former vice president of equity and engagement (Rubio stepped down from her role in June). I had the opportunity to speak with Rubio, before she left,  regarding the assessment and what it revealed about United Way’s own situation.  

I first would like to ask you about the difference between the words equity and equality. I think equality is the word most of us are familiar with and learned about in civics classes. This is probably the word most people think of when we think about the American social contract.
Equality means treating everyone the same - food, money, time, etc. Equity recognizes that everyone doesn’t come from the same place. Equality doesn’t recognize the barriers others often face in reaching the same outcomes - for example, the barriers created by discrimination or the challenges faced by a person with a disability.

At this point Rubio referred me to an image featured in the Equity Tool Report: 
Note: This image was adapted by the City of Portland
Office of Equity and Human Rights from the original graphic:
The image shows three boys of varying heights standing on boxes, trying to view a baseball game over a fence.  The left panel, titled “Equality,” shows how by being given equal resources, the boys do not achieve equal outcomes, while the right panel, titled “Equity,” shows that when resources are shifted to account for differences, the result is equal outcomes.  This principle is actually recognized by our judicial system and Rubio referred to a quote from a study of equity and bias in the Oregon Justice System that states:   “equal treatment of un-equals, constitutes unequal treatment” (paraphrased).  As the Portland Plan defines it, equity is when everyone has access to the opportunities necessary to satisfy their essential needs, advance their well being and achieve their full potential.

What is the importance of the assessment tool and what do you hope to accomplish by using it?
The tool will help organizations like local government and school districts assess how their organization and cultures might be creating disparities in their service delivery and/or their student success. The tool also spurs conversation and discussion about equity that rarely happens in the workplace.

So what did the assessment tool reveal about our own commitment to equity?
Our chief strength is our commitment and our courage and willingness to discuss and examine these sensitive issues. This is a role that an organization’s leadership must play and here at United Way, Keith Thomajan (United Way of the Columbia-Willamette CEO and president) has really been a driving force for creating our own culture of equity.

Maria Rubio goes over the assessment results with United Way staff

What are some of our other strengths?
We have a strong community sense and an existing equity policy that focuses on populations that are the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised in our region.  We also have an equity lens designed to help keep equity front and center in our organization. Lastly, we have a strong and diverse culture committee. This committee serves as advisors to the leadership team on issues that impact culture and morale. Committee members serve as ambassadors who model and incorporate the guiding principles that demonstrate the culture we want to have here at United Way.

Where are some areas where we fall short?
An obvious gap in our equity work is that we don’t incorporate it into our workplace giving campaign messaging. We need to engage and educate our donors about how inequities affect learning outcomes in schools, individual health, and individual and community economic stability. By improving education, health and economic conditions for the most vulnerable in our society, we all benefit by higher incomes, a better educated workforce and healthy people.

Dannon Raith, Hands On Greater Portland Program Coordinator, and Carol Frye, Chief Operating Officer, listen to the assessment results

The equity lens was identified as one of United Way’s strengths. What can you tell me about the lens?
The equity lens is a way of keeping equity front and center and to keep the dialogue open. It is a way of keeping track of equity - how it will impact people thinking about diversity and how it impacts us.  It offers us a way to look at where we can impact this process.  The lens creates more commitment to equity and with it, a greater commitment of resources as well.

How often should organizations like United Way conduct an equity assessment?
We should conduct the assessment at least once a year and measure the progress from the previous year’s goals. It should be conducted by a diverse, cross section of employees and organization leaders.

Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?
Other collaborative member agencies worry about putting themselves out there by undertaking this assessment work.  At United Way, we have been very open with our findings, even when it’s hard to hear.  Because of this, we now have a benchmark for our future work and we will only get better.

1 comment:

  1. I would like permission to use one of your images. Please contact me at