Targeted Universalism Step 1: Establish a Universal Goal

A grocery store aisle of boxed cereals, stretching from one end of the photo to another. I grew up on malt-o-meal cereals as a kid. These were the generic version of the popular but more-expensive cereals. I started buying some name-brand cereals when I got older. As a treat. They really do taste different, though!

Awhile ago I wrote about targeted universalism. There are five steps to creating a plan. I’m using the Othering and Belonging Institute‘s primer on the subject.

To use the targeted universalism framework, we first need to establish a goal. The goal must be a broadly-shared understanding of a common problem. Once the problem is commonly-held, the collective defines their aspiration. In this case, I would define the problem as: not everyone has enough to eat. Food access depends on a person’s wealth, their dietary needs, and their location.

understanding the problem
If a person, or a person’s family has enough money, they can afford high quality food. If a person’s family has less available wealth, they may have to eat lower-quality food. They may need to accept whatever food they can get for free. It’s not universal. Get it?? That’s half of the plan’s name! The other half comes later.

Food offered at food banks (or even at discount stores) works for some people, but not everyone. People who can’t digest gluten or lactose may find their options limited. Same with people who are vegan, vegetarian, or don’t eat specific animals for religious reasons. People who don’t like the taste or texture of a certain food. For people with money, these are all valid reasons to reject food. But when a person doesn’t have money, society tells them to accept what they can get.

Now imagine a person who lives far from a nearby town or grocery store. Or a person who uses a wheelchair or scooter in a city with uneven or dangerous sidewalks. Or a person who must use a bus to travel on pre-set routes. I recently read the story of Dashrath Manjhi. His wife needed medical help but the Gelhour hills separated them from the nearest town. The small mountain range forced him to travel 40 miles around them to the medical center. By the time he returned with a doctor, his wife had died. In his pain, he spent the next 22 years carving a road through the mountain to connect his village to the town. This experience is not universal! Providing universal access to food means we must account for a person’s geography as well.

setting the collective aspiration
The Targeted Universalism primer describes how to establish a collective. In building the table, they recommend forming a group like the one we use in an advice process. The participants should include, from the start:- People most affected by the problem. Go out of your way to include people who are often excluded from these types of decisions. Include them in a way that honors them as individuals with their own power and choice whether to take part. I’ll summarize:

  • people who receive benefits from the proposed change.
  • people tasked with implementing the change.
  • people tasked with documentation.
  • people with an expert understanding of the issues.

Since we’re talking about food access, I would look to people covered by the limitations described earlier. I would include:

  • people whose first or primary language isn’t english.
  • people with physical disabilities.
  • people of different races and cultures.
  • people who know how to cook, and people who don’t.
  • people who sell groceries.
  • people who own farms, and people who work farms.

I expect the collective will grow and change over time as we engage more people in this work.

This collective would definitely come up with more limits to their food access than I have. But for this step I’ll use the three factors I named above: wealth, dietary needs, and location.

My universal goal would be:
Everyone should have access to food that is free. The food should be nutritious and appropriate to them. The food should be accessible within a 15 minutes walk.

I’ll get around to Step 2 at some point.

exploring Targeted Universalism

the view from a plane above a layer of bumpy cloud cover. a sunrise peeks over the scene from the right. streaks of clouds texture the sky. up here, this is what targeted universalism feels like.

Targeted Universalism has fascinated me since I first heard about it on a podcast. john a. powell was explaining a system that he calls “equity 2.0.” In simple terms he uses, the goals are universal but the strategies are targeted. As he says, we should not be trying to close the gap between 55% and 70%. We should be imagining how to get everyone to 100%.

This took some processing for me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to apply equity to my work. Equity is sometimes described as a way to close the gap, or end disparities between races. Targeted universalism acknowledges why racial equity is not popular in dominant culture. For white people who are suffering, they have not felt the righting of wrongs that we say they already have. Some people get indignant when we say that people of color suffer more than them. Targeted universalism says instead that we all have a lot to do. Rather than working to close gaps between racial groups, we should imagine the goal. What should we want everyone to achieve? Once we know the ideal, we can come up with strategies to address what each group needs to reach that goal.

Five Steps for Targeted Universalism

  1. Establish a universal goal based upon a broadly shared recognition of a societal problem and collective aspirations. 
  2. Assess general population performance relative to the universal goal. 
  3. Identify groups and places that are performing differently with respect to the goal. Groups should be disaggregated. 
  4. Assess and understand the structures that support or impede each group or community from achieving the universal goal. 
  5. Develop and implement targeted strategies for each group to reach the universal goal.
    – from Targeted Universalism: Policy and Practice

Groups interested in targeted universalism should engage a large group of stakeholders. You can’t create a universal standard without widespread invovlement and buy-in. With that caveat, I’m going to try imagining the process myself. What would designing this process look like? What might a universal goal look like in the world of food access? How do we transcend but honor racial inequities and historic disparities between groups?

I am going to use the Targeted Universalism primer from the Othering and Belonging Institute as my guide.