My husband and I have a joke we tell each other before parties. “How long before we make the conversation about oppression?” It’s kind of a joke (we’re really fun at parties!) but there’s a truth to it. Once you start to notice the racial injustices hiding in most topics, it’s hard to un-notice them.
We don’t see oppression around every corner for no reason. But we do know that cities, highways, schools, hospitals, and society at large were all built by people. Those people have priorities and biases that influence what they build. People don’t have to think of themselves as racist to build racist systems. If you subscribe to a racist junk science, you might think of these falsehoods as facts. You might believe since-debunked theories about intelligence, pain tolerance, and family stability. No doubt those beliefs bleed into the decisions we make in our work and home lives.
How can we perceive the world as it is beyond our own senses? Some folks do it whether they choose to or not. We can’t turn it off. But people who are ignorant to these conditions have no reason to be. Some folks use an equity lens to help them know the mysterious.
what is an equity lens?
An equity lens is a list of questions that help you make more inclusive decisions. For most decisions, many of us begin with our knee-jerk or gut reaction. When we operate on instinct, we’re usually relying on our biases. Using an equity lens invites new perspectives into a decision.
The Center for Nonprofit Advancement offers a basic example of an equity lens. The questions ask us first to summarize the issue for ourselves. Next, think about the beliefs, values, and assumptions that made their way into our summary. From there, consider who we involved in the decision. Who did we leave out, for whatever reason? Who would our decision help? Who would it harm? Knowing all this information, would we make the same decision?
how do people tend to use it?
Seems simple, right? When I’ve seen an equity lens in action, it’s often the last stop in a decision process. We’d spend months debating a decision then run through the equity lens during a 1-hour meeting. One organization I worked at posted their equity lens in every room. It started at the table, then moved to a shelf or windowsill for space reasons. We almost never picked it up as often as we should have. The questions became an obstacle rather than a tool that would save us heartache in the future.
Other times, the person using the equity lens questions is the one who made the decision. They breeze through the answers with a foregone conclusion. It’s like how I used to cram for exams in college. I’d skim every page of the textbook thinking, “oh, I remember this,” or “I practiced that enough.” My results told a very different story than the confident one I told myself the night before.
Some people might find it hard to use an equity lens precisely because it’s not instinct. So how do we develop that instinct? We need more than a series of questions. We need to perceive the world in a way we haven’t before.
creating a permanent lens
Start with an example that’s outside your worldview. Having a little distance from the issue might help things crystalize. For today I’ll use the #stopcopcity movement in Atlanta, Georgia. Here are three articles I used to understand the subject.
The New Fight Over an Old Forest in Atlanta, The New Yorker
Cop City explained: A look at the ongoing controversy surrounding police training center, Decaturish
The #StopCopCity Movement Didn’t Lose, In These Times
Here’s my summary: In short, the Muscogee Creek people roamed land they called the Weelaunee Forest. After settlers claimed the area, it became known as a plantation, a prison farm (aka a plantation), and a forest. In 2017, the mayor of Atlanta declared the 85-acre park would soon become something new. The forest would transform into a facility where police and firefighters could train. It included a firing range, a “burn building” for firefighters, and a small city for police to practice. Some people call this law enforcement training center Cop City. Elected officials repeatedly voted for its construction over the next five years. During this time, locals protested by occupying the forest and leading awareness campaigns. Now, after years of protest, the city rolls forward with their plans. The #stopcopcity movement remains unbowed with plans for a referendum by Atlanta residents.
Consider the situation. What if this was in your town? How might you interpret something an issue like this?
questions to ask yourself
Where are the people? What do they want? Who opposes them?
Public opposition to the project is overwhelming. In 2021, the city council asked the public to weigh in on construction. Of the 1100+ residents who spoke up, 70% opposed construction.
Where’s the power? What power dynamics are at play here? Whose opinions are people in power siding with?
This past June, the city council held another vote to approve the budget for Cop City. For 15 hours, the majority of residents who spoke at the hearing opposed construction. Every time decision-makers ask for public comment, the response is a resounding “no.” Who are the elected officials choosing to recognize? The people who stand to profit from the $90M facility, including the leaders of Home Depot, UPS, Amazon, and many more.
Who will experience harm?
Police around the country are responsible for the violent oppression of Black people. This has been true ever since police have existed in america. The city’s plan will train police to kill in a facility designed to do so. Harm flows to poor communities in two ways: through violent oppression of bodies and the theft of funding that could serve the public good. How else could we spend $90M, in this or any other community?
What’s happening in your community?
It’s time to look inward. I joked earlier about not being able to turn off the noticing of oppression. That’s not a bad thing. Empathy and trust have been a part of human society since the earliest days. We need to be aware of people’s needs, especially when they are not our own.
What’s happening in your city or town right now? It isn’t redlining anymore. There are few “whites only” signs left standing, but segregation is higher than it’s ever been. Instead, what we find now is new injustice that future generations will have to undo. What is it? What do you notice?