Posts Tagged ‘equity’

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by Tamara Toles O’Laughlin

February is Black History Month, and it couldn’t have come any sooner for your local chapter of EcoWomen. We are at a crossroads in Washington D.C., and the nation. Challenges for women in the environment are compounded by a hyper local tightening of political tensions, regulatory rollbacks, revised—and frankly regressive—policy decisions. What better time is there to engage in a month-long reflection on the contributions, struggles, and textures of American life through the lens of black people? I live my life through this lens, and as a leader, engaging the environmental sector on access, equity and justice, I am a lifelong student of the past, with my eyes trained on the present. History is in the making.

The past is full of policies that aimed to frame the appreciation of the biota as the province of men, white men, at the expense of the stories of women and humans of every background whose lives and livelihoods were diminished by force of law and violence. Recent history is silent on those missing voices of environmental work; as the ethos took those cues and turned them into a culture of exclusion and compartmentalized norms of melanin in absentia. (That’s a different blog post!)

Text that reads Black Lives Matter on a background of pink roses

So where are the heroes in technicolor? Here, here, here and here, for a start. They are everywhere. And I suspect that they always were.

The future looks bright for environmental organizations taking this culture correction to heart, as leadership and membership shifts to closer approximate the population, and include diverse access points and perspectives.  It is a great time to consider the unnatural paucity of milestones and connect the dots on the homogeneity of voices that have shaped the narratives, and ask, to what end?  

As the DC chapter of EcoWomen looks forward to its fifteenth year, we are wrestling with questions of our existence as a body, our presence in the District, and whether or not we are walking the walk on equity and inclusion beyond the benchmarks of diversity. Operationally, this means taking a look at the depth of our bench in programs centered around inclusivity of women of different ages, capacities, and stages of life. It also means we are examining who we choose to lead our panels and programs—including our monthly EcoHour speakers—and whether or not our choices reflect a bias towards any branch, specialty, or perspective on environmental issues. We are taking up the challenge of articulating our aspirations and charting their emergence in internal and external policies. We are reviewing our goals, mission, and programs with the awareness of heteronormative, gender based, and age targeted assumptions. We begin by making no presumption that we are doing it “right” or that we can exist as DC EcoWomen in community without some careful thought about who is in the rooms where decisions are made.

As we move through these considerations we plan to open the questions up to our membership—you! So, be on the lookout for opportunities for feedback including surveys, focus groups, or polls where we will request your input on how you might like to see us express our desire for a representative chapter on the way to meaning well and doing it too. We expect that after some thought we will articulate policies about how and why we work and any action plans that would allow us to make it a matter of praxis.

Thank you, as always, for your membership and continued support of DC EcoWomen.

posted by | on , , , | Comments Off on Why Should You Care About Equity Over Equality in Environmental Work?

By Tamara Toles O’Laughlin

Among other things, the EcoWomen Community is a network of change agents and activists who take on the cause of healthy and balanced society. We convene to learn from one another, support individual development and sustain a growing community of professional women.

As a member of the DC chapter, I have firsthand knowledge of our collective skill in developing relationships for lasting growth, power and access for women across sectors.

This post compares two conceptual frameworks we apply to the distribution of wealth, opportunities and privileges that underlie our pursuit for a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. To reach these noble aims, we must scrutinize our individual perspective by looking more closely at the ignoble status quo.

We all think we want equality, right? To avoid zero-sum outcomes we must look at the currency and costs for everyone involved. And that requires us to opt for equity instead.

Advice photo

Equity and equality: do they mean what you think they mean?

Equality is the quality or state of being equal; the feature or status of having the same rights, social status, etc., whereas equity is demonstrating fair treatment of people within relative circumstances. Superficially, the ideas seem virtually identical– honorable, proper, even moral. However, in real life, the difference can contribute to detrimental outcomes for vulnerable people.

Let’s agree to think of equality as fairness, based on a presumption of sameness. It aims for equal treatment through equal access to a tool, medium or a resource. Whereas, equity is akin to justice, a more contextualized form of access; it considers the circumstances and background of everyone involved, exercising deference to each.

To think about it abstractly, equality is like the golden rule and equity is more like the platinum rule, if such a thing exists. Equity treats people how they would like with the understanding that resources, benefits, and burdens are meted out based on culturally derived and defined differences.

Metaphorically speaking, equality gives everyone a boat, whereas equity ensures that each boat, based on its location, is able to make it to shore in light of the conditions facing it.

Why should you care about equity over equality in environmental work?

Umm…to avoid silos. Environmental work does not occur in a closed universe, but in interrelated systems. As such, we work on improving the quality and impact of specific efforts to protect the whole environment and we do it as women of intersection, bringing our entire selves to the site of our resistance (air, conservation, oceans).

Women-Empowerment-Stock-PhotosIn order to make substantial impacts, we must see one another beyond silos in the context of our American life – in light of our intentional, persistent and inglorious history of unequal distribution.

In the rush to save the planet, we should avoid greenwashing the past, which is full of poor land use decisions, wasteful, destructive, polluting activity, and excessive burdens stacked on vulnerable and disenfranchised populations. We must look at it all, in policy and practice, in order to make it together into the future.

What does equity look like?

Acknowledgment, assessment and dismantling of privilege.

Equity as a practice involves habitual refocusing on those persons, communities, and groups at risk in a given action. It means taking steps to provide relative access to a right or a benefit that may be available to all, with the knowledge that all things are not equal.

Equity demands recognition of systematic privilege created for the benefit of some and a willingness to address the corresponding burdens for those that are not privileged. The disenfranchisement accumulates at the same rate as the advantage for those the system of privilege is designed to serve.

zen-garden-stone-stack-26870677

Further, equitable practice means engaging the past. It means re-balancing norms that perpetuate present and continuing harms. And a sober assessment of policies that protect privilege and create inequity followed by corrective actions that dismantle the systems that safeguard the inequity.

Equity in green spaces

So, what does equity look like in our work? Program and policy initiatives that seek to understand the lived experience of disenfranchised groups and communities. This includes analyzing the current array of economic and environmental health, programs, as well as land use and transportation decision-making strategies.

Equity forces us to question the present day make up of advocates for under-served groups, and it takes cues from affected people when targeting issues of concerns on their behalf. Resulting methods should incorporate community knowledge into the baseline factors that determine where to allocate our dollars, what problems to address and who is employed to respond to identified problems. And all of this must come with a conscious excising of bastions of privilege and redistribution of resources as a matter of economic policy aimed at offsetting wrongs.

Environmental equity looks like parity, in processes that determine who bares the impacts and burdens of an action, project or an undertaking. It takes shape in policy, in the development and enforcement of legal boundaries that actively protect against shifting pollution or hazards from one group onto another.

In effect, it is environmental justice.

Equality in green spaces

To be clear, equality isn’t malevolence, it’s just not enough. Access, even equal access, can be a well-meaning and sincere disservice.

Unless it is coupled with equivalent ways and means, we cannot realize the dream of unfettered, healthy contact with nature. Unless we create space for environmental work that reaches the under-served, as they exist, and not as we would make them we waste our efforts developing climate justice tools, education and policy.

green harony imagesOtherwise, the work has no effect in spaces beyond our present influence. We run the risk of deepening injustice, and miss the opportunity to affect positive change. And isn’t the point of social justice work: to reach a future where we achieve sustainable access for everyone?

For more information and resources on these topics check out the following resources on privilege, and equity.

Tamara is an environmental advocate focused on civil society and justice issues. She holds degrees from The City College, City University of New York and two advanced degrees from Vermont Law School. Her hobbies include reading boring books about politics and neuroscience, writing diatribes about what she reads, traveling, and yoga.