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Implementing Equity in Organizations: Embrace the Discomfort

May 10, 2023

Challenges in areas ranging from education to the environment, gender to governance, health to housing don’t exist in a vacuum. Each month, Abt experts from two disciplines explore ideas for tackling these challenges in our monthly podcast, The Intersect. Sign up for monthly e-mail notifications here. Catch up with previous episodes here.

To implement equity externally, you have to practice equity internally. Drs. Karen Gray-Adams and Katrina Bledsoe explain why organizations that are ready to evolve should be prepared to embrace discomfort (it’s worth it), and discuss how Abt is using education to build equity into the foundations of the policy world moving forward.

For more on this topic, listen to:

Read the Transcript

Eric Tischler: Hi, and welcome to The Intersect. I'm Eric Tischler. Abt Associates tackles complex challenges around the world, ranging from improving health and education, to assessing the impact of environmental changes. For any given problem, we bring multiple perspectives to the table. We thought it would be enlightening and maybe even fun to pair up colleagues from different disciplines so they can share their ideas and perhaps spark new thinking about how we solve these challenges.

Today I'm joined by two of those colleagues, Doctors Katrina Bledsoe and Karen Gray-Adams. Katrina's a trained evaluator, mixed methodologist and social psychologist. Her evaluation work is focused on community-based social services, health and education, evaluation and programming, and culturally responsive and equity focused approaches. Karen is an educational psychologist who has experience in research and technical assistance with an emphasis on educational equity. She has expertise in culturally responsive pedagogy, equity and educator effectiveness. Welcome.

Dr. Katrina L. Bledsoe: Hey Eric, and hey Karen.

Dr. Karen Gray-Adams: Hi. Happy to be here.

Katrina: Happy to be here, too.

Eric: Thank you. Addressing inequity in areas ranging from education to environment, housing to health, has long been a vital aspect of Abt's work. But even as we've developed a team to help us focus on equity both within our organization and as an end result of our projects, we've realized improving equity within the institutions Abt serves is often a necessary part of the solution. So how do we help clients get there? I can't think of anyone better to ask than Katrina and Karen here. Katrina, let's start with you. When we talk about bringing equity to a space writ large, what are we talking about?

Katrina: Well, we're really talking about trying to think broadly about our organizational structure, our practices, our policies, and our value system and our ethics about how we want to go about and present ourselves in the world. I always think of it like an organizational, how you have individual self-reflection, individual knowledge, organizational self-reflection, organizational knowledge.

Eric: And so for our clients in particular, what are we thinking these systemic changes are going to affect on the backend?

Katrina: So with systemic changes, what we hope is that it allows people to think broadly about policies that they want to implement, how they measure them, who's involved, and the communities that they serve. So I think that that piece of being able to think about equity internally allows us to really think about how we want to go about doing the work externally, and what that looks like, and what we're able to interrupt. And I think of it as a systemic piece is, even if you're an organization that does just one particular thing, thinking about how it goes across or how it intersects with a lot of different sectors is a key point. And I think that doing that internal self-reflection can help us think about that as well.

Eric: Great. Thank you. And that's a great segue to Karen because Karen, you've got a chance to put this into practice with Leadership Montgomery, I think. You want to tell us a little bit about that program?

Karen: Yes, definitely. For sure. So just to give a little bit of context of Leadership Montgomery, the headquarters is in Montgomery County, Maryland, and their basic mission is to connect and prepare leaders to build in communities and workplaces and be inclusive.

For the particular work by colleagues and myself, we've helped conduct two studies for two cohorts for the Racial Equity Action Leadership Program, which was really created for participants to examine their systemic beliefs, practices, and policies, and how they perpetuated racial inequities. So through a series of maybe like eight to nine workshops or sessions, participants were provided with tools so they could think about how they can implement racially equitable practices within the organization.

Eric: Great. And what kind of feedback did you get after you went through those exercises?

Karen: And through that there was a series of facilitators, so I just wanted to make that clear. So for each session, there was a facilitator for each session. And to put it in a little bit more context, organizations were in various levels of their journey. So participants, they were basically kind of grouped in. They had representatives, maybe like three to five representatives from more organizations and so forth.

The things that people talked about and takeaways were that it was important for them to understand their own identity. In order to build knowledge, you need to understand racial equity better for them to then work within the organization. So you need to foster communication, you need to think about things, and you need to have tools in place. And really important is that you need to have the investment in doing something like this if you want to have sustainable change.

Eric: Great. So this is for both of you, but let's start with you, Karen. What were the challenges that in the course of conducting these exercises, and what would you say are the best practices, maybe we got out of it, what lessons learned?

Karen: So first I would say that there needs to be a commitment and investment behind doing something like this. The other thing is that there is going to be unease, and people are going to be uncomfortable, and that's okay, because in order to make change, you have to uncover what are the inequities, what are the systemic beliefs, what are the practices that have been put in place? We know that sometimes you have to really understand, and you have to give power to talking about race, because it can't just be a subtext. It is something that is important, it intersects with so many things. So you have to be able to name it and understand what the root causes are in order to move forward.

Katrina: Yeah, no, I think that's perfect. As you were talking, Karen, I was thinking about it about this idea of most organizations, or maybe even people, it's really about having that commitment, that investment, that courage to do that work too, because it's not easy work. And then the courage of being able to sit in the discomfort, and there's a line from a show that I really like, and some people who watch it might recognize it. It says that discomfort is, "The truth will set you free, but first it'll make you mad." So it's that.

But in that space of being able to sit in that discomfort, then we can move forward to be able to make some changes. But it really does require that level of courage to be able to do that, and facing different things. And it also requires an ability to be adaptable and be sort of down for change. Because a lot of times we admit things, or we know, well, that's just the structure, but we don't necessarily have the courage or the wherewithal to do change, and so we do have to have that as well.

Karen: And the other thing is that I think we probably just need to recognize that when people are uncomfortable, they want to get out of that space really fast, but we can't, because there's been years and years and years that things have been put in place. So it's going to take time to disrupt that and to reimagine and be innovative. So I think we need to think about and reflect and understand that you have to sit in a space sometimes, most of the time, and reflect, in order to move forward. So we can't just bypass things. Because I think if you don't invest the time in uncovering, then you end up back in the same space again.

Katrina: You end up making the same mistake so many times, is that we're so busy trying to move things forward. "Well, okay, we just want to get out of this space." And I've been thinking about this a little bit. It's we're so eager to move out of something very quickly that we don't do that level of self-reflection or the organizational reflection or the systemic reflection that's needed to not go back there again. And then we go, "Well, God, why are we back here again?" Because we're so busy trying to get out of that discomfort.

And I used to have a friend who used to say, "You are where you are. You got some popcorn burning somewhere? If there's not, then you are where you are." And being able to do that work and understanding that and having that level of acceptance of what it takes to move that through, is a key point to really addressing issues of equity, and being able to make systemic change. And I think that's the other piece is we'd like things to happen fast. We said, we've realized it, now it's going to get done and it's going to get fixed. And I'm like, yeah, not so much. Because it took a minute to get here, it's going to take a minute to get out. And that's the work.

Karen: Well, and it's not just talking, it's actually you have to plan. You have to put things in place, and you have to put investment behind it. So for any type of sustainable change, when people have any type of initiative, or initiatives. They think about it, they plan, they put people together in order to make the change happen. So it's the same thing with equity. You have to invest, and you have to plan, and you have to take time.

Katrina: That's the thing is that you're just totally spot on about that is that, and investment includes not just money, because I think people always think about that, but time, people, thought, to your point, planning, all of those, that that's all part of that. And I find that a lot of organizations, sometimes cities, wherever they might, they will say, they'll take one of those, well, we'll throw some people at it or we'll throw some money at it, and then they expect it to move forward, but it's really a multifaceted investment.

Eric: Well, you need a process on the backside of that. It's not just investing in the front of doing that. There's that period of discomfort you're describing. And I wanted to ask, how do you get people to stick with that period? How do you get them to get through that? But then once you've maybe reached that place where you've got the strategy you need to address the conditions you've identified, how do you make sure you stay on the path?

Karen: But the thing is, if you really take the time and plan and strategize, then people can see what the journey is. So you have a vision in place, and then what is this vision, what are trying to achieve here? And then you put together your mission, your planning, your process, and then once you have all of those things, people can see.

So I think we need to think about why people are uncomfortable, to a certain extent. You have to address that and understand, okay, people are uncomfortable, but then, what is our goal here? And in order to reach this goal, we have to do these series of things in order to do that. So I hope that's answering your question a little bit in terms of how do we move along the journey, and recognizing where you are and being honest and reflective, all of those pieces together.

Katrina: Yeah, totally spot on, totally on that train, Karen. And I think about when people get, they're like, "Oh, I just want this to be over." And "How do we keep, I'm just feeling like I'm being weighed down." And there's a thing, and probably because I think about this just in general about people, myself, other friends, other colleagues about how we move through, and organizations are very much the same, of being able to like... It's almost going through the steps of grieving or getting used to things. And there's a level of where you get to acceptance of, this is where I'm at, and this is what I'm doing, and I'm going to have to stay the course to be able to do that.

To Karen's point about having folks knowing what the journey is, having some level of expectation, because you can't expect everything. But having people be grounded in a certain set of values or where they want to go, so that if things change up, they're not like tossed out of the boat.

But it's really having people know that, and also continually supporting people as they go through this as well. It's not going to be easy. Sometimes people are going to get really distressed. Some folks are going to get really angry, and that's just part of the process. And it's almost like when I used to teach methods courses, which no one ever wants to take a research methods course, especially if you're an undergraduate, no one likes it. But I was always like, "Listen, I know you're going to get mad, you're going to get frustrated, but as long as you're taking a step forward, as long as you're moving forward, we can deal with that." And then as time went along, people just kept, their anger would go down, down, down, down because they could make mistakes, but they also were like, I can make a mistake, I can correct, and I can move forward. I can correct, and I'm going to move forward. And that I think is a key piece here.

And also letting people know, and this is just my thought, is that they have a little bit of grace in being able to do that. But I will say this, one of the things that I've certainly found in my career is, I want to help people who want to be there. So there has to be some level of that, where you want to have people who want to actually do the change. You want to have organizations who want to do the change and are somewhat authentic about it. For folks who are, or for organizations who are like, "We know we need to," and that because it's an... Want to work with those. And for some of those folks who are sort of like, "We're not sure about it, but we might want to, I guess." Still on board for those folks as well.

But people, they have to be at least somewhat comfortable, or there's a trust factor here. As an evaluator, at the research we're always about, what's the data show? What are the hard facts? But I'm finding more and more it's such an existential issue, that before you can get to all of that hard back data piece, you have to deal with where you are as an organization, and what do you want to see if you're going to be dealing with equity?

Karen: I agree.

Eric: We've been talking so much about course correcting with organizations as we should. I also want to talk a little bit about building for the future. We've just announced a research and evaluation program with Baruch College where we're going to be training people who are going to be joining the organizations, coming into it new, and we're expanding that pool. So it's not just course correcting, we're changing the direction in real time and tacking towards a better future for organizations. Y'all want to talk about that a little bit?

Karen: It's building in multiple perspectives from the beginning, and giving everyone the ability to contribute no matter where they are in how, whatever the organizational chart is, right? So everyone's got power, and if you move in that direction and give people the ability to contribute in any way that they feel like they can, and support them and empower them, that is only beneficial for the organization and building that pipeline.

Katrina: For instance, with Baruch, it's a pipeline of folks who are going to be trained to think about equity, bringing them in at the very beginning when we start-

Eric: Their careers.

Katrina: ... Yeah, of their careers. But also as we bring them into the organization, they're thinking about when we start bringing them in, we're thinking about what can they think about in terms of intuitively and innovatively. But being able to just broaden that pipeline up front and bring in more folks with different thoughts about new ways to think about how we do the work, or how we're going to run our society, what a civil society looks like. That's a way that we can continue to broaden our pipeline, broaden access both as a process, and then what we expect as an outcome for equity.

Eric: So this isn't us just picking up the pieces now. This is us deliberately helping to chart the evolution of our field, which is really exciting. I mean, we're talking about people who are going to be helping to decide what programs and policies are in the future, and this is how we start building towards that future beyond just sort of correcting what's been happening to this point.

Katrina: To your point that you made about, this is the next generation. These are the folks who are like, your lawyers, your doctors, your business owners, your community organizers, all those folks, and we start at the very beginning. I know when I was coming along, it took a long time for me to get to this point. I was a full, grown person before I was thinking about, I mean, fully, fully grown, before I was thinking in the manner that I was thinking. I know I always had a sort of a connection to it, but I didn't do that level of thinking that I think now we can do with folks and bringing them in, so I'm excited.

Eric: Great. Well, I think ending with excitement is always a good place to end. So thank you both.

Katrina: Thank you so much, Eric, and Karen, always good to talk with you.

Karen: Oh, this was wonderful. Thank you so much, I so appreciate the conversation.

Eric: And thank you for joining us at The Intersect.

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