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What makes an organization truly equitable? What does an anti-oppressive organizational culture look like? And how do organizations see themselves objectively so that they can move towards just practices?
These questions led AMKRF to pursue an equity audit with The Adaway Group and to fund equity audits for 6 local partner organizations.
We found that equity audits provide both deep insight and concrete next steps for organizations yearning to build anti-oppressive cultures. Completing audits alongside other organizations had an added benefit, too. The process creates a foundation for organizations to collaborate and work together, using a shared vision and vocabulary.
Here Desiree Adaway, founder and principal of The Adaway Group, talks with Heather Laine Talley to explain what an equity audit is and what the unique process makes possible.
HLT: We’re so familiar with financial audits, which are designed to take a close look at an organization’s money practices, but you are inviting organizations to undertake equity audits. Can you describe what an equity audit entails? What does the process begin and what do organizations get in the end?
DA: The equity audit was initially called an anti-oppression audit, but what we discovered is that many organizations are not ready to talk about anti-oppression. We have to get to equity first.
The goal is really to identify organizational and systemic blind spots around their processes and practices that may perpetuate oppression. Organizations were created within the existing capitalist, white supremacist system that is actively oppressive and racist. We have to intentionally create organizations that are pushing against how we’re socialized and how the system is designed to run. We’re specifically interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion practices relative to racial justice, economic justice, gender justice, sexuality justice, immigration, accessibility, and language.
The audit has a few components. First, we complete background research to assess the existing culture of an organization. We review strategic plans, job postings, performance reviews, the website–any materials that help reveal the current climate. The next step is to interview staff and stakeholders. Here, we move beyond what an organization says they do and we assess their impact in real time. Based on what we find, we design a survey to collect information from a broader group of folks who are part of the organizations’ ecosystem. Based on our analysis, we present organizations with a findings document, and we conclude the process with a strategy meeting. We gather organizational leadership together to not only share key findings but to explore recommendations. Organizations get everything we’ve discovered in the process, all the raw data, which they can use as a baseline.
Ultimately, we help organizations figure out where they are on a spectrum of oppression. And we identify what are the next right steps for their organization given their particular work.
The process can be completed in as short as 6-8 weeks.
HLT: In my experience, these audits are mirrors for organizations. The equity audit reflects back to an organization how they show up in the world and what their impact is on communities, clients, and staff. What have you seen organizations do with this information?
DA: We’ve done one for a large consulting firm that brings multiple stakeholders to the table to complete big community projects. This organization realized that they had not dealt with issues they were asking others to deal with. We’ve also worked with community development organizations to help them assess their role in gentrification and their concrete impact on particular neighborhoods. We’ve done this with nonprofits and when the results have been shared with the Board, concrete action has been taken to form Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committees (to own the implementation work) and affinity groups have been developed, too, based on our recommendation. Often, organizations make a plan for staff-wide continuing education. Tomorrow, I’m talking to a law office about doing one.
In light of the past 24 months, more and more organizations are trying to get serious and intentional about this work. Whether it’s Starbucks’ nationwide training, or the response of airline industry to staff discriminating against passengers, or the entertainment industry’s reactions to #MeToo movement, organizations across all sectors are trying to wrestle with big questions. What does it mean to be diverse? What does it mean to be equitable? And what does it look like to recruit and retain folks intentionally?
HLT: Is there feedback that you find yourself giving over and over again?
DA: Yes! It is essential to have a culture where people can have difficult conversations. What does it mean for people to show up as their full selves in this work space? What does it mean to question what professionalism is? You have to be able to really have these conversations, and skilling up leadership to listen is a big part of this work.
I always say hire better white people. What I mean is hire leaders that understand that equity and inclusion are muscles that are important to an organization’s sustainability. If organizations want to exist in 20 years, they have to do this work right now.
We’re not talking about “curated diversity.” Nikole Hannah-Jones describes this version of diversity where parents want a smidgeon of this culture and that culture in their schools. This is really a model that benefits white folks. Black and brown children don’t benefit. Many organizations have long cared about the optics of diversity but the question is changing now. How do we create a culture that is truly inclusive and welcoming? This is harder to manage but we get better products and provide better services in the long run.
Too often we start the conversation with what does the marginalized identity “need,” but we start with a different question–what does the dominant identity lose by not having deep relationship with marginalized identities?
We’re all dehumanized in this system. Creativity, money, and brilliance are lost in the current system.
If you’re not working for another system, you are helping to preserve the status quo.
HLT: How can staff who aren’t in “official” leadership positions advocate for equity? For people in hierarchical organizations, how can folks lead up?
DA: Advocate for more transparency. That is the foundation for advancing equity.
A great place to start is transparency around pay. We know with the pay gap, that the people most impacted are women and people of color. When policies are under wraps it’s difficult to even the playing field. Have real conversations about the formula for compensation. That’s a recruitment tool, too.
When organizations are hiring for positions, build in questions around equity. Find out what people bring in terms of their lens and skillset. Equity is as much of a skill as reading a spreadsheet.
That’s how you change the culture. Having these conversations can get people interested in a job who would not usually be interested.
When organizations are transparent, what you’re saying is that we’re going to have a shared understanding of equity, and we are going to make right the practices that have historically been wrong.