Social Equity by Maggie McGoldrick
The Algoma Leadership Table is a professional collective of executive directors, CEO’s, and First Nations leaders from major non-profit health, social service, and educational organizations in the Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma District. The leadership table strives to create collective impact for community well-being by leveraging cross-sectoral and multi-level partnerships to strategically plan, coordinate, and align resources to improve the health, social well-being, and educational outcomes of members of our communities. The Social Equity Committee is the working arm of the Algoma Leadership Table. It is comprised of frontline workers, community champions, people with lived experience, and members of grass roots and equity seeking groups who review, develop, and form partnerships to advocate for and implement initiatives, which increase equity and vibrancy for all people in the region. Our focus as we move into pandemic recovery, is learning to come together as a force for change by expanding organizational strengths and building relationships with the community, while simultaneously recognizing our limitations in relation to social position, power, and experience. Centering equity is a pre requisite for collective impact, and we aim to engage several key areas to ensure our work is informed, comprehensive, and sustainable.
At the outset, maintaining a shared understanding of what social equity is, and how it applies to our work can be difficult. It is a highly elastic term applied to many sectors (public administration, health, education, etc.). This flexibility stems from the fact that equity is fundamentally about access, and in the public sector, we must ensure the people we serve have unimpeded access to support and what they need to thrive. As such, we often frame social equity as a succinct, concrete, and attainable goal; a box to be checked once personal and group wellbeing with access to full participation in a healthy and enriched life is maintained in perpetuity. Such conceptualizations are natural for organizations that are mandate oriented, focused on deliverables, and seasoned in the art of strategic planning. However, the organizational march toward social equity is hollowed out into goals that are broad, difficult to measure, involve complex elements, and affected greatly by external social, economic, or political shifts. If achieving social equity means individuals feel safe and supported in our community, what does that actually look like? Who defines what success is? How do we measure it? How will we know when we have achieved it? Doing social equity work means enhancing service provision, but it also requires constant vigilance to remove barriers and deep seated bias about who has access to certain rights or social capital and why. Without critical reflection, the familiar trap of layering in more services, programs, and dollars to fill in perceived gaps looms large, while we miss opportunities for better distribution, allocation, and targeted interventions.
As such, we find it useful to approach social equity as a lens through which to inform, guide, and shape our views and initiatives to ensure they engage the community or target populations in ways that center, encourage and promote their best interests and wellbeing as defined by them. Good social equity work puts ears to the ground, continuously questions what we accept at face value, and the assumptions we take with us when we plan, develop, or coordinate services. It also factors in emergent circumstances, (such as a pandemic) involves tough conversations, and the evaluation and revision of activities, policies, or procedures to reflect, acknowledge, and accommodate difference.
Building our social equity lens requires diversity, which speaks to all of the ways people are different from one another, including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, age, ability etc., and how such divergence informs the experience of those we support. Working with diversity means ensuring we have good representation from multiple stakeholder groups but, importantly, it also means considering an individual’s social location and lived experience since a person’s expertise and interests may not always intersect with their identity. For example, I am a white settler academic and researcher from a relatively privileged social position with experience studying Settler Colonialism and its impact on Indigenous peoples. My knowledge, however, is fundamentally not the same as that gleaned from the lived experience of Indigenous peoples which is invaluable, culturally informed, protected, and cannot be replaced by the academic, theoretical, or even experiential knowledge of someone from a different background. Diversity is about representation, but it also means understanding that there are numerous ways to experience, view, comprehend, inform, and solve complex problems. Diverse perspectives are necessary to gain comprehensive understanding and ensure solutions are respectful, targeted, innovative, and creative.
Putting diversity in motion then, means listening and acting with community to support meaningful inclusion, building a culture where everyone feels welcome, and actively inviting every person or group to contribute and participate. Meaningful inclusion supports and embraces difference and is respectful in words and actions. A committee environment that is inclusive is collaborative, aims to get all stakeholders to participate, and endeavors to remove all barriers, discrimination and intolerance. Fundamentally, inclusion is not simply ‘a duty to consult.’ It means including all stakeholder contributions in ways that not only enhances initiatives and utilizes their expertise, but also protects and honors their autonomy, authority, and the group dynamics of grassroots organizations.
Finally, if equity is about access, fair treatment, and adequate supports for equal opportunity and advancement, working from a place of equity requires giving more support to marginalized and underrepresented individuals. However, it also means recognizing how we mobilize power within our organizations as well as our collective work. Centering equity means promoting justice, fairness, and impartiality within the processes, procedures and distribution of resources by systems or institutions. Our collective impact work, while utilizing a distinct method of knowledge transfer and accountability, must recognize leadership and expertise across all levels of project planning, engagement, and implementation, with community engagement at the core of our work.
Social Equity Coordinator
Algoma Leadership Table