Equal is a Noun, Verb and Adjective (but equity changes the conversation)

We stood on the front porch on one of those unusual winter days where the temperature was warm enough not to wear a coat. With a home WiFi network that all the neighborhood youth know the password for, the front porch served its typical role as the local hot spot. 

As I lingered for a moment, I found myself almost instantaneously surrounded with multiple voices asking for something. One asked when I was going to take them on a venture out of the neighborhood. For another it was for a dollar to go get chips from the corner store. Another asked whether or not I would give them a ride somewhere. The requests were pouring out of little mouths in every direction.

When the answers were not immediate, we moved right into the whining and begging, a skill nearly every human being has established at about the same time as we start to speak. It had its familiar gnawing affect causing me to want to shout, "Stop whining and be grateful!" Fortunately, I held my tongue and made myself look in their eyes and lean into their requests instead. 

These are children, which I was once also. These are boys and girls, created in the Imago Dei, just I am. In their very being and value, these are my equals, and I theirs. 

While their requests are mostly the same to those I had as a child, there is an important nuance to them. They want adventure because they haven't ever had the chance to leave this zip code. They want chips because there was no dinner to eat at home. They want a ride because their household doesn't have a car. There is absolutely nothing that they are longing for, that I don't also long for myself. The difference is that I have the chance to access it all by myself. 

Like many of my thirty something peers, one of the key words our social culture spouted off often in terms of these economic and other disparities was that of "equality," While our grandmothers' generation had few women who had pursued a college education, our mothers were far more apt to dream of and access such things. Society in general rebuffed around concepts such as there being jobs for women and jobs for men, from the military to the corner executive office. We watched more seats of political and economic power be accessed by women. Though there was keen awareness of the dwarfed percentages and inequality of pay, there was a sense of progress. Part and parcel to this cultural movement was a declaration of sorts that went something like, "Men and women are equal in every way, and therefore ought to be seen and treated as the same."

The "equality" word was used regularly in terms of race as well. Those born in the seventies and early eighties were a stone's throw from the Civil Rights Movement, which embodied a tremendously deep and prophetic message, but the concepts we latched onto were often simplified to this word - "equality." Schools, buses, restrooms, theaters and more were no longer legally allowed to be segregated, declaring that all places were open to all people. Part and parcel with this push for racial equality was a narrative that went something like, "We need to be colorblind, and just see each other as human." 

Somewhat fascinatingly linked to both the gender and racial equality movements was this idea of diversity. Schools, social spaces, workplaces and more were seen as most truly addressing the injustices of inequality when they were diverse in as many ways as possible. However, while the door may have been open to such places, the culture rarely changed. Workplaces were more apt to hire a woman than before, but there were no allowances to deal with her pumping for the nursing baby while she was at work. Universities were more apt to enroll a student of color, but the entire institutional system, established in a European cultural context, required adaptation on nearly every front of their lives. Meanwhile, the social points gleaned from demonstrating diversity, left these new additions to these environments feeling tokenized, not to mention the far higher numbers of those who couldn't get to the "open" door in the first place. 

In English, the word equal is a noun, a verb and an adjective. As a noun, it denotes being the same in perception, such as status. As a verb, it denotes being the same in fact, such as a mathematical equation. As an adjective, it denotes being the same, such as value.

It's no surprise that we in Western culture like the word equal. Equal is very formulaic, which brings a sense of certainty. For things that are certain and unchangeable, such as the truth that all humanity is created equal with unalienable rights, it's a good word choice.  It forms an imperative foundation to all relationship and action pertaining to other human beings, and our own selves. 

While I don't love every aspect of the mathematical language when speaking to profoundly complex human realities, let's stick with it for just a minute longer. We'll say X stands for a flourishing life for a human being. P stand for the absolute value of a person. Let N stand for the energy and effort one puts in towards obtaining X, their life to the fullest. Some others would also include faith as a part of this equation, which we will denote as F.

For most of our lives, the American Dream was held up as the ultimate X, life to the fullest. We were taught that X = P + N (+ F); the American Dream, or a flourishing life, could be achieved by any person investing enough energy and effort towards obtaining this end goal, with (for people of faith) the provision and grace of God. If one didn't achieve it, the part of the formula that needed adjusting was N, their energy and effort. We collected a number of superstar stories to demonstrate the equation, and raised a generation of self-confident, independent dreamers who believed life's achievements rested on their shoulders.

Of course, this version of the story wasn't taught in every elementary school I've learned. In fact, for many children raised in a low-to-moderate income neighborhoods, the idea of X is not painted as a realistic opportunity. The only place X really shows up as a dream is in professional athletics or the music industry. After all, where have they seen people who look like them living out X for generation after generation...? We don't tend to dream for ourselves what we do not see. 

Rather than X as a pursuit, far more energy is put into warning, preventing or prophesying -X over youth in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods. Negative X denotes a life in prison, interspersed with bouts of gang activity, drug dealing or working two jobs at minimum wage. Part and parcel with this is messaging that tells kids they are -P, not as worthy and valuable as other kids. When they try to invest N (energy and effort) into the equation, they often find themselves discouraged on so many fronts that it quickly becomes a battle not worth fighting. 

When those who were raised in schools and households that pounded the X = P + N (+F) formula into our minds, it is only natural that there is a belief that a lacking in N (energy and effort) is preventing achievement of X, or a flourishing life. But what if the formula isn't complete? What if there is a missing factor? Let's call it E, which will stand for the assistance and/or barriers to opportunity. 

New Formula: X = P + N + E (+ F) [Life to the Fullest = Value of the Human Person + Energy and Effort Invested + Assistance or Barriers to Opportunity (+ Goodness and Grace of God)]

(I know, life is not a formula, and I don't like math either. We're almost there.)

The conversations and steps taken in the Civil Rights Movement, Women's Rights movements and more have been crucial in the foundational fact of P = P, all people are equal. However, once we embrace this crucial fact, we still have a task ahead of us. When we allow ourselves to believe that that equally valuable human beings' road to a flourishing life is X = P + N (+ F), society as a whole is left with only one corresponding responsibility - make sure there is not anything we are doing to barricade the door to X. This has been the primary steps we have taken as a society from Emancipation Proclamation to the Women's Right to Vote to Native American sovereignty to making Jim Crow Laws unconstitutional. (Note: We have most certainly not done all or any of them perfectly, completely or excellently.) However, when we recognize we have been operating with an incomplete equation, suddenly we have a new challenge. We move from this idea of equality to something else - equity.

(Good News: We are done with math.)

When pursuing equality, the person or place of power says,  "The door is open, come on in." 

When pursuing equity, the person or place of power says, "Is your door open? May I come in?" It sits with, listens and learns. It asks, "What door do you want to walk through?" It continues with, "What is keeping you from walking through that door?" It lends itself towards celebration of gender-based, racial and cultural uniqueness, absolutely removing barriers to access or questions of value.

While the Civil Rights Movement and various threads of feminism absolutely held the importance of equity in their movements, the equality language took priority. This was likely both because it was foundational, and probably, if we are honest, because it required less of us. We get the concept of equality from 18 months old, but equity is complex.  

Grandma loves all of her grandchildren equally, finding each of them wonderfully precious and valuable. So if grandma buys you shoes, she has to buy all the grandchildren shoes. It's equality. But don't all the grandchildren wear different sizes? And do they all need shoes? Do they want shoes? It's not grandma's problem that the shoes don't fit; that's your feet's fault. Right? 

Of course, we know that's not true. In fact, the question isn't really about fault. It's about acknowledging what is. Grandma's grandchildren are equal in worth and value, and they are different in their needs to access the opportunity of new shoes. Even with their greatest energy and effort invested, they need different sizes. Lack of access to their sizes creates a barrier to them experiencing new shoes. [P + N + E (+ F)= X]

When I came home from school as a child, I would almost always find my mother in the kitchen preparing dinner. If I was hungry, I was either given a snack or a time that dinner was to be served in the imminent future. When looking to achieve equality for low-to-moderate income families, we might ask, "How do we ensure that that family has food?" But if we are looking to achieve equity, we might ask, "Is there a parent home to prepare dinner? Do they have access to a grocery store with healthy and desirable food? Did that parent(s) have access to environments, home or elsewhere, that gave them the skills needed to prepare dinner?" 

When I dreamed of what I wanted to do with my life as a child, I travelled the world and nearly every occupation in my imagination. I was in Ethiopia running orphanages, China as a major corporate executive, married to the President of the United States, a actress shooting films in Europe..." There is one thing I never even dreamed of being: Anything I had never seen a woman be. My dreams also came to a screeching halt when children and a husband were introduced into the picture. When looking to create equality for me as a young woman, one might declare, "You could be the President someday!" While I heard that sentence rather often, it seemed like one of those things people say that we all theoretically agree with, but somehow don't actually believe. Ever increasingly, I hear the voice of women who declare, "We are fierce and gentle, passionate and strong. It is not, but we must make it be. What must we do?" (Equity.)

Equity acknowledges that we have not arrived. While affirming the equality of person, it does not aim for equality of circumstance because it understands the equality of circumstance is not only not possible, its not desirable. I do not want to be you, and you do not want to be me. I want to be me, and I want you to be you. Furthermore, I want you to truly know me, and I want to truly know you. I do not want you to see me as the labels of white or woman, but I want you to know and understand my culture and my femininity. You do not want me to see you as the labels of black or brown, citizen or foreigner, teenager or adult... But I believe you do want me to know your culture, what and who you love, your masculinity, femininity, heritage and more. For these are that which makes you uniquely and beautifully you.

And somehow in that space, I find myself in a far more powerful place. I no longer want to (or am able to) relieve my conscience with wrestling an equal sign between our circumstances. Rather, I wrestle to form an equation together, which equals the greatest possible sum of our parts. I understand that I cannot actually achieve my X if you do not also achieve yours. Or as Martin Luther King Jr so eloquently put it: 

 "Many of our white brothers... have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom." 

Or as my friend challenged me last night: What if you could not have anything that the poorest in your nation could not access? How might that change the conversation? 

What if your children could not access excellent education unless if the poorest in our nation, or even the neighboring towns and cities, could not authentically access excellent education? What if funding was a primary barrier to that, and the only solution that could be found was county school funding instead of hyper-localized funding for education? What if none of us had access to cars anymore, and we all had to use public transportation? How might we respond to the vote to put a bus stop down the street in our suburb, or the concerns vocalized around the tripling of commutes to work due to an inefficient system? What if our nation (that has no national language) determined that it is a requirement to speak a minimum of two languages to maintain citizenship as an adult?

Equality lends us towards the equation of an equal sign between us, which is an important start. However, equity leads us towards a product of maximum collective potential, putting me on the same side of the the equation, believing that our "product" will be higher, better and more beautiful when you are greater. 

May equality be our surname, but equity be our song.

"We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism..." (Martin Luther King, I Have A Dream Speech)

"The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." (Jesus, Matthew 23:11-12)

Nicole WattsComment