By now I think we’ve all seen the image making the distinction between equity and equality. Three people of color are standing on the outskirts of a baseball field, ostensibly peering over a fence to enjoy the game. Yours truly wouldn’t make half the effort to watch live sports, but I digress. This image was part of a discussion at a training in Phoenix for public participation professionals years ago, and when I asked the group to consider the ways this depiction might be problematic I got a couple sighs from two other attendees. After the session, the other people of color in the room approached me and we talked about what had just happened; we all knew who made the sighs. But those two individuals weren’t as important as the fact that the trainer followed up to let me know that she was revising this portion of the presentation for trainings moving forward. I was meant to be in that space to speak up about how the training materials might be problematic. Leveraging my access to certain spaces to level the proverbial playing field is how equity has shown up in my personal and professional lives.
Coming of age, I was never told I couldn’t or shouldn’t be in certain spaces; that I had to “stay in my lane.” I was at once on ski trips with my prep school and also playing with my cousins in the “projects.” One day I was at a drop-in center for LGBTQ+ teens and another at a gala hosted by and for the Black community in Rockford. Growing up around people from all backgrounds and experiences opened my eyes to the furthest horizons of what my life could be. However, for someone struggling to be comfortable in his own skin, being present in a range of spaces both foreign and familiar was often challenging. Sometimes I shrank myself in order to be invisible. Other times, I acted prematurely and had to face the consequences. Thankfully the lessons weren’t lost, and over time I recognized that my ability to adapt to many environments gave me the opportunity to leverage resources others might not have. As I moved into adulthood and gained confidence, this ability to access resources sparked a passion in me to work toward sharing resources for people who looked like me and who face barriers of all kinds.
Every step of my career has given me the opportunity to develop a personal mission around equity. At the core of which is to not just share resources with folks who need or can disseminate them, but to remove the hinges from the door that was left open for me. In my role at Madison Gas & Electric, this is what guides the work around the burdens faced by our low-income customers. It drives me to ask hard questions within the company and throughout the community. It also forces me to strike a balance between making myself as accessible as possible while holding space to rest and restore, because we all know this work is for the long haul. When an MGE customer reaches out to me through Facebook Messenger with a problem because they see me as a trusted liaison to the company, I make sure I see it through to a resolution. If that means reaching across departments to ask questions and pull some of my rockstar colleagues in to help, then that’s what I do. When we learn how many customers are burdened by their utility bills, then it’s time to reimagine what relief is available and our role in how that system works. Thankfully, equity has become part of the conversation at many companies.
But there’s still a lot of work to do, so on the personal level I ask myself: How might my position of relative privilege and access to resources shift the power dynamic for Black people, queer people, the differently abled, and others to the point where these voices are in the room when policy and practice are crafted? This is why you see me as vice-chair of Wisconsin Partnership Program’s Oversight and Advisory Committee. This body reviews funding from a $400 million endowment for statewide projects that advance health equity. It is why I welcomed the opportunity to join Madison Community Foundations’ Grant Making Committee. It’s why I’ll pursue any opportunity to redistribute resources from dollars to access to social capital to the folks and institutions that are best equipped to dictate solutions for problems that create barriers to thriving in this community because they are closest to them.
I am not a trained Diversity, Equity, Inclusion practitioner, nor am I interested in pursuing that role. What I will offer is that on the path forward, I won’t allow my skin to be a credential for institutions to use for public relations or as a reason to pat themselves on the back. It is my voice, talent, skills, and experience that I offer up as one instrument to advance equity. And while I encounter many hurdles on the way, I make sure to pause and pour into myself with meditation or quiet days and then bounce back even more determined. I’ll also take this opportunity to offer a book recommendation that has helped my mission continue to evolve. Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva challenged a lot of the notions I internalized about change making, power dynamics, and resource allocation to marginalized communities. Check it out. If you have recommendations for me, then send them my way!
Lastly, if you’re in the room where resources are being allocated, check in with yourself. Consider how you take up space. Do you make yourself smaller so as to not rock the boat? How are you showing up? What’s your motivating factor? For me, it’s simple. I take up space on behalf of the Black women who helped mold me; it is for the young, Black men who’re trying to step into their full identity but might be held back by the people and institutions who tell them they need to be someone else; it’s for historically marginalized folks who don’t trust systems or institutions (and for good reason). For me, equity should be at the core of every decision that affects the material success of all these people. Keep this in mind if I’m on your list of prospective board or committee members.