As has been widely discussed, equity is not the same thing as equality. The words are too often used interchangeably, but they are vastly different in impact.
Each uses tools, but equity requires a second step. In that way, using the image above as a reference, a movie theatre handing out 3D glasses is a form of equality. They offer the same experience for every audience member. Prescription eyeglasses, on the other hand, offer some people the ability to see with the same accuracy as someone with perfect vision. A pair of prescription glasses is the perfect tool of equity; it recognizes that 3D glasses are useless if you can’t see in the first place.
Men’s and women’s rest rooms are tools of equality; gender-neutral restrooms describe equity. A set of speakers offering music for everyone is equality; a set of headphones that the user can adjust is equity. And so on.
Including pay equity, a most basic form of equity. Pay equity, which is simple to achieve, only requires your organization to divulge all the salaries of the workers. Not just in job postings. Everywhere. An organization without pay equity issues would use the transparency of a website that shows what everyone in the organization makes because there would be no surprises (such as women making 82 cents for every $1.00 the men make in the same job).
Diversity and equity are also two different concepts. Achieving diversity is pretty easy to do if you don’t care about the equity side of the equation. Just cast a few Black people in a play. There, you’ve achieved the minimum requirement for diversity. It’s not nearly enough nor will it make a whit of difference in your community, but that’s what arts organizations have been doing for years, isn’t it?
And there’s that old “color-blind casting” issue. Even Actors Equity Association, the union for professional actors, would rather you use the term “non-traditional casting,” which, strangely, is no better. Way back in 1988, the president of the union defined it for The New York Times in a letter to the editor:
“As promulgated in our collective bargaining agreement with Broadway producers, ‘Non-traditional casting is defined as the casting of ethnic minority and female actors in roles where race, ethnicity, or sex is not germane.’”
If you still puff out your chest over a 40-year-old practice, good for you. Color-blind casting doesn’t do a thing about equity in your community, but if you feel better doing it, there’s no harm. There’s just no good, either.
Here’s the problem: why limit it to roles that have no mention of “race, ethnicity, or sex?” If the underserved, historically sublimated members of your community can’t see themselves as the heroes of their life, why bother trying to include them in your activities?
Achieving a more equitable nonprofit arts organization isn’t all that hard, unless you put your art or revenues ahead of your impact. So don’t do that.
To wit: if you were to do a production of To Kill a Mockingbird (regardless of adaptor) and made Atticus Finch a woman with a clearly Native American background, how would your community react? By itself, they’d probably say you were showboating. They might be right. By presenting it to a paying public, you diminish your role as a community nonprofit. All you’d be doing is presenting a tool of equality, allowing anyone with ticket dollars to see it with no context.
But what if you took it on the road to be seen by Native American and Black students, for little to no fee? What if you make that the entirety of your audience? Then, your production of To Kill a Mockingbird becomes a tool of equity. You have made it possible for an unrepresented (and underserved) group of people to glean a new appreciation for this great American work in a brand new, more personal way. It will mean more. It will make your community a better place to live.
If you are a white executive director (and especially if you are male), it would remove your lens from the picture. And if you’re not a white producer, it makes it clear that you’re not playing favorites or kowtowing to the same ol’ same ol’ toxic folks.
About 25 years ago, a nonprofit theater company located in the south produced Guys and Dolls. The company cast a Black man as Sky Masterson, not because he was Black, but because he was the best performer who auditioned. The southern community, whose overwhelmingly white audience was as notoriously racist as there is in the United States, was not prepared to see a Black Sky Masterson kiss (let alone fall in love with) a white Sarah Brown.
The show had been projected to be a big hit. Yet, almost no one came. The word had been spread by the local (white) audience, usually just after church on Sundays: “Y’all don’t want to see that show. It’s not very good.”
Bless their hearts.
In many ways, the project cost the jobs of key employees. But the ruthless combination of a naïve organization that did not communicate well, a powerful base of racist audience members, and a board of trustees that sat on its hands until it was time to wring them in financial agony.
Using its nonprofit status as a tool to make the community a better place to live for underserved populations was not a prime consideration for that particular theater company. Is it at yours? Or are you just resorting to acts of diversity with tools of equality?
Based in Kirkland, Washington, Alan Harrison is a writer and speaker specializing in nonprofit organizations, strategy, the arts, and life politics. His columns appear regularly in major publications. Contact him directly at email@example.com.
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Alan is always looking for good opportunities to write and consult for nonprofits that need a hand. And, of course, that elusive Perfect Opportunity™.
BIG NEWS: Alan’s new book, “Scene Change: Why Nonprofit Arts Organization Must Stop Producing Art and Start Producing Impact” will be published within the next eleven months by Changemakers Books. Stay tuned for information on how you can buy a copy.