by ChrisTiana ObeySumner
Almost three years ago, I began my first business as a social equity consultant. I had been an advocate and community organizer for years before, fighting for intersectional disability issues. Recently, someone asked me what the most common question I received was. I shared that it was often a rambling thought containing three main questions: (1) “Can you help me understand the difference between Diversity, Equity and Inclusion(DEI); (2) Will it help us/me better figure out how to ensure I’m being equitable and inclusive in my business/advocacy/life; (3) What does equity and inclusion really mean anyway?”
I personally love nerding out on all of the concepts, theories, and thought-leaders who have added to the growing social equity canon, but after getting a few glazed-over looks and nods during my explanations, I decided to come up with a clear and memorable way to answer these questions. I needed a metaphor to help people frame their understanding of DEI, and help with their journey into what they still needed to do to become equitable and inclusive.
The “Pimp my Ride*” metaphor was born during a night of nostalgia and a date with an old-school MTV playlist on YouTube. For those who’ve never seen the TV show “Pimp my Ride,” a rapper named X-Zibit would select people with broken-down cars who applied to have their car upgraded, and presumably fixed, on the show. These cars were often what my Mama would call a “hoopty;” some had peeling paint, broken transmissions, or a hole in the roof where water would leak in. Some even had mismatched parts, (think a yellow Ford Mercury door on a grey Honda Civic). X-Zibit would take the car to a well known autobody repair shop. They would make incredible and outrageous upgrades, then reveal the final product to the owner with lots of yelling and jumping around.
First, they would address the outside of the car. For example, they might spray iridescent paint that changed in the sunlight, install 24” spinning chrome wheels, or put in tinted windows with digital displays. The exterior or body work is what I equate to “Diversity.”
Whether intentional or not, the goal of most diversity initiatives is to improve the appearance of an organization’s staff and leadership to external stakeholders and the community. When applying to universities, I got at least three marketing booklets a week with photos of happy, smiling students representing every skin tone and color, including one person with a visible disability, (like someone in a wheelchair). After choosing a school represented by one of those pamphlets for undergrad, I learned soon enough that the appearance of a diverse environment did not mean the people represented in those photos had any influence, power, or opportunity for leadership.
The same is true for all types of organizations. Solely focusing on increasing the number of socially marginalized and underrepresented people (e.g. Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), LGBTQIA+, disabled, and others) will only result in an inequitable marketing campaign, and disappointment from those taken in by it. The question remains, how does the way the car looks address the fact that the car is mechanically failing?
Next on the show the repair shop would tend to the interior of the car. Sometimes, they would put a fishbowl in the steering wheel, champagne bottle chiller near the gear shift, or outfit the trunk of a PT Cruiser with a grilling system that pulled out for on-the-spot cookouts. The interior work is what I equate to “Inclusion.”
In the case of the Cook-Out Car, if there is only one grill and the owner of the car is cooking burgers and steaks on it, where will the vegans eat? Similarly, many inclusion initiatives focus less on creating true belonging and equity, and either provide superficial benefits for the sake of offering perks, or participation without power.
A recent lawsuit against Burger King® by a vegan man is a great example. Burger King offered a meatless alternative but had been cooking it’s new Impossible Burger® on the same grill as beef patties, showing a complete lack of understanding of vegetarian or vegan principles. In organizations this can happen, for example, when unlimited paid time off plans (PTO) are confused with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or sick leave and discrimination towards disabled people/people with disabilities results.
Being able to participate in a DEI council or Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) is a start toward true inclusion, but without the influence and power these councils and groups need in order to address inequities and needs faced by socially marginalized and underrepresented groups, they are excluded from making meaningful change within an institution. A mentor of mine reminds me that a seat at the table doesn’t mean you get to weigh in on the menu, or even get a plate to eat. Similarly, a “seat at the table” in an organization does not mean people are invited to plan or influence the mission, strategies, or investments of the organization, or have the power to lead systemic change in how the organization can address equity gaps in the most effective way.
Once again, how does a car’s great interior address the fact that the car is failing?
After a week of binging on memories and MTV classics, I looked up what happened to the show. Some participants complained their car was never truly fixed. In fact, some reported the show only made it appear repairs were made to the car, for example taping a pipe underneath the back of the car to make it seem like the muffler was fixed even though it wasn’t. To make things worse, the additional weight of the exterior and interior features, if they weren’t removed after filming, often put too much strain on the failing car. Some cars died completely after the show and owners were left with a shiny, loaded, inert shell.
This leads to the moral of this metaphor: Equity is the engine.
To develop and sustain an equitable organization, everyone — especially leadership and those with decision-making power — must look under the hood: work collaboratively with staff and stakeholders to determine what may be failing, needs repair, or needs fine tuning, and make a plan to get things into tip-top shape. This means reviewing organizational policies and procedures, and putting equitable structures in place.
DEI initiatives should be led and informed by those most impacted by the inequity within the organization and its social impact. Sometimes, the car’s owner is the one who can best describe the problems they’re experiencing with it. Other times, those who are unable to get a seat inside, take a look under the hood, or are at risk of being run over have a more nuanced understanding of what is needed for repair when the owner is unable to see the flaws on their own. Those who have experienced marginalization or are underrepresented should be given institutional influence and power.
Just as a good mechanic listens carefully and accepts the symptoms described by the car’s owner, those within an organization who reflect the most privileged communities should adopt cultural humility in order to develop an authentic spirit of “power-with,” instead of “power-over,” people who represent marginalized communities. This often means amplifying the voices and experiences of internal and external stakeholders who reflect marginalized and/or underrepresented identities who can steer social impact assessments and social equity road-mapping.
Organizations that place and promote to leadership those most impacted by inequity issues will likely have the greatest success at achieving equity benchmarks as these are the mechanics with the most applied and extensive understanding of how engines fail, and what is needed to revive or replace them. With time and praxis, an organization can establish a shared horizon of understanding of what it means for their workplace to be equitable. Additionally, allies and accomplices can be collectively held accountable for advocacy, action, and sustainability towards those goals. In nearly every case, this will mean developing innovative and proactive solutions to address social, political, and historical barriers to equity in an organization.
I recently facilitated a training on making workplaces more equitable for people whose intersectionality included an invisible disability combined with other socially marginalized or underrepresented identity. At one point, a participant asked how one can make sure workplace accommodations are protected from people who seek to “game the system.” The panelists and I resoundly asserted that data shows the percentage of people who may be “faking it” is undeniably insignificant in comparison to people who qualify for accommodations and do not request them due to past experience or fear that their supervisor or Human Resources department will accuse them of this very thing. Worse, some employees refuse to disclose or ask for accommodations because they feel it could negatively affect their role or position at the organization altogether! The remedy to the question posed is for collaborative, equitable solutions for people most impacted by these sorts of barrier policies. For example, requiring a doctor’s note of someone with a chronic illness means a potentially months-long process of missing work, going to appointments, specialist referrals, testing and examination, etc. The social model of disability asks the question: What is happening in the social, professional, and/or spatial environment that is creating disabling barriers for people. Looking under the hood of your organization for equitable solutions should begin with this reflection, led by disabled people/people with disabilities.
The basic steps I recommend for beginning equity are:
- Reflect and review all existing policies, especially those that may seem equitable or inclusive at first thought.
- Determine barriers to equity and inclusion from the perspective of socially marginalized and/or underrepresented stakeholders — particularly employees.
- Change policies and organizational cultures to reflect equity goals. Use methods and benchmarks that both lead to goals and hold the organization accountable to implementing them.
- Center equity work within a leadership team where the majority reflects those most impacted by inequity and barriers in the organization. Collaborate in power-with, and ensure those with lived experience of inequity have the institutional power and influence to affect policy and the workplace environment.
- Consistently and frequently evaluate and improve social equity goals and strategic plans.
If your organization isn’t equipped to examine under the hood, or doesn’t have the collective knowledge to truly understand what is causing the engine failure, hire a consultant who can help! When we get stumped trying to figure out what is going on with our car, we often will take it to a garage and hire someone to use a scanner, interpret the maintenance codes, and design a plan of action to get the car in working order. A consultant can help an organization create an equity assessment, DEI strategic plan, or customized pathway toward institutional equity.
The Pimp My Ride parable may be a bit silly and leaves plenty more opportunities for puns and metaphors, but it’s solid advice. Nearly every person who has asked me “The Three Questions” has reported it gave them a little push up the hill to understanding DEI, what equity is, and how practice equity.
It all comes down to this: What has your organization done that has been exterior/diversity work, interior/inclusion work, or engine/equity work? These initial questions may not make your equity journey a joy ride, but at least the answers will get you moving in the right direction.
* “Pimp my Ride” is the title of the MTV show referred to in this article. However, it is acknowledged and affirmed that the title includes language that can bring up negative emotions or memories of experiences.
** The jury continues to be out regarding person first, (People with disabilities,) and identity-first, (Disabled people) language. To be mindful of communities who have advocated for their preferred language, the phrase “disabled people/ with disabilities” is used to encompass both possibilities.
ChrisTiana ObeySumner is the CEO and principal consultant of Epiphanies of Equity LLC, has dedicated nearly two decades of their life and career to amplifying the importance of social equity through the lenses of critical race theory and existential social psychology –particularly through frameworks of: Narrative identity development and its role in cultural humility and allyship; Intersectionality and social models of disability justice; Bridging awareness to the lived experience of race, racism, racialized ableism and antiblackness, and; Dismantling neuropsychological and psychosocial paradigms underlying social injustice and inaction.
Featured image is a cc licensed photo