The Language of Justice: Social Equity in the Sierra

If equity is not diversity, inclusion, or equality, then what is it? It describes something deeper and more complex. It is about each of us getting what we need to survive or succeed—access to opportunity, networks, resources, and supports—based on where we are and where we want to go.
-Stanford Social Innovation Review

Part of the standard SBC job description includes bringing new ideas about driving beneficial change in the Sierra. This past month a few colleagues and I had the opportunity to facilitate discussions at staff meetings about social equity, an increasingly common term used to describe the vision of socially driven work. 

EquityIt was such a riveting, open, deep conversation the first time around that we extended our normal staff meeting from one hour to three hours. Staff shared stories, questions, realizations, assumptions, and more with each other, so much so that round two was requested and implemented, soon to be followed by a round three.

We started this ongoing discussion with considerations of diversity, the definition of social equity and other important terms, how to create an inclusive, welcoming conversation about hard topics like race and class, and a crash course in Native American and Chinese oppression history in the region. What we discovered was extensive opportunity to incorporate more social equity into our work.

While SBC already addresses many important facets of inequity in the Sierra, such as structural barriers to resources (access to broadband), lack of state recognition of Sierra “disadvantaged communities,” and rural poverty and isolation, there are many parts of the story that we sometimes forget or might glaze over that really we have a duty to recognize. As an organization spanning 22 counties, 25 million acres, and a vast network of partners, what is our role in ensuring that solutions benefit those most in need? Perhaps we can start by considering a few provocative questions about opportunity barriers, implicit bias, and everyday language. 

Tribal empowerment: Why is it that when developments on open parcels of land are considered, the people who should arguably have first say in how that land is used are frequently left out of the process? Why when Master Stewardship Agreements are forged are tribal voices with traditional ecological knowledge about forest and land management not included?

SNGT Mariposa Pow Wow Dancer CroppedThere is a local, regional, and national precedence of colonization to overcome – with real implications for people alive today constantly struggling against the blackout of their cultures. 

The language of oppression: The conversation extends far beyond addressing historical disenfranchisement. Why are millennials’ call for safe spaces – otherwise known as an empowering, respectful, deeply intentional mode of creating a group conversation dynamic – so mockingly questioned? Why are people judged for their failures rather than helped to overcome them? Why are calls to recognize micro-aggressions, otherwise known as the everyday language choices charred with undertones of racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of stereotype, brushed off? 

It’s important that we start recognizing that the assumptions, jokes, stories, decisions, and policies we make can have negative implications beyond our intent. Consider the intent vs. impact of the G.I. Bill or the New York City “stop and frisk” legacy.

Give power: A simple choice to speak and listen only to the loudest or wealthiest voices in the room without reaching out to communities with the least heard voice can mean the difference between real equity and real injustice. When we make decisions about housing, funding, technology, or other resources, how do we ensure those decisions empower vulnerable and front line communities that are most at risk to the challenges of climate change, wildfire, digitalization, and other barriers to opportunity? How can we learn to apply systems thinking?

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Or maybe at the Sierra SBDC, you teach the man how to start a fishing business, and he feeds the whole town. Or one step further: landowners and agencies return traditional fishing, hunting, and gathering grounds and other rights to native tribal communities to reclaim a part of their ancestral heritage, according to tribal terms.

The words we use in our conversations, our internal dialogues, and our policies have power to shape the world. A call to use words wisely is a call to be intentional with your humanity. It’s the hard, but necessary work of recognizing the diverse lived experiences of all humans. It’s about being more aware every day, every conversation, all the time.

The discussion is far from over. We at SBC are committed to addressing these challenges and opportunities, with a vision of social equity for all Sierra communities. What role will you play in breaking down barriers? What words will you choose?

Equity illustration courtesy of: Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire