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Achieving Equity Takes Time

January 11, 2022

The push for equity is intensifying around the world, and certainly within the United States. Between federal mandates (e.g., The White House, 2020), requests from philanthropies (e.g., Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2020), and the goals of local and city governments, Abt is inundated with requests to help clients and communities address equity. These requests are most welcome, particularly since we are long overdue to redress discriminations, marginalization, and atrocities that have been inflicted on marginalized people and communities throughout centuries.

While Abt has long had a commitment to ensuring that the work we do addresses the needs of vulnerable, disenfranchised, and excluded communities, the intensified focus on equity has inspired us to move quickly to address the ever-growing requests for the work. Indeed, these requests offer relatively short windows of time to address centuries of inequitable structures, narratives, policies, and perceptions, which is less surprising when you consider the way our work typically is completed—usually on a one- to five-year timeframe, depending on the project or initiative. These timeframes include multiple deadlines, products, and milestones that must be met or produced for the work to be considered good and/or delivered.

It is acknowledged that some of the work we do does have a sense of urgency that is necessary. Clients sometimes need to use our work within a specified time period, and we feel a sense of satisfaction in being able to deliver what was needed to facilitate an initiative in a timely manner. Yet, equity is not a deliverable that can be produced more quickly with extra staffing or investments in technology. Inequities and discrimination are a product of multiple factors, including physical, social, and political structures (to name but a few), and attitudes and opinions undergirded by long-held biases, stereotypes, beliefs, and narratives—all of which have developed over time.

Given that inequity has developed over time and is a complicated web, equity is likely not a quick fix, at least not within the strict timeframes to which we are so used to abiding. Indeed, to fully address equity, there will be a great deal of learning, unlearning, and relearning; structuring and restructuring; and acquainting and reacquainting within our own organization as well as with the clients with whom we work and the communities and societies we serve. This work takes time, dedication, strategy, and persistence—much like the work through which Abt has built its reputation as a world class organization in both international and domestic work.

But all of this work, to date, has been conducted with the perspective of “speed to change” which, in this context, is limiting, and threatens to keep us from being able to do the thoughtful work for which Abt is known. Activist and author Tema Okun (2021 articulates aspects of the dominant culture/white racial frame that underpin our world view and, by extension, how we approach “change.” In her 2021 paper (updated from 2002) about white supremacist thinking, she delineates many of the factors by which we structure our world. In the mainstream construct, the issue with the rushed management of time—which she refers to as “Urgency” —is that it reinforces traditional, failed approaches because it doesn’t allow time to consider new approaches, build new partnerships, or identify and include new stakeholders.

So, when we say understanding, embracing, and sustaining our commitment to equity takes time, we don’t mean “time” in the sense that we delay moving forward. Instead, as we proceed, we must take the time to make sure that our work is strategic, authentic, and well thought out internally, as well as externally. This includes taking the time to further understand the lived experiences of the communities with whom we work and who use the work we produce; taking the time to broaden our methods to help us better ensure credible, responsive, and representative information that can be of use; taking the time to interrogate the biases, narratives, and stereotypes that may undergird the assumptions behind how we design our technical assistance, research, monitoring, and evaluation; and taking the time to have courageous conversations with clients so that they can better understand the communities they serve.

Equity is a cornerstone of Abt’s work, and a cornerstone is the bedrock and foundation upon which the work rests. That means, to build an organization that is committed to equity, we will take the time to do the work, as, over time, we continue to upskill, be innovative, and thoughtful about how we do the work. As we move forward with this perspective, we can work better to help ensure equity within our own organization, as well as with the clients with whom we work and the communities we serve.

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