This page is optimized for a taller screen. Please rotate your device or increase the size of your browser window.

Implementing Equity in Projects: Developing a System to Remake the System

May 10, 2023

Challenges in areas ranging from education to the environment, gender to governance, health to housing don’t exist in a vacuum. Each month, Abt experts from two disciplines explore ideas for tackling these challenges in our monthly podcast, The Intersect. Sign up for monthly e-mail notifications here. Catch up with previous episodes here.

To create equity as an output, you need to incorporate equity throughout your project’s inputs. Tara Reed and Meghan Henry discuss Abt’s systemic approach to dismantling systemic inequities, and how we’re putting it to work as we produce HUD’s annual report to Congress on homelessness.

For more on this topic, listen to:

Read the Transcript

Eric Tischler: Hi, and welcome to the Intersect. I'm Eric Tischler. Abt Global tackles complex challenges around the world, ranging from improving health and education to assessing the impact of environmental changes. For any given problem, we bring multiple perspectives to the table. We thought it would be enlightening and maybe even fun to pair up colleagues from different disciplines so they can share their ideas and perhaps spark new thinking about how we solve these challenges.

Today, I'm joined by two of those colleagues, Tara Reed and Meghan Henry. Tara has over 15 years of experience as a leader in the fields of homelessness and behavioral health. She was recently named Vice President of Abt's Equity Team, which promotes equity and client programs and outcomes. Meghan is a social policy researcher with over 15 years of experience in public policy research and program evaluation. She leads Abt's work on HUD’s annual report to Congress on homelessness. Welcome.

Tara Reed: Thank you, Eric.

Meghan Henry: Thank you.

Eric: Let's start with some data. While incremental gains are being made in the efforts to reduce homelessness, vast inequities and representation by race persist. For example, 12 percent of all U.S. heads of households identify as Black, but people identifying as Black accounted for 40 percent of households experiencing sheltered homelessness. Now, these numbers are shocking, but sadly not surprising, and they just represent one facet of a systemic problem that Abt is trying to address holistically across sectors. We're going to look a little more closely at those numbers, but first, Tara, as our VP of equity, what do we mean when we say we're going to lead with equity, and what's our framework for implementing equity in our work?

Tara: Thank you for asking, Eric. A few years ago, two Abt staff—Chloe Greene and Brooke Abrams—put together what we call our racial equity standardization framework. And the framework is our attempt to truly define and operationalize what it means to lead with equity. And this framework has six principles, which they give it as principles or steps that truly helps to guide the work. It involves co-creation and power-sharing. See where all the places within the system that we need to ask to ensure that the voices of those most impacted are truly heard and at the table for the full life cycle, with full decision makin in power and authority, helping us to create, plan, and maintain sustainable solutions.

So part of our work is also looking to see not just how do we kind of create a quick band aid fix, but how do we ultimately create new structures? How do we tear down the oppressive structures that exist to create sustainable futures for all, to ultimately not just address disparities, but eliminate them in our systems, both moving backwards but then also forwards? And so that is also a critical step, ensuring that we understand the significance of our work, and what we're moving for, ensuring that as we identify additional barriers—as we navigate our process and our initial solutioning—that we're always trying to refine, pivot, and continue moving forward.

Last but not least, the final step is creating a culture of accountability and sustainability. So, ensuring that what we're doing is truly in service of equity and social justice. Are we truly helping those that we are ultimately tasked to support? Are we helping the communities most impacted? And then, as we truly start to move in that direction, ensuring that we are not just focusing on our intent—what we want to do—but we’re focusing on “Are we truly achieving the impact that is needed for true success to eliminate the disparities?”

Eric: Great, thank you. Meghan, I want to move to you. We've been working on AHAR for several years, more than 10, I think. And certainly, since I've been at Abt in the last few years, equity is something that's really been important in your analysis of the work as we've discussed it. How is this latest iteration of AHAR reflective of the racial equity standardization framework that Tara just described?

Meghan: Yeah, that's right. We've been working on this report, it's been over 15 years now. And just as a little bit of background, it's a two-part report that provides information—the target is Congress, but also researchers, community practitioners, and many other people about the extent and nature of homelessness in this country. And every year, in the last 15 years, we have identified in that report that Black, Indigenous, and people of color are overrepresented among the homeless population.

And in recent years, we really have pivoted in not just acknowledging that these disproportionalities exist, but emphasizing them and explicitly calling out the role of structural racism across federal, state, and local programs that have both sort of historically and currently allow these inequities to persist. And so, in more recent years, in terms of the content of the report, Abt and other partners have been really pushing for centering the existence of these disproportionalities in the report itself. Because, again, as Tara mentioned, this is information that we can provide to create those dismantling of systems, those real action, the real change. And if they have the right change with the right emphasis behind them, then those changes really can occur.

The other role that we've played in sort of centering equity in our own work is by the inclusion of people with lived expertise and experience in the production of the report. So, this has not been something that we have done. So, in the 15 years or more—16 years—that we have produced this report, there's been only two years that we've included any voice of people with expertise, at least deliberately. We have no idea beforehand what has been sort of accidentally included, but deliberately, in the last two years, we have included the voice of lived expertise.

And, in 2021, the role really was limited to the review of the core chapters of the report. And really, this provided invaluable feedback that resulted in incredible improvements in how both we present the data in the report, and how we interpret those data. I think we all understood as we were working with this group and collaborating with this group on the review of the report, that it was too late, that this was a step too late. And so, the following year, we worked really hard to push their involvement earlier. So, the following year we had them collaborate with us on determining which data to include in the report.

So, before we even started writing, we looked at the data tables, we decided which tables made sense to include moving forward. And what we really hope is that that keeps moving forward. We all are limited by timelines and constraints,—and I think when it comes to being equity-minded, and sort of promoting co-creation—we do have to challenge some of these external forces that, in our work, force us to make decisions between doing what's right, and doing something on time sometimes, or doing something that meets a sort of external deadline.

And so, we're really working toward a co-creation model for this report. And so, we're hoping in years to come that not only are they helping us understand and decide which data are best to include, but they're the ones that are helping us create this report. And one way we're including the voices of people with lived expertise earlier than even the report process is in the coming year, we're working with this group to review the tools that communities use to collect the data on people experiencing homelessness.

So, that step is really sort of the rain at the top of the mountain that eventually empties out into the sea. So, that's sort of the earliest point at which we can include any perspective. And so, that is really the point that we're moving towards, from the top of the mountain to the sea, having that voice be heard across the entire spectrum of the AHAR.

Eric: Thank you. That's a lovely metaphor there. Go ahead, Tara, please.

Tara: I also just want to add, one of the things I've been fortunate to be a part of this process is to truly see the actual shifting of power and that individuals with lived experience, lived expertise truly have shared decision-making power at every stage of the process. And their inclusion also, from my experience, from my conversations, feels truly valued, and also that they're fully compensated at the table. They are fully valued, compensated consultant partners at the table as well, which I think speaks to their experience and the expertise that they're ultimately bringing to all the discussions and conversations as well.

Eric: That's great. I was going to ask, I want to dig into that a bit more about how we move that forward. Meghan, what were some of the benefits you saw in terms of the data, of having people who have just been underrepresented now involved in terms of knowledge gained. What are some examples you might provide?

Meghan: The one sort of obvious thing that would be reflected and that would be discernible to most people is really the language. I mean, I think that as researchers, we get stuck in our use of language and our use of very specific language, and that can be harmful. And some of the language that we use we don't understand to be harmful, but it is. So that was the one major thing, particularly in the first year, that really pushed us not just to have person-centered language, which we've been doing across a number of projects for a long time, but really thinking through the way that we present the data.

For example, we would list our racial categories with “white” first. And this has been a historic sort of way to present data, but it's based in white-dominant culture. And so we changed the order to be alphabetical, which is very intuitive. So they're very simple things at times. And then some of the feedback we received was sort of challenging some of the assumptions that we as researchers would make as to potential causes, as to potential outcomes. And it really has made us take a step back, think through, and be more thoughtful about everything that we say in that report, regardless of whether it's sort of a data point report or not, to be really thoughtful and intentional about what is both necessary and beneficial to emphasize.

Eric: That's great. So Tara, you're helping to run the team that is operationalizing these concepts with all of our clients and partners, right? So, when you hear this example, and you've referenced your firsthand experience working on AHAR or with Meghan or having insight into that process, how are we carrying the ball forward across all of our work?

Tara: I think that's a great question, and I think it's in a few different ways. So, I think it's one, really continuing to value, prioritize, and just created and sustain diverse teams. And so when I think of diversity, once again, race and ethnicity, gender, gender identity, ability, economic status and experience, and truly ensure that everyone at the table feels fully valued for everything that they bring to the table, and that they're fully compensated as well. I think another piece, and I think Meghan has done a fantastic job demonstrating what it looks like in practice, is really kind of understanding that equity itself is a journey.

And so, as we learn more, as we encounter different doors, different barriers, it's about taking note of them and then taking action to move forward. It's hearing the voices of those most impacted, taking what they're saying, and saying, "How do we do better?" And not just getting stuck at the philosophical, but actually moving things into practice. Meghan, as we just heard, continued to move back up the mountain, and said, "We're going to go all the way to the top. We're going to go together, and we're going to make this happen." And so it's continuing to say, "We are going to do this, and pulling everyone along."

Eric: Really, this is a new position for you. Are there other examples where we're able to make some similar inroads?

Tara: I think we do have a few different projects that I can think about in our portfolio of housing and homeless services. I believe that we have worked pretty closely in partnership with Veteran Affairs to incorporate the voices of veterans with lived experience and lived expertise as a part of their discussion, while also leading with equity. So, the intentional disaggregation of data to better understand the differences and disparities in the system, ultimately, with the goal of providing targeted solutions to help everyone achieve universal outcomes.

In our work with HUD, we have also worked very closely with them in our Youth Homelessness Demonstration project, which speaks to ensuring that the voices of youth and young adults are at the table once again with full decision-making power, full authority for the entire life cycle to define a system that works to meet their needs. And I think that, for me, is definitely another clear example. Sorry, now I'm thinking of all these different examples.

Eric: Good!

Tara: We also, through HUD as well, we have an equity demonstration project. And the entire premise of the equity demonstration project is working with communities to better engage, incorporate, and fully value the experiences and voices of individuals with lived experience and expertise to design their homelessness response systems with every single aspect from their data collection to data interpretation to their ultimate evaluation of their systems.

Meghan: And I would add that we have not a very big project, and it's not funded by the federal government, but a project in LA that is just starting now on the experiences of doubled-up middle schoolers in Los Angeles. And we are not even beginning the research design until we have a lived [expertise] advisory board in place. And so, this really is something that from the HUD funded projects through other funded projects, we're really sort of taking very seriously. And to not start a research design right when you go, I think is a really important change from the ordinary way that we've done business in the past of being really thoughtful before we even start.

Eric: Yeah, great. And I was actually thinking of some of our environmental work out in New Mexico, working with tribes. So it's really exciting because—particularly through this podcast—we've talked about equity in a lot of the way that manifests throughout Abt's work. It's been there all along. It's exciting that Tara, you've got this role to help really focus it and systemize it, and make sure we're implementing it in this way that keeps growing. And Meghan, it's great to see you doing it in real-time. That's a big deal. So, it's exciting that the two of you are doing this along with our colleagues.

Tara: I'm excited just to have the opportunity to share the great work that's being done with AHAR, and just all of the great work that all of our Abt staff are doing. And I think most importantly, it'll be continuing to work in partnership with our communities and our funders to better lead with equity and truly center the voices of those most impacted in creating sustainable, accountable solutions.

Eric: Well, thank you both for joining me.

Meghan: Thank you, Eric.

Tara: Thank you.

Eric: And thank you for joining us at the Intersect.

Work With Us
Ready to change people's lives? We want to hear from you.
We do more than solve the challenges our clients have today. We collaborate to solve the challenges of tomorrow.