What is equity? Why is it important?

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

As Oak Park and River Forest introduce equity policies in their schools and potentially in village government, striving to create a more equitable playing field for residents, three local thought leaders immersed in the work of equity express their thoughts on what equity means here at home and why working towards it is so important.

 

Equity in the community

Lisa Pintado-Vertner, member of Oak Park Call to Action, notes that her family's own multi-cultural background informs her activism and push for equity in the community that she now calls home.  To capture her views on equity, she points to the often-used visual of three children, one short, one medium-sized and one tall, attempting to look over a wall into a baseball game. When all three children receive the same height stool, the short child can't see over the fence, the tall child is raised high above the fence, and the medium-sized child's view is perfect. The children all have the best view of the game when they are given stools geared toward their individual heights.

She says that levelling the playing field doesn't mean throwing everyone together in a room with the same tools and looking for success. "Not everyone can take advantage of the same opportunities and get the same outcomes."

Oak Park, Pintado-Vertner says provides a unique perspective. "People come here for diversity but don't really care about equity. If you want to enjoy the benefits of not living in a totally homogenous society, there's a lot more to do than celebrating cultures. People want to experience diversity but they don't want to make sacrifices. If you want to live in a diverse community, you might have to give up something."

Pintado-Vertner wants Oak Park's village government to adopt an equity policy. "The idea is that whenever you're making decisions, you kind of put on these racial equity glasses. Look at things from that perspective the whole time rather than just tagging it on at the end. It needs to be there from the start. Our town is not all white. People affected by village policies are not all white."

Mak Flournoy is co-founder and current co-President of DivCo, the Oak Park PTO Diversity Council. For her, equity means "meeting those with a current and historic need where they are and providing them both the opportunity and the tools to be successful academically, financially, and socially."

Flournoy says that equity at home is reliant on government, schools, community, businesses and organizations working together to make equity a reality. She says a friend coined a phrase that captures the importance of equity work, "when we all do better, we all do better." 

Ralph Martire is a River Forest resident, currently on the District 90 River Forest elementary school board and currently a candidate for the school board at OPRF. He is also executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability ("CTBA"), a bipartisan think tank.

Martire says he defines equity in a way that crosses political lines and simplifies the picture for many.

"Look at the big picture. If the American Dream means anything, the circumstances of a person's birth shouldn't determine their ability to realize the American Dream. Everyone should be able to realize their potential and become an active participant in the modern democracy. This is a very unifying definition that goes across all world views. It's what equity looks like from a community standpoint."

He suggests ways a community can evaluate its resolve. Is there a range of housing options: low, middle and high? Does the community present itself as a welcoming community? Do people of different backgrounds feel alienated or included? What does the education system look like? Does it have policies that support diversity? What kind of arts programming is offered? Is there a range of races and ages? Does the community support aging in place? Are there activities for all people to engage in?

 

Equity in Education

In the wake of the "America To Me" documentary series and with the adoption and proposal of equity policies in local schools, equity in education has been a focus of much attention. Martire, Pintado-Vertner and Flournoy are optimistic but agree that much work remains to be done.

Pintado-Vertner says that there is a clear need for an equitable approach to resolve some of the disparities in our schools. "In some ways, people who accept the current situation are actually arguing for eugenics. If you look at the population of OPRF high school and say that's just how it all shakes out, you're basically saying either that one race is inferior or that there's something else going on in society."

For Flournoy, educational equity is an important focus. Because Oak Park claims both racial and socio-economic diversity, she says that there is an expectation that the schools should be farther along on the move towards equity, but they continue to struggle as do schools across the nation. She praises the D97 equity policy's important components, but says that at the end of the day the policy is just a piece of paper. "It's the doing of the work that will create difference in outcomes for students. There's not one silver bullet, but if the district and the school board transform the way they think about engagement with students, teachers and the community, it can bring about significant change."

Martire uses educational equity as an example of how equity is a rising tide that lifts all boats. "I think a lot of people don't recognize but should recognize that if you build a truly equitable education system, you build a truly excellent education system. It means every student gets what they deserve. The most gifted get the challenges they need. The most challenged get the supports they need, and that's what gets lost now. People who are already successful are worried it's a zero-sum game. An equitable system is not zero-sum, it's Both And."

Flournoy, like Martire, sees equity in the community as a benefit to everyone.  "Imagine this. What if we invest in education for all, and if those students come back and raise their families here? What if we support the underserved, and purposefully help residents and businesses do better for themselves and be able to give back to their community? If we work together through community issues, we will get more done for Oak Park and build more capacity through increased efficiency and effectiveness. Equity means more and more and more for our village."

Sidebar: A Glossary of terms

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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