Your Equity-Specific Jargon Isn’t So Equitable

By Amy DuBose

At RALLY, we collaborate with organizations who support the health of impacted communities and the social determinants that affect them. We advocate for a future where health equity exists in every community.

If you work in the health equity space, I bet this sentence made perfect sense to you. If you don’t, well, tough luck. This sentence probably read like something close to gibberish.

Through our work on health equity issues, we’ve been struck at how easily an insider narrative develops. While advocates, issue professionals, and engaged community members know what’s going on, most are left in the dark on equity issues that can have a broad impact on the lives of the people we seek to advocate with. With these three steps, we’ll give you some guidance on how to never again write a sentence like the one above.

1. Your fancy words aren’t landing.

When individuals and organizations address new, fresh concepts that are not yet broadly understood, new language usually develops. No surprise there. If the language that exists doesn’t work, those doing the work have a responsibility to make it better, more specific, and more applicable. Social determinants of health, for example, is a relatively new phrase that developed from a necessity to talk about health in a more comprehensive and nuanced way. To people in the field, this phrase is well established and understood.

But to build a movement, there will always come a time when this language has to turn outward. We can’t expect the insular jargon to translate. Your first job is to know when the words you have in the bank just won’t cut it. So, how do we balance the necessity for industry-specific, academic language with the desire to build a base of supporters?

2. Talk to the real experts.

As an advocate, foundation leader, or policy maker you may be disconnected from the language barriers people are facing day to day.

During our engagement with a health equity client in a purple state, we were tasked with creating messaging about health equity for a cohort of organizations across the state. These organizations were diverse in geography as well as focus. One of their key goals was to create a unified statement grounded in a health equity framework that brought them together.

We set out to learn more about how folks in the field engaged with the language we had heard so far, which seemed more than a little inaccessible from the outside. In a survey, we asked if there were words or phrases they wished they had an alternative for. The top three winners? Health equity (or equity), social determinants of health, and affected populations.

2018 survey conducted by RALLY that examined 60 health equity advocates’ attitudes towards communications within the field.

It’s not that the concept of equity didn’t resonate — of course it did. But people in the field found that when they used these esoteric words in their own communities, outside of a room of advocates and practitioners, they were misunderstood. The words themselves created barriers between people, while they conceptually tried to convey the opposite.

3. Be direct.

I get it. It’s hard to let go of the language and terminology that has made your issue area more intelligible. But keep in mind that it’s only gotten more intelligible for some people. While you build your movement, give the rest of us a chance to get on board. Speak to us using language we know and understand.

Language is deeply powerful, and that’s why what we say matters down to each individual word. When we consider building messaging that addresses equity, we have to take the meaning of that word to heart and make sure our language reflects what people see and hear every day. That’s what it takes to build an inclusive movement.

At RALLY, we partner with communities that know firsthand: health is about more than just visits to the doctor. We fight for a future where every neighborhood has the resources, support, and power it needs for all residents to live healthy lives.

There. Fixed it.


RALLY is an issue-driven communications firm | Certified force for good by B Corporation
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