Here’s what it means to put racial equity first in the nation’s recovery and struggle for justice
It’s important, but not easy, to be hopeful at a time like this We’re all reeling from the confluence of pain caused by the global health pandemic and the economic shockwaves that followed its onset. Our rational minds tell us that one day we’ll be on the other side of all of this, but addressing the health and economic challenges alone won’t leave us whole. In this moment, we have an opportunity to finally resolve the systemic racism that has plagued our nation.
At Lumina Foundation, we’re embracing the potential of this moment for real change by reaffirming our longstanding commitment to equity in educational outcomes. Now, we’re launching our Equity First Framework in an effort to ensure that recovery means progress for everyone -that we refuse to settle for the unfairness of our shared past.
Think about the intersection of suffering laid bare recently by both the pandemic and the convulsion of pain following the George Floyd killing. We saw with a new clarity the racial inequities that have always plagued this country’s educational, economic, criminal justice, and health care systems, among others.
Sometimes these disparities lie just beneath the surface, and at other times they are in plain view; but whatever form they take, society typically finds ways to ignore, justify, or simply explain them away. For the sake of the nation’s future, if not simple fairness, we can’t let that continue.
At Lumina Foundation, we know that a good K-12 education just isn’t enough anymore, and learning beyond high school is necessary to be a part of the middle class. But there are longstanding and persistent differences in who gets to enjoy this reality.
Entrenched policies, practices, and beliefs continue to stand in the way of the education that Black and Hispanic Americans seek. While the educational attainment rate for all races has increased over the last five years to 53 percent, the attainment rate for Hispanics still sits at 25 percent. For Black Americans, it’s 32 percent. For both groups, the gaps have narrowed by less than a single percentage point in five years — and have actually grown in some states. Meanwhile, 48 percent of white students have attained a degree or credential.
These and so many other signs of our systemic failure to assure equity are unacceptable for a country as great as ours. But as the old saying goes, if we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always gotten. So, at Lumina we’re making racial justice and equity our №1 priority.
We call this effort “Equity First.” It fuels our grantmaking, of course, but it also helps guide our operations, including Lumina’s finance, investments, human resources, and legal departments. We’ve identified three core elements to this approach:
- Working definitions: Equity is achieved when outcomes — such as the likelihood of having a high-quality credential, or being called for an interview, or being selected as a Lumina grantee or contractor — cannot be predicted by a person’s race or ethnicity. Justice, meanwhile, is realized when the policies, practices, systems, and root causes that lead to inequitable outcomes are dismantled and eradicated. All of our new work will be aligned with these definitions.
- Operating guidelines and criteria: Our work must be specifically aimed at facilitating the success of Black, Latino and Native American populations. Some may assume that because students of color comprise a significant proportion of an institution’s or a state’s population that those same groups of students would benefit from the proposed strategy or intervention. We’re now convinced that such an approach will not pass the Equity First test because a “rising tide” of prosperity, whatever benefits it may produce in society, will not “lift all boats.” Also, it’s difficult to imagine making real progress in this regard if the board and staff composition of our partners fails to reflect the diversity of the communities they aim to serve. Finally, our grantees must discuss and demonstrate their ability to lead with an Equity First frame. They should be able to articulate the role that equity and justice play in their work and describe what they’ve done to equip their staffs to lead Equity First work.
- The Racial Justice and Equity Fund — This $15 million in grants will focus on efforts to dismantle systems of racism, and support projects outside our core strategy areas. Examples include the conversations we’ve had with a university center focused on anti-racist research and another that focuses on policing reforms. We’ve been contacted by an organization that supports the mental health and emotional well-being of college students from our equity populations. We’ve connected with a civil rights organization that’s interested in expanding its number of college and university chapters. And we may support a new nonprofit that partners with community colleges to reform the training curriculum for new police officers. We’re interested in hearing more ideas like this, and we welcome inquiries and suggestions for potential projects.
Equity First represents an exciting opportunity for us to recalibrate our efforts to address a scourge as old as America itself. No country can hold its people down without spiraling downward as well, and our collective aspirations are far greater than the levels of fairness and equity we’ve reached thus far. As we rise to meet the challenges of COVID, the economy, and our racially stained past, we can and must do better.
Danette Gerald Howard, Ph.D., is Lumina’s senior vice president and chief strategy officer.