Changing Perceptions About Equity

by | 02.28.19

Rebecca Eunmi Haslam is the founder of Seed the Way, LLC, providing training and professional development for equity literacy and anti-bias education for Pre-K-16 schools throughout Vermont and New York. She is a full-time faculty member in the Education Department at Saint Michael’s College and coordinates the M.Ed. program for Curriculum and the Arts. A fourteen-year veteran teacher and equity coach in Vermont’s public schools, Rebecca was named the 2015 Vermont State Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and the recipient of the Vermont NEA 2018 Human and Civil Rights Award. Rebecca is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Vermont and is focusing her research on equity literacy and anti-oppression pedagogy. Follow her on Twitter at @EunMi_Haslam.

Many of you have probably seen this image pairing or a similar version before: It’s commonly used by equity-minded educators to communicate the idea that providing the same supports to every student isn’t the goal, and a better approach is to provide each individual with supports that meet their needs.  

The images may communicate that idea, but they are fundamentally flawed because they fail to acknowledge the factors that lie at the very heart of inequity.

These images imply that we’re all standing on level ground. They imply we all contend with the same magnitude of barriers and challenges standing in the way of our access to the common goal. But that simply isn’t true.

As they are, these images ignore the institutional factors that perpetuate the symptoms of inequity. Instead, the person on the right (who represents individuals from historically marginalized groups) can’t see over the fence because he or she is metaphorically shorter – suggesting that the inherent deficit lies within the individual person.

This theory of cultural deficiency is damaging. It can enable educators like us to excuse ourselves from the responsibility of acknowledging our role in addressing inequity and examining the ways different students encounter different opportunities at school.

That’s why I developed a new pair of images that is more accurate. This pair acknowledges that the reason students from nondominant groups need more crates is because they are actually standing on lower ground.

That ground is lower because of the historical oppression of dehumanization, discrimination and marginalization. At the same time, some students are trying to see over a higher fence: the everyday encounters that pose barriers to their success, like biases.

Marginalized and oppressed students have a higher fence. They’re standing on lower ground; they are not inherently shorter. And they are just as determined to succeed as their more privileged classmates.  

But how can we go beyond the fence altogether?

When we work together to dismantle the fence, that’s justice.

In order to create more equitable realities for all students, schools and educators must take a comprehensive approach to examining current practices that might perpetuate inequity.  

This includes work at the individual, interpersonal and institutional levels. It requires ongoing learning and reflection. It demands a shift away from surface-level celebrations of culture and toward deep explorations of inequity and bias that impact local and global communities. It includes an examination of how we teach, what books we keep in our school libraries and how students are represented in our lesson plans.

To know that their stories and histories matter, all students need to see themselves reflected in their schooling experience in positive and affirming ways. When we can actually claim to be standing on level ground, when we can confidently state that we’ve removed all barriers to success, when all students have equitable opportunities to succeed and achieve and we see this reflected in academic and holistic outcomes, that’s liberation.

Want to use this graphic as a poster for your classroom? Download it here!

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