Takeaway points from the book From Equity Talk to Equity Walk

When I started my new habit of reading for at least 15 minutes first thing every (weekday) morning, one of my goals was to start chipping away at my growing pile of work-related reading. And indeed, it’s already paid off, because last week I finished the first of my “morning book reads”.

From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education by Tia Brown McNair, Estela Mara Bensimon, and Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux (AAC&U, December 2020) is an accessible guidebook for anyone involved in, or contemplating taking a greater role in, equity work on campus. I don’t remember who originally recommended this book to me (and I suspect it was recommended by a few people), but I’m so grateful that they did. I’m not going to do a full-on book report, but I’ll briefly summarize the premise and then talk about the points that resonated most with me.

While the end of the book offers some specific actions in regards to advising and syllabi, the majority of the book concentrates on dismantling the ways we tend to think about achieving equity on our campuses — focusing on achievement gaps, aggregating data and discussions about “underrepresented” students, operating from a student deficit model — arguing instead for practices and conversations that critically examine how our structures embrace and prioritize whiteness, and how this focus on whiteness racializes everything from campus culture to academic achievement. The language we use when talking about students and their experiences, the way we define (or, more often, fail to define) what “equity” means in our campus contexts, our reluctance to engage in frank conversations about race, all contribute to our inability (or unwillingness, or perhaps both) to see how our institutions are set up with privileged white male students as the default, and to perpetuate this set-up with band-aid fixes to “equity problems”. The book argues that true equity work cannot succeed unless there are shared definitions of equity among campus leaders, and that these definitions are clearly and repeatedly reflected in the institution’s mission statement, reward structure, practices, and conversations.

The book spends a significant chunk of time talking about data and its role in illuminating places where the institution fails students and in fostering faculty reflection. The authors argue strongly for disaggregating data to get a full picture of the current status — that being truly equity-minded means examining differences in outcomes for specific groups so that you can truly understand the sources of the problems. It presents specific examples from campuses on how departments analyzed and discussed disaggregated data, which I found quite useful. Not so much for the actual contexts — it appears the case studies were drawn from schools larger than Carleton — but for modeling how to structure conversations around the data, and how to respond to the “but whatabout” points most commonly raised in such contexts.

There were three points in particular that resonated with me:

Point 1: We need to have frank conversations not just about race, but also about whiteness, on our campuses. This book helped me articulate why I’ve had this gnawing feeling of discomfort and dissatisfaction with the equity work I’m doing individually and as part of larger campus efforts. We focus on the students — as we should — and come up with strategies to “help them fit in” — advising strategies, cohort programs. But often (not always, but often enough), we don’t stop to question why our solutions gravitate towards “fitting students into the existing model” and not questioning the reasons we have a model that requires us fitting in students at all. We accept the systems as fixed. And this is largely because we just accept that “whiteness” is the norm, and not just the norm but the only acceptable norm. I doubt most of us do this consciously, but that doesn’t matter, because the effect is the same. It’s hard to start from a place of “our entire foundation is flawed”, but we’re going to have to go there if we are serious about achieving equity. And that’s going to be mighty uncomfortable and unsettling for a lot of us.

The book wasn’t super specific on ways to accomplish this — which makes sense, because each institution is in a different context and at a different starting point in these conversations. But I did appreciate that the book pointed out contexts in which to start probing whiteness — our everyday practices, our review and promotion processes, and especially the language we use when talking about student outcomes. In this way, it provided starting points for both individual work and campus conversations, something I appreciated very much.

Point 2: Collecting and analyzing the right data is crucial. Being at a small school and in a discipline not really revered for its diversity, I often hear about the “small numbers” problem. “We can’t disaggregate the data because the numbers are too small and we don’t want to identify students.” “The numbers are too small to tell us anything statistically meaningful.” “We can see trends affecting minoritized students better if we aggregate the data.” I get the arguments, particularly the one about aggregating to preserve student privacy. But the book makes a clear and cogent argument for data disaggregation. And in so doing, it highlights one of the many ways we get equity work wrong: we treat “minoritized” students as a monolith, rather than distinct populations with unique and non-overlapping histories with academia (and society as a whole). So we’re back to treating white as default and everyone else as “other”. With aggregated data, we may be able to identify a problem, but are likely to get the remedies wrong. With disaggregated data, we can see exactly who is adversely affected (and who benefits) by various structures and how this manifests itself (in student performance, in retention and tenure rates, etc.). I’m currently working on several initiatives that will require data collection, and this book is helping me think through how to structure our “data ask” and has helped me initiate conversations about data disaggregation in advance of this ask.

Point 3: We need to be clear, consistent, and specific on what we mean by equity. I feel the need to acknowledge that several trusted people in my life have given me tough feedback on this specific point this year, and that while I heard and processed that information, I wasn’t sure how to move forward with it. The book helped me connect that feedback to concrete actions and steps I could take, or at least advocate for. In fact, at our next STEM Board meeting each of our working groups is going to present their working definitions of equity so that we can see what assumptions we’re all making, where these overlap, and where they conflict. Admittedly, we should have STARTED the conversation there, and not circled back to it as we are. Then again, I’m not sure many of us were ready to define equity until we’d grappled with it in concrete contexts first. As an institution, we don’t have a shared definition of equity, either, similar to many other institutions. This lack of a definition means we can’t really set policies and practices to achieve equity — if we don’t know what it is, how do we know how to get there or know when we’ve arrived? We also need to be specific and granular about equity. What does equity mean for first-generation college students? For STEM degree attainment? For Black faculty? For participation in research opportunities? That said, we can’t get to this granularity until we have an agreed-upon institutional definition of equity as guidance.

I can see this book working for people at different stages in their equity work. I think the book works best for people new to this work — those who have a desire to work towards equity on their campuses but are not sure where to begin. The book is really useful in providing talking points and language to start conversations and to address derailing arguments. (I really like the term “first-generation equity practitioners” that the book uses for those in earlier stages of equity work, and in many ways I recognized myself as a first-generation equity practitioner, too.) For those a bit further steeped in this work, it serves as a reminder of the many ways this work can go off the rails and provides strategies for helping move campus, departmental, and programmatic conversations forward. If you’re looking for a quick fix or the magic incantation that will instantly make your campus equitable — well, this book reminds you that there are no quick fixes, just hard and necessary work.

Have you read From Equity Talk to Equity Walk? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.