Applying equity to your engagement


The concept of equity in the workplace and in our work is gaining momentum, and rightfully so. Demonstrating equity is an ethical business approach and essential for empowering community members and strengthening the ties between local governments and the people they serve. Practicing equity is challenging. It takes more thought, more time and more resources, but it is absolutely the right thing to do. Where local governments often struggle is engaging the communities of people that are hardest to reach – often referred to as marginalized communities. If you are not a member of a marginalized community, it can be easy to make assumptions about them or unintentionally create barriers when you develop your engagement processes. This article provides ways to effectively engage marginalized communities equitably. It begins with listening first, then developing a comprehensive plan that is adaptable and flexible.

Who is marginalized in America?

The term marginalized was coined during the social revolution of the 1970s, and it describes the experiences of those who live on the fringe of mainstream America. Marginalized communities are those that are systematically excluded from full participation in the American dream and consequently lack the self-efficacy to improve their life situation.

Significant disparities exist for marginalized people in every aspect of their lives including health care, employment, legal rights under the law, housing, and access to services including water. Ultimately, society pays the costs when people encounter barriers to achieving their potential.

The term marginalized has expanded from original references to minorities and persons from poverty to include a long list of cultures and populations including disabled, queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latino/a/x, people of color, low-income white, migrants, non-English speakers, senior citizens, housing insecure, felons, and the list continues.

Equity versus equality

So, how do we better consider the needs of those who have been forced to the margins of our society?

One place to start is understanding the difference between equity and equality. Equality is about ensuring everyone the exact same resources, while equity requires distributing resources based on the different needs of the recipients. This graphic created by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation does a great job of illustrating what it looks like when equality is deemed the solution. See how one size doesn’t fit all? This graphic shows us where most of our communities are currently living equally – we are a bunch of people riding the same bikes regardless of our size and ability to access the bike.

Graphic of equity and equality

Graphic courtesy of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Equity (top part of illustration) is providing various levels of support and assistance depending on specific needs and abilities. Equity is about creating designs that suit each person’s unique needs. Ultimately, everyone benefits from equitable distribution of goods and services because it allows them to be the most productive and effective in their function.

The complex nature of local government and utility organizational structures creates barriers to meaningful public participation in many communities, so we must do it with intention and purpose. Here are some recommended steps to take:

1. Educate ourselves

Before embarking on any outreach effort, we need to do some internal work about our own understanding of the biases we hold toward marginalized communities. We all have biases that impact the decisions we make on how we design systems, which neighborhoods get improvements, and who gets communicated to the most. Learning about the current and past injustices in the communities we serve helps us recognize and acknowledge what has happened and the lens that these communities bring to any conversation.

2. Take a reconciliatory approach

A community may be angry or frustrated because they have been overlooked or experienced inequities. We must understand why and allow space for such discussions. This is where learning about the history of racism in our own communities is helpful.

Listening is critical in this step. Surveys, focus groups, and community meetings are techniques that can help us listen, gather feedback, and include marginalized voices in project design. Part of this is creating systems for follow-up and feedback loops through email updates and/or community meetings. Further, inclusive engagement practices must include maintaining regular contact with the aim of building trust and reciprocity. There is no “one and done” approach here.

Another critical element to taking a reconciliatory approach is recognizing that comunities of color do not want to be told what to do and they are not looking for someone to save them. Most marginalized communities know what they need, what they want from you is help navigating processes and removal of access barriers so that their voices can be heard and included.

Establishing a relationship may be difficult and time consuming. It may take years, and sometimes, it is not possible. Regardless, we need to respect and collaborate on the community’s terms. Being transparent and having genuine intentions is the only way to approach this work.

3. Become culturally competent

Ensuring inclusive messaging means avoiding patronizing or paternalistic language. We must not assume people in marginalized communities know nothing about an issue or project and/or have no ability comprehend it. Marginalized communities care about their neighborhood vitality and have ideas of what needs to be improved.

Although obvious, language translation is often overlooked, or we settle for a literal Google translation.  Culturally competent engagement means translating materials in a way that reflects the culture of the communities we serve, and one of the best ways to do this is to hire someone from the community to translate. For example, in Columbus, Ohio, many of the services are translated to Somali and Nepali, because there is a significant population present in the city.

4. Engage intentionally

Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know, and we may never truly know what it feels like to be from a marginalized community unless we have experienced that life. To address that lack of experience, hire people from the community to be your connectors and (language and cultural) translators. Hiring people from the community to be on your team is a great way to show that you truly want to understand and involve the community; and their input means solutions are more likely to be holistic and directly target the issues of concern.

Meet the community where they are. We can’t expect people to come to us. Political campaigns go where the votes are because it works. If you want to strike an understanding with a local religious leader, that means visiting their mosque, temple, synagogue, or church. Maybe consider visiting a community center or a restaurant that the elders or the community frequents. Most marginalized communities are not avid social media users as technology is generally a barrier, and then language is too, especially for refugee and migrant communities. Marginalized communities find ways to connect within their local religious institutions, or community-based organizations where they go for educational, informational, or financial assistance. Perhaps host workshops there or publish ads in their local newspapers or radio stations. WhatsApp groups are also popular avenues of communication.

You may need to build the capacity of the community so that they can participate in informing designs and plans. Communities care about the neighborhoods they live in, so involving them in decisions being made that will affect them is a natural extension of this but may mean explaining local infrastructure issues and what needs to be done. Often these communities can weigh in on solutions in a positive way, they just need help navigating the process to become advocates for their community. For example, it can be difficult to get low-income communities to attend meetings, so go where they are. Have pop-ups at events that are important to them – festivals or church meetings. The more you show up the more it is sign of your commitment to their well-being.

Community-based organizations can be an important connector to the community’s needs. It may take time to develop a relationship depending on the extent to which you have already been involved with the community, and it is okay to ask these organizations what you need to do to establish a trusting relationship. Consider providing payment for their time and knowledge. Most of these organizations do a lot for very little, so fairly compensate them for their help in connecting and understanding your target communities.

Create an Equity Action Team or a Citizens’ Committee that holds your organization accountable to making and meeting equity milestones as it relates to community engagement. The milestones could entail actions such as identifying organizations to collaborate with and placing timelines on action items. Other milestones could also include defining specific engagement strategies such as organizing community meetings at the local Hispanic center, or a town hall at the church in a neighborhood that serves marginalized communities.

Examples of excellent community engagement

There are cities we can learn from who have made significant efforts in reconciling with and engaging their marginalized communities:

  1. A city council member from the Hmong community in Minneapolis organized a tour of the water treatment facility so that the community could start building trust in their tap water rather than spending $25-$50 dollars each month for bottled drinking water. City Council Member Blong Yang was the cultural and knowledge bridge between the marginalized Hmong community to get them to trust their water and city leadership.
  2. Camden SMART (Stormwater Management and Resource Training) in New Jersey developed a comprehensive network of green infrastructure programs and projects for the City of Camden. The initiative includes Camden residents in restoring and revitalizing their neighborhoods through neighborhood green infrastructure projects, stormwater management policy development, and green infrastructure training programs.
  3. In Lincoln, Nebraska, city leadership proactively identified flood risk along Antelope Creek, which runs through Lincoln’s historic urban core. The neighborhoods that were disproportionately impacted by the flooding were primarily African American and Asian communities. The project had a budget of over a million dollars for community engagement. They had over 1,000 meetings with residents, ranging from one-on-one meetings to large community events. The input helped shape the project.