Collective Mind Networks in Action

Equity in networks

by Kerstin Tebbe, Founder, Collective Mind

Collective Mind hosts regular Networks in Action sessions to unpack critical network concepts with our global learning community. Each session focuses on a specific network concept and through a series of facilitated reflection exercises, builds out the concept by crowdsourcing ideas and experiences.

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In February 2022, Collective Mind hosted our first-ever Networks in Action on equity in networks. The session, hosted by Collective Mind founder, Kerstin Tebbe, built from inputs shared by event registrants and followed the frame of “what”, “so what”, “now what”. The ideas shared here are a summary of the participants’ inputs and discussion.

What?: Defining equity

Participants’ definitions of equity as shared in the registration survey were synthesized around three key areas: 1) justice, 2) access, and 3) respecting and meeting differences. Ideas around justice focused on the need to promote fairness and to address imbalances and disparities, creating entry points for all with a level playing field. Ideas around access focused on the ability to access opportunities, resources, and support in a way that ensures all can thrive regardless of their identity or level of needs. The ideas of respecting and meeting differences focused on ensuring that identity markers do not predict outcomes or the ability to meet full potential, instead meeting individuals on their terms and based on their needs.

So what?: What does equity mean for our networks?

From participants’ responses to the registration questions, considerations of what equity means for our networks fell into three categories. Two of these — issues of participation and the way our networks work — focus internally on networks’ operations. The third, the work of our network, focuses on the outward-facing work networks do in the world to achieve their shared purpose. Equity in participation is about ensuring that everyone has a seat at the table and that voices are heard, especially of those who are affected by the issues at hand. Equity in participation should span network activities as well as decision-making, ensuring that collaborative spaces are accessible and that we create the conditions to provide opportunities and the ability to participate. Similarly, the way we work as a network must foster equity in terms of articulating and living our shared values. We must bolster diversity of all sorts, welcome and recognize all, and ensure power-sharing. Ensuring equity in the work of our networks requires a commitment to using an equity lens, approaching our work intersectionally, and working to address systems and structural determinants of inequity.

Now what?: What equity-related challenges do our networks face?

Finally, participants’ responses to the registration questions about their equity-related challenges, while extensive, could be summarized within two broad categories: participation and engagement, and network design and development. At the core, challenges of participation and engagement revolve around ways to support people to show up, engaging more diverse colleagues, finding the voices to include, and ensuring representation. In practice, this requires finding the right communications methods and mechanisms, determining shared understandings and language around equity, and encouraging mutual aid as normal business rather than exceptional help. Contributions from active members must be encouraged while less-active ones are engaged to see that their perspectives are valued and needed too. Work must be allocated and processes developed that are sustainable and respect different capacities and roles.

Integrating equity into network design and development requires actively recognizing and addressing power imbalances, even when unintentional, and how this impacts how we work together. The network itself should seek to be a leader with active intentions for ensuring inclusion, identifying blind spots, and moving from empathy to awareness. Structures and processes must address power related to money and budgets, governance, and formal leadership roles, among other things. Foundational documents should articulate how equity will be addressed. Funding should align with values, for example, balancing the need for financial contributions from members with the need to include those that can’t afford to pay.

Highlights from the conversation

This synthesis above was the basis for reflection and discussion during the session. Participants raised the point that the word “equity” has multiple meanings and can’t properly be defined in context without considering a historical perspective that recognizes systematic advantages or disadvantages. They also took issue with the potential conflation of equity with justice as a distraction wherein justice implies legal processes and righting wrongs, which may be consequences of inequity. Focusing too broadly on justice may distract us from doing the real, practical work.

Participants also noted the complexity of inequity. Individuals are likely to hold multiple identities. We thereby need to recognize multiple marginalizations and think intersectionally, not relying on too specific of categories. Representation in membership then requires a cross-cutting, triangulated view of multiple elements of individual and/or organizational profiles. Furthermore, it was noted that race must be understood as a social construct that requires us to be aware of the context of how racial categories were created centuries ago while also recognizing how that plays out today.

Beyond grappling with the complexity of equity and inequity, our discussion noted a few ways to move forward. In thinking about how to address systemic inequities, we must move from lifting up those who need support to building communities wherein we can witness inequity in action and apply the resources and capacity to reflect on and address it. We can recognize that none of us will be able to think about all the possible inequities. Instead, we need structures so that people can raise issues within safe spaces and feel that things will be changed.

In moving towards action, we must first create spaces in the form of rituals to have these discussions in an ongoing and formal manner. Through these consistent, ongoing spaces and rituals, we can socialize new ways of being and behaving, rather than just trying to check boxes of tasks for increasing equity. We can use approaches like the Six Conversations that Matter and other systems tools to talk about equity in a structured way while recognizing that we all have a role in perpetuating the culture that embeds inequity in our lives and systems. We can initiate conversations with members of our networks about the unpleasant experiences they’ve had, asking open-ended questions about what’s not going well (e.g. “I’ve felt a power imbalance when…”) as a means to shine a spotlight on the changes that we need to foster. In so doing, we must sit with our discomfort as a hard but necessary part of the journey.

Miss the session? View the recording here.

Get involved

Have your own experiences with addressing equity in your networks? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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