A Lifelong Journey Fuels the Steps to Equity Model

A Lifelong Journey Fuels the Steps to Equity Model

May 31, 2024 | Marisol Martinez

racial equity blog Marisol Martinez

Like most children, I was a curious kid. My earliest memory of being curious about my environment was when I questioned why my neighborhood was only made up of people who looked like me. I was also curious as to why teachers were white, and why when we rode to the outskirts of the city, the schools looked nicer where the white people resided.

I would hold these questions for years, leaning into history at school with wide eyes, waiting for an answer. I watched again and again as teachers became visibly uncomfortable when discussing these topics around people who looked like me. I sat there confused as they recited the same scripts around enslavement, Jim Crow, and how the civil rights movement supposedly ended segregation and oppression. I held my unanswered questions and bubbling anxiety around the narrative that things were now “equal” for people who looked like me. I felt my heart race and my face begin to perspire, feeling just short of nausea when attempting to use my voice in the conversation to be only met with a blank stare time and time again.

No one had the answers I sought.

The frustration and need for more truth became more apparent in high school, when a teacher challenged the brutality of enslavement by claiming that “slavery was not that bad” and that enslaved people were coddled like house pets and that was why they “stayed.” The teacher equated human ability and freedom to that of domesticated animals. If a physical heart could break, mine would have.

I had no language at that time to directly challenge this narrative, which the teacher shared with a classroom full of brown and Black teenagers. I sat there quietly absorbing this teacher’s version of history, my body stiffening as I tried to keep the words from taking root in my being. But I was clear about the power of language and storytelling in that moment.

Over time, as my curiosity expanded, I sought out Black stories and Black history, and learned that this interpretation of history was untrue and only served to calm the anxieties of people who looked like my teacher: a white man. The narrative that was being presented to me in the classroom was that racism was an explicit form of discriminating or being unkind to someone, one that only occurred in the past. And yet, the question burned inside me: If racism is “behind us,” why is it so strikingly apparent—based on education, housing, and our obvious discomfort with the subject—that it still matters?

In 2009, as a young adult, I took part in a workshop on understanding racism that was mandated by my then-employer. I didn’t know that the workshop would hold the answers I had sought for so long, and would lead me toward a better understanding of the world I was navigating as a Black woman.

I watched, for the first time, a multiracial team of teachers tackle the questions that had haunted me since childhood. My body and heart finally released tension I did not know was forming and present in my body. I felt seen, understood, and empowered with language to identify different levels of racism, and not only understand but engage in the world around me to make it better. This was my beginning.

Fast forward to 2022. After committing to being an antiracist, amplifying my communities’ stories, and addressing structural exclusion at any opportunity afforded to me, I was presented with a chance to join Evident Change’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion department to help create a training and coaching model that would provide foundational information for others to not only understand but dismantle oppressive practices embedded into our systems.

In beginning a racial equity model at Evident Change, I was sitting at a table with incredibly brilliant women who each brought their own understanding, ideals, and frameworks to inform what would become the Steps to Equity™ model. Where would we begin?

We started by listening carefully to one another. We did not always get this right. The same issues we were trying to solve were also present in us and in the process. The same dominant cultural values we want to work against lived in and through us. But as we dug deeper, the right questions began to surface.

We began to have hard conversations with one another, separating our feelings from our feedback, focusing on ways to expand our collective view and connect the different ways we had been raised to do antiracism and equity inclusion work. De-centering feelings is not easy. We had to learn each other’s strengths and put our egos in the backseat to figure out what collective impact we wanted to have.

Ironically, the glue that would hold us together was the individual who was newest to this work. I loved every part of how she came to the table with no assumptions about what should happen. She simply pointed out the ways in which we as a collective were living in or out of our stated values. We needed those fresh eyes.

The question uniting all of us was, How do we support organizations to create sustainable change within themselves and within their work?

In trying to integrate our perspectives, we gained a new appreciation for the fact that equity and inclusion work is complex. To address this complexity, we centered Steps to Equity’s theory of change on four existing “levels” that organizations need to address to create momentum toward change. Rather than creating a model that focused only on racism on the individual level or racism at the organizational level, we incorporated all levels: individual, interpersonal, cultural, and systemic.

We also recognized that in terms of planning for an equity model at any level, leadership must be taken into consideration. How are we preparing leaders to meet the emotional and time demands needed to navigate change and create sustainability around systems change? To address this need, we added coaching to our model to assist leaders with the learning curve of integrating racial equity and inclusion in all aspects of their organization.

The Steps to Equity model is now available, and we are looking for leaders who are willing to say “yes.” The trend and urgency of DEI work that crested after George Floyd’s murder in 2018 has subsided for some, and the national narrative is shifting to apathy about (and sometimes rejection of) this type of work within organizations. But the tides will change again, as we have not solved racism or oppression within the United States. Momentary fatigue and discomfort with the conversation around racial equity should not give us as a workforce, nor us as a society, an excuse to walk away from work that a few years ago many states declared as a public health crisis.

Antiracism and DEI work’s main function is to be the “fresh eyes” on our collective decision making. I believe we all want to make a positive difference; we just need the language, understanding, and strategy to operate differently. I have also made a commitment as a leader not to center my own comfort in the workplace when people and communities are still experiencing a lack of access, discriminatory practices, and structural exclusion. Let’s have the hard conversations!

By saying “yes” to Steps to Equity, you are agreeing to understanding our complex history and how it shapes the conversations and narratives we perpetuate when making decisions in our spaces of influence. You are saying “yes” to listening to people who challenge harmful practices and call us into a deeper conversation to fully see each other. You are saying “yes” to deeper connectedness and accountability for decisions and outcomes. You are saying “yes,” that oppression, discrimination, lack of access, and barriers still exist for marginalized communities, and that it is worth all of our time, effort, and investment to solve them.

Marisol Martinez is Evident Change’s DEI senior specialist and a trainer of the Steps to Equity model.