Skip to main content

How to clear up misunderstanding about equity

By Jessica Pierson Russo

Scrabble letters spelling equity
Many people support equity in principle, but today's political climate can make it difficult for some to actively engage in and advocate for equity efforts. So what can we do to clear up any misunderstanding and build confidence with our youth and families about equity? 

First, let’s take a look at some common misconceptions about equity:

  • Some people confuse equity with equality. Equality refers to treating everyone the same, while equity emphasizes fairness by giving people what they need to succeed, even if it means providing different levels of support to address disparities. Some people may mistakenly believe that equity means everyone should receive the same resources, opportunities, or outcomes, which can lead to resistance if they perceive this as unfair.
  • Some see equity as advocating for equal outcomes regardless of an individual’s efforts or abilities. They might think that equity implies guaranteeing the same level of success for everyone, which can be seen as impractical or unjust by those who value individual effort and achievement.
  • Some fear reverse discrimination. There's a common misunderstanding that equity involves discriminating against one group to benefit another. This perception can lead to resistance from those who fear they’ll be unfairly disadvantaged because of their demographic characteristics.
  • Some may resist equity measures because they see them as simplistic solutions to multifaceted and systemic issues, such as racism, sexism, and economic inequality. These are complex and deeply rooted problems that may not be fully understood by everyone. 
  • Some may assume that creating equity means taking resources or opportunities away from one group to give them to another. This zero-sum mindset can lead to resistance because it overlooks the possibility that equity can benefit society as a whole by reducing disparities and fostering inclusivity.
  • Political rhetoric or media portrayals may misrepresent equity for political gain. This can lead to widespread misconceptions about equity that sow fear and mistrust.

So, what can we do to combat these misconceptions? 

First, it’s important to be clear on what we mean by equity and why we’re focusing on it. Doing this helps us separate equity from the politics that can sometimes bog down progress. Concepts of equity are continually changing, and so we need to understand which idea we’re working from and what we want to accomplish by it. Clear and open communication about the principles of equity we’re operating under, as well as relatable and accurate definitions of key terms will help illustrate our intent. 

It can be helpful to simplify the message to bring people on board, before delving into the complexities of equity issues. For instance, at its core, the goal of equity is to give each person a fair chance at belonging and dignity. Building a culture around these simpler concepts can help open the door to more nuanced issues such as racism and sexism and institutional inequities.

We also need to articulate how we expect our equity efforts will lead to a more fair and accessible youth program. When we can draw a clear line between our methods, the outcomes we expect, and who we expect to benefit (which is everyone), people are more likely to understand and support these efforts. 

We can better articulate these expectations by actively educating ourselves, our peers, our volunteers, our youth, and our families and other stakeholders about equity issues in ways that invite people to wrestle with complex ideas that may not have immediate solutions. This is probably the most difficult task, because it means admitting that we don’t have all the answers. This type of intellectual humility can result in better leadership, job performance, community, and decision-making. 

What other misconceptions about equity do you find in your youth work? What do you find effective in helping provide more clarity about equity efforts?   

-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Jess,
    Thank you so much for this thought-provoking post. Reading through the common misconceptions you outlined, brought to mind a number of real-life situations. I will admit, I have found myself on both sides of these and other misconceptions about equity. I've benefitted from the patience of colleagues, peers, and community leaders, as they've invited me into deeper awareness ... and I've struggled to find the words, details, examples, information, etc. that will reach through the misconceptions of others and lead to understanding. I keep returning to these lines in your post, "It can be helpful to simplify the message to bring people on board, before delving into the complexities of equity issues. For instance, at its core, the goal of equity is to give each person a fair chance at belonging and dignity. Building a culture around these simpler concepts can help open the door to more nuanced issues such as racism and sexism and institutional inequities." As I think back on my own experiences, I certainly see the efficacy of the simplify and then deepen approach.
    One thing I continue to wrestle with is the way in which the process of bringing folks with dominant identities "on board" with regard to equity work can create learning environments that can feel unsafe for facilitators or learners with historically marginalized identities. How can youth workers of all identities make the case for dignity and belonging without subjecting marginalized folks (ourselves or others) to additional harm?
    Thanks again,

    1. Thanks for your comment Marisa! You bring up a really important point. When I make the case for considering simplifying the message, I should be clear that how you respond in a one-one-one situation will be different than if you have a group. In a one-one-one scenario, your response can be very tailored to that individual. But in a group situation, it can get complicated, because everyone’s going to be in a different place in their “equity journey.” Some may have been wrestling with issues of diversity for a long time, while others may not have ever thought about the difference between racism and prejudice. How you handle things will also depend on what your goal is. But if the goal of your group conversation is to have a dialog about equity issues in a way that challenges people enough to help them move forward, then simplifying the message isn’t about making people comfortable—it’s about meeting them where their at and helping them understand so they can progress. We can’t control their comfort level. I think it’s ok if people not ready to “go there” need to disengage, but I also don’t think the conversation should have to get comfortable just to ease the folks in the room not ready to go deep. If the dialog goes deep, let it, because oversimplifying at that point can dishonor people’s experiences and make them feel like you’re sweeping the issue under the rug. But also be prepared (assuming you’re in the position to, such as in a staff-youth relationship) to make efforts to bring back those folks who have disengaged. Often, conversations that get uncomfortable seem like a bad thing at the time but end up planting fruitful seeds that we may not have the opportunity to see ripen.

      The other thing probably important to point out is that we tend to think that only people from dominant cultures have misconceptions about equity, but that’s not necessarily true. The bottom line for me is that it’s important to suspend judgment as best we can when addressing misconceptions about equity, and try to meet them where they’re at as best we’re able without alienating or harming others.

  2. Thank you, Jess, for helping make this topic so much easier to understand! It's a good reminder that misconceptions about equity often come from a fear of scarcity and not being aware of how other people experience the world. These are very normal experiences that all people have! Creating a welcoming environment where people can move past their fear and shame into learning and awareness is so important to creating change that benefits everyone.
    Recently, I participated in the activity "4-H Club Privilege for Sale" with a large group of people. This activity required everyone to consider what privileges they would choose if they were limited to a specific amount. I was surprised by how much privilege I experience and take for granted each day- from basic safety to ease of communication- and how much unseen stress and work others must experience do the lack of equity they experience in our society.
    I can see the importance of talking about equity and making it easy to understand for youth and adults in our program! It's an important piece of making our organization thrive and feel welcoming. Thank you again for your work on this.


Post a Comment