Addressing inequities takes a lot more than having good participation and good data. There are many choice points that can drive equity in the process of defining the problem, identifying and vetting potential solutions, and making the final decisions on what to implement.
This section explores the questions to ask and issues to consider as you move through the problem definition to solution selection process.
How you define a problem defines what solutions will even be considered as options. Using data as described in the previous section is an important part of problem definition. However, the data you collect is likely to describe multiple problems and a wide variety of drivers of the problems; the decisions you make about what you will pay attention will drive your problem definition.
For example, if you are working on health disparities in low-income neighborhoods, the problem could be defined as poor health outcomes. It could also be defined as high rates of chronic disease. The drivers of the problem could be identified as comprehensive – all of the social determinants of health (the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age). Alternatively, a specific subset of issues could be identified as the drivers, such as access to appropriate and affordable healthcare, economic opportunities, or community safety.
Identifying drivers of the problem that are systemic in nature rather than the result of a lack of adequate programs or facilities, can be difficult for many groups. In daily life, we concretely observe and engage with programs and different types of community infrastructure. It is natural to turn to those as solutions as well. Often, however, the drivers of inequities are systemic in nature.
A systems approach comes from the idea of “systems thinking.” When you use a systems thinking lens to look at a problem, improving the performance of the whole system is recognized as dependent on the relationships among the different parts. Instead of creating a new program or passing a new policy, a systems lens looks at how the range of current policies, funding, and organizations are interdependent and seeks to find leverage points where change can shift multiple parts of the system in a sustained, coordinated way over time.
To apply an equity lens when exploring systemic drivers, explore which people, geographic areas, or other groups are most affected by the problem historically, what are the other issues these same groups are facing, and how might they relate to the problem that is your focus.
Before you get too intimidated by the complexity of looking for systemic drivers, know that there are many different types of facilitated processes that can help with identifying systemic problems and solutions. While some require background or expertise in systems work, many do not and are accessible to any groups who are trying to untangle a problem.
- Grantmakers for Effective Organizations has a list of systems tools and resources, including a wide variety of facilitated processes that can be used to surface systemic issues.
- FSG has a systems mapping blog that includes short introductions to different systems mapping concepts along with some useful guides to specific techniques.
Once you’ve defined the problem, including the systemic factors driving it, it is time to identify the types of solutions you want to advance. Our general rule is to always remember:
- No solution will be THE right solution. Every complex, systemic problem can be positively influenced in many different ways, some of which are known and others of which can only be found through experimenting with new, innovative ideas…
- But many solutions will be the wrong solutions. Just because there isn’t one right solution doesn’t mean that every solution is worth trying. Some solutions can drive greater inequities. Other solutions may not make the problem worse, but won’t solve the problem and in the process will take resources and time away from other more meaningful solutions.
The goal of a planning process that seeks to tackle systemic drivers of inequities should not be to find the RIGHT solution, but to identify one or more solutions worth trying and put in place the processes to evaluate and adapt as the solutions are implemented.
Some questions to ask as your group is brainstorming solutions include:
- Where are the decision-making points in this system that affect outcomes?
- What decisions/actions may be reinforcing the status quo, implicit bias and current inequities?
- What alternative action options could produce different outcomes?
- Which action will best advance equity and inclusion?
- What reminders, supports and accountability systems can be structured into routine practices to keep equity as a high priority?)
Solutions ideas are generated from multiple starting points and often the best solutions happen at the intersection of these starting points:
- Experiential knowledge about what has helped with the problem in the past, from highly localized interventions to larger policy changes;
- Expert knowledge, often from looking at what has been tried in other places or the data about what is happening in your community; and
- Experimental ideas that build on past knowledge, but try something not tried before, because it directly addresses a driver of the problem.
Allow for time in your planning process to generate many possible solutions and explore how they might fit together or build on each other.
- The Racial Equity Impact Assessment Toolkit from Race Forward includes a set of questions designed to help groups think through how different groups may be affected by a proposed action as a part of their decision-making process.
Each potential solution will tackle different elements of the problem and benefit different groups. Once ideas are generated, the next step is to vet the ideas and make decisions about which ones to pursue.
The process below will help your group go from having many potential solutions to a set of specific actions to take in the immediate future:
- Step 1: Develop clear criteria for making decisions about what solutions to implement or advance.
- Step 2: Use data to understand who will benefit the most from the solution and whether the solution is likely to lead to the types of outcomes intended. Explore the potential unintended consequences, short and long-term, as well as the intended ones.
- Step 3: Vet the solutions you brainstormed against the criteria, including allowing multiple perspectives on how the solution fits into the criteria. Use data during this process when available.
- Step 4: Pick one or more solutions, ideally including at least a couple quick experiments – small wins that may not solve the problem for everyone or even solve it fully for anyone, but will allow for small gains.
- Step 5: Review the solutions you selected and for each one, ask: What could we do differently, additionally, or better so that the solution will have a greater positive effect on populations most affected by inequities?
- Step 6: Create a plan for implementation, evaluation and adaptation, recognizing that your solutions are likely to need to be refined once they are being deployed and new learning is coming in.