Equity & Evidence in Impact: A Conversation with Catherine Addo & Ilyse Hogue
May 16, 2022
Today, the Racial Equity Impact Practice and Impact Measurement & Learning teams at Purpose launch Choose Both, a digital experience to guide social impact innovators through five key decision-points that present opportunities to use both equity and evidence-backed tactics to strengthen impact.
As societies continue to witness shameful tensions and injustices across race, gender, and other weaponized aspects of identity, it’s clear that it will take all corners of culture — from service and impact, to business, to media, to philanthropy — to set and stand firm in new standards for how the world moves. In that sense, it’s never been more important to start thinking of advancing equity for vulnerable communities and doing effective work in one’s sector as one and the same.
Catherine Addo, Senior Strategy Director and Founder of Purpose’s Racial Equity Impact Practice and Ilyse Hogue, President of Purpose, share insights about the Choose Both themes they’ve experienced come to life in the business of social impact.
Where did the concept ‘Choose Both’ come from?
Catherine Addo: Choose Both was inspired by the tensions we were seeing when working with our social impact clients and partners who were trying to make their work more equitable. We’d talk to teams who had cleared the first hurdle of establishing equity as a priority in their organizations or initiatives and then had to get really granular about things like — okay, now that I’ve declared that I value diversity and inclusivity, am I actually prepared to invest my budget in getting insights from diverse audiences? Do I have the buy-in of the teams I work with who’ll need to speak differently about our issue space so we can make our movement more inclusive of other perspectives? That can be daunting and can shut down some teams, even if they’re ideologically aligned with the idea of championing equity. In talking to the leaders of our Impact Measurement & Learning team, Bernard Hayman and Levi Braslow, it became clear that there are instances in which best practices in navigating social issues and mobilizing people around social impact would actually support going the more equitable route versus working without that lens. That seemed like too important a point not to share with our network of clients and peers, so we decided to collaborate and gather everything into a guide that we could amplify across our ecosystem.
Ilyse Hogue: The Choose Both concept came from the beautiful vision of Cat and her team, and I loved it immediately after previewing it. From a strategic design perspective, it showcases the prolific talent of the Purpose team, and it so perfectly captures the spirit of how we at Purpose — as a social impact organization with a diverse ecosystem of partners and concrete financial needs — have to navigate the world of complex choices every day. We have to look at every opportunity at least three ways — will it contribute to a positive impact in the world, will it meet our business needs so that we can sustain our teams and treat them fairly, and will it support our client or partner in the way that they need to be supported? Every decision we make is nuanced and involves thoughtfully weighing opportunities and tradeoffs. The world needs more frameworks that facilitate creatively matching projects that drive our values with those that achieve our business imperatives. We cannot do it every time we want, but success begets success, and Choose Both positively reinforces that dynamic.
Why do you think some folks experience the false binary of, ‘I can either be equitable or effective in my work?’
CA: As a person who identifies with systemically oppressed populations (I’m Black, a first generation child of people born into former colonies, and a woman) and who is also a social impact professional, I can have some empathy for where people might get stuck on this. Social problems are enormous. They are complex, they are constantly shapeshifting, and they are historically rooted to the point of invisibility. And, they’re problems that many of us aren’t necessarily positioned to easily and autonomously correct. All of that, especially within a ‘day job’, can be overwhelming, take a lot of time and energy to navigate, and expose all of your vulnerabilities as a person and professional who’s just trying to get things right. If no one has ever shown you how you can merge your equity and impact goals into something that is going to help you and not set you up for failure, I can see how you might feel like you have nothing but impossibly wide gaps to close and only so much bandwidth and so many resources at your disposal. But the reality is — these ideas can’t wait. Any reprioritizing that we can do in a world where so many people are being oppressed and attacked simply for existing as themselves is really the least anyone can do.
IH: Fundamentally, I think our culture reinforces polemic thinking. This can be especially true when unpacking how entrenched systems of power might be holding us back or creating blind spots. There’s a grudging acknowledgement that it’s incumbent on us to do the “right thing,” while the subtext of that sentiment is that it will come at a cost to measurable positive outcomes. I have worked in the social impact space for almost my entire career. Like the entire foundation of our culture, it was disproportionately built by white men, because that’s who has held the resources. Privilege begets privilege but not always progress. We do a disservice when we allow such misconceptions to stand and yet, like every value we hold, there are better and worse ways to measure equity as it relates to stated goals and objectives. I have been fortunate in my time as a leader to have mentors and coaches who drive all values-based work through a lens of strategy and evidence-based learning. Initiatives like Choose Both are imperative to breaking down excuses for inaction, while also expediting the integration of effective equity initiatives and strategies into social impact work through impact-based evaluations and sharings.
What’s the significance of advancing conversations around equity and impact?
CA: From my perspective, every time you hear the impact rhetoric around racial equity or justice that’s like, “this is a movement, not a moment!”, it comes down to the kinds of choices we’re talking about with research, goal-setting, audience engagement, and so on in Choose Both. What are you seeing differently, and what are you doing differently, that can ladder up to significant and sustained change now that you’ve opted into centering equity in your work? Can you commit to pivoting your approach, say, 25% of the way to bring it into closer alignment with the needs of someone who’s less empowered than you are? And can you commit to doing that 25% pivot over and over again until it becomes ingrained as the way you always approach social impact? I’ll get inspired because, after 2020, I see more activity like this than ever before — and then I’ll read the news, where it’s well documented how race, gender, and other identities still very literally compromise one’s life, and think of how far there still is to go in meaningfully supporting and protecting targeted communities in everything we do. We’re hoping that by sharing these reframes about impact, we can be a source of inspiration and accessibility to other change-makers.
IH: As someone who has worked on multiple issues and at the intersections of many movements for social change, I think that too many people look for a one-time initiative or action that will be the silver bullet to whatever they are trying to solve. But this work, like all work, is a journey, not a destination. And like any journey, you want to map where you are going and periodically check that you are on track and haven’t overlooked a more efficient path towards your goal. Too often, we have given a pass to the critically important, but soft discipline, work of narrative or culture change that predicates policy and behavior change. This has created a preference for what is traditionally considered the more quantifiable work. Both are absolutely necessary to increase the rate of incremental change, especially as it relates to vulnerable people getting more and more agency, access, power, or restitution over time. If you’re approaching your commitment to equity as a one-time statement, versus an ongoing exploration of how you might show up differently in your space, you’re missing the opportunity to plant that seed and watch it grow into real change. You really need to be doing a combination of big moments that put a stake in the ground about your intention and signal to others that they should join you, and ongoing interrogation of how you’re managing things like audience targeting and impact measurement and likewise, to ensure your approach is pointed toward impact that aligns with equity values in the long-term.
How do you hope or expect that Choose Both, as a set of thinking tools, will help people?
CA: I have two hopes. One is that people who are championing equity in their impact work feel affirmed that they’re headed in the right direction and can see their commitment actually strengthen the impact of their work overall. The second is that some of those folks who may not already know all of these principles find just one thing they can commit to pivoting for equity.
IH: My dearest hope is that Choose Both will remove excuses for not undertaking the crucial work of equity impact and also for a more rapid adoption of such initiatives as an evidence-based approach generates insights across communities seeking progress and change.
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