COVID-19 Pandemic

Stories of Resilience Part Three: Applying a Race Equity Lens

By Phil Basso and Alan O’Malley-Laursen    June 2020


We cannot see the COVID-19 virus as it does great harm to the country and the world. Yet we can be resilient in facing this crisis and use this resilience to better collaborate, innovate, and overcome it.

Now, the country is looking directly at racial injustice and harm—a different sort of pandemic that hides in plain sight and, at times like these, dominates our lens through the tragic and illegal use of force against people who are continually marginalized. This is a disease of our own making, but as with COVID-19, our aim is to collaborate, innovate, and overcome this pandemic also.

We work within human services agencies and their communities to guide such efforts, at both the interpersonal level and the institutional or structural level. Our ways into these efforts have been shaped by our experiences, successes, and failures. Many of us are limited by being white men and women, yet we are encouraged that being white, with all the inherent privileges it entails, is why we need to take this struggle personally.

What do we hear from agencies and communities about overcoming racial inequities? What can you and yours do to work on overcoming it? Here is an imperfect list of observations:

  • Efforts to apply a race equity lens to current organizations and systems may not be hard driven at first, but this can change quickly based on leadership intentionality. In one state agency, a newly appointed CEO made race equity training and reform a strategic priority immediately upon starting their position, in an environment once viewed as less ready to move forward on this front than others. They took their cue on readiness from a few innovative communities within the state. The focus has been well-received and well-timed in retrospect.
  •  In bringing a coalition together to address this challenge, sometimes, an early step is to find a “way into” the effort through a more accessible and open door- an initial comfort zone. Ways into applying this lens include workforce well-being interests, using data to point out disparities, defining and measuring mobility, and even the COVID-19 crisis lens, seeing inequities in how the disease is spreading and the uneven access people have to medical help.
  • It may be helpful to frame applying a race equity lens as progressive rather than remedial. A root cause of resistance may be that system leaders do not like to feel inadequate when they have been working hard to progress their agencies and ecosystems in other ways. Instead of condemning such leaders as fragile and part of the systemic problem, encouragement may be the best approach to helping them wake and work in this area.
  • Another root cause of resistance may be “fear of chaos and hurt feelings.” A common worry is that we will create an emotional contagion of fear, resentment, defensiveness, and unresolvable pain. These fears in turn come from a lack of experience, skills, and tools to facilitate and navigate dialogues amongst diverse groups where the emotions may run high. We find that a trauma-informed approach to supporting such groups is especially useful. Simply being present and actively listening, while maintain a sense of calmness, can go a long way in creating understanding and collaboration.
  • It’s particularly striking how low resistance can be in settings where the design of governance and the existing power dynamics stem first from the community itself, then through community-based organizations, and ultimately with public entities such as sponsors and coaches of a sort. In such settings, applying a race equity lens is more natural, organic, intuitive, and may not require as much explicit framing, terminology, and reinforcement.
  • Even in the more intentional and skilled efforts at applying this lens, when they originate from a public agency and spread out from there, the progress can be slow, uneven, and not sustained when formal leadership changes. At the end of the day, we will succeed in changing the reality of racial injustice on the ground when we give power to those occupying that ground.
  • It is clear to us that when a race equity lens is applied with intentionality and skill, over time we see improvements in collaboration, innovation, trust, and empowerment. Yet we do not have many tools to measure such a return on investment in our country, and we need them. The deeper implication here is that we often define success today by financial income and assets rather than social assets and the power of giving and forgiving. Again, the challenge of measuring here is a lack of intentionality and skill, both of which we can overcome.

This is an imperfect list, intended to begin to harness what we are each going through in a manner that hopefully, for some of us, opens a doorway to what Alan calls “calm, thoughtful and intentional leadership; an adaptive mindset; and preparation for the next stage of ‘post-traumatic growth.’”

We look forward to your additions to this list, and we thank you for all you do.

About the Authors

Phil Basso (full bio)

Director, Organizational Effectiveness
American Public Human Services Association

Alan O’Malley-Laursen (full bio)

Employee Well-Being Professional
Olmsted County, Minnesota


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