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The curb-cut effect, and why race, equity, access, diversity, and inclusion (READI) are even more critical now

By Vu Le
May 18, 2020

Photo by Sergiu Vălenaș on Unsplash

Reprinted from Nonprofit AF.

Lately, I’ve been getting more notices from colleagues distraught by their board or team saying things like “It’s a pandemic, we don’t have time to work on equity, diversity, and inclusion. Let’s get back to it when we get back to normal.” This view, that somehow equity work is like the parsley garnish to the risotto of “real work,” is pervasive. I wrote about it earlier here, mentioning a cancer organization that does not understand what race and equity have to do with cancer. This crisis has unfortunately further amplified this perspective for many people and organizations.

This is confusing, as we see a stronger recognition in society that this pandemic is disproportionally killing Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other folks from marginalized backgrounds, while destroying the economic livelihood of the already most vulnerable people, while more significantly affecting women, etc. So why are some people in our sector still not understanding the importance of equity within their own organizations during this time?

I think central to the problem is that most people have internalized the utilitarian concept of “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” This means we do things that would help the most people. And when we are forced to choose, such as during crises, it is the most ethical choice to go with whatever would be best for the majority.

There are tons of critiques of utilitarianism. I am not a philosopher, but I do think this concept of “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” has caused a lot of problems. It helps to explain why it’s been hard for disabled people to get accommodations (“Why should we spend so much money on ASL interpretation when it only benefits one or two people who need it?”), transgender folks to get considerations (“Why should we make bathrooms gender-neutral when most conference attendees are cis-gender?”), parents of small children to get a break (“Why should we all move our meeting to accommodate John when he’s the only one who has a toddler?”), neuro-diverse individuals to get support (“Why should we use a hideous font like Comic Sans just because it’s helpful to a handful of dyslexics?”) ,etc. One time, I heard someone say “Why should people get bereavement leave? It’s unfair for the majority of us who haven’t lost a loved one.” Yeesh.

Like with bootstrapping, trickle-down economics, or resistance against using the Oxford Comma, we all need to unlearn this concept if we want to advance a better world. We must ground ourselves in the belief that when we support and lift up the people most affected by injustice, it creates the most good in society and everyone benefits. There are lots of names for this: Targeted universalismpositive externality, etc. But I like what Angela Glover Blackwell calls it in her seminal article: The Curb-Cut Effect.

I recommend you read the entire article, published three years ago but more relevant than ever. A quick summary is that several decades ago in Berkeley, California, Michael Pachovas and other disability activists fought for small ramps to be cut so that wheelchairs could go up and down the curbs. I’m sure during these days, just like every single time people fight for what is right, people will use the argument of “Why should we spend so much money to cut every single street corner when it only benefits a few wheelchair users?”

Well, they won, all the curbs were cut, and it made it much easier for folks using wheelchairs to move around. The curb cuts spread all over the US and something amazing resulted. As the article states: “Then a magnificent and unexpected thing happened. When the wall of exclusion came down, everybody benefited—not only people in wheelchairs. Parents pushing strollers headed straight for curb cuts. So did workers pushing heavy carts, business travelers wheeling luggage, even runners and skateboarders.”

Angela Glover Blackwell expands this concept into real-life examples of how focusing on supporting the most marginalized—providing public transportation, enabling seat-belt laws to protect kids, helping veterans go to college, etc.—benefits everyone in society, not just those who are targeted for this support.

In the past few months, we have also seen that when we do not focus on protecting and supporting the most vulnerable, society pays the price. People experiencing homelessness have been cast aside. Undocumented workers do not get any support from the stimulus despite playing a vital role in our economy. Low-income folks often don’t have any paid sick leave. Unable to socially distance because people have no shelter or extremely crowded shelter, or being forced to work because people have no paid sick leave, means that marginalized folks are more likely to contract COVID, which affects everyone.

Our society, and especially our sector, must understand that helping people most affected by injustice is not just a nice thing to do because we’re good people. When we restore to wholeness those who are most oppressed, our community is stronger and we ALL benefit, every one of us.

What does this mean in the context of our work? It means that we need to stop thinking of the work around Race, Equity, Access, Diversity, and Inclusion (READI*) as a nice-to-have, something that we do when more “important” work settles down a bit. This IS our most important work, and the basis of our entire sector. It also means that we stop thinking of this work as something that benefits only a few people who are most affected, and instead understand that it makes things better for ALL of us.

In everyday practice, this means when you pay for ASL interpretation or live captioning even though perhaps only one colleague requests it, everyone benefits. If you have gender-neutral bathrooms, everyone is better off, not just transgender colleagues and clients. If you pay women more, in order to close the gender wage gap, all of society—including men—benefits. If you hire and accommodate older workers, your organization and society benefit. If you provide paid family leave for parents of all genders, everyone is better off, even folks who don’t have kids. If you help change policies and practices that prevent BIPOC colleagues from having resource and influence at your organization, all of us ultimately benefit.

The Curb-Cut Effect is amazing and ubiquitous, but it can be hard to spot at first, so it can be difficult for many of us to understand how our lives are improved when the work centers on the people most affected by systemic injustice. I have been pulling my kids around the neighborhood in a little red wagon for years. I never noticed that the curbs at each street corner had been cut, making it so much easier for me and my cranky little ones to get on and off the sidewalk. I don’t use a wheelchair currently, so I did not appreciate that my family and I were benefiting from the hard-won battles fought by disability activists in Berkeley. All of us in numerous ways and on a daily basis benefit from the work around equity, diversity, and inclusion, and we just don’t know it.

This pandemic is not an excuse to put READI work on the back burner. If anything, it should make it crystal clear to all of us that not only is this work important, it is central to everything we do and is also the key to creating a better community that we all live in and benefit from.

*Let me know if someone has coined the acronym READI, so I can credit them; I googled but didn’t find anything.

Tags: Equity