Equity sounds good – but what does it mean?


The dictionary defines it as “the quality of being fair and impartial,” but equity also has other meanings, such as the value of stock shares, or mortgaged property. There’s also a branch of law associated with fairness and justice, used to remedy inequity in common law practice. Oakland’s Department of Race and Equity views equity as “when people have full and equal access to opportunities that enable them to attain their full potential.” Furthermore, Oakland’s downtown specific plan process now specifically addresses ways local government can promote equity through policy and infrastructure for the built environment at the heart of the city.

Ethan Chang


Oakland’s downtown specific plan process now specifically addresses ways local government can promote equity through policy and infrastructure for the built environment at the heart of the city.


Dictionary definitions and technical terms are one way to understand equity. Another way is to understand it from the perspective of lived experience. Recently, Equity Team member Ethan Chang interviewed his colleagues about equity. Chang asked three basic questions – “In your own words, how would you define equity?”, “Why is it important to you?,” and “What brings you to the [equity] table?” No one answered the questions exactly the same – which suggests that our relationship to equity speaks to our personal experience. Chang then summarized the responses into common themes.

Those themes are described below, followed by selected excepts from interviews with Equity Team members Dave Javid, Dhoryan Rizo, Dwayne Marsh, Eric Arnold, Greg Hodge, Jme McLean, Julia Liou, Kalima Rose, Mike Lok, Sarah Filley, and Tessa Cruz. We hope these perspectives will help explain not only what equity is, but also the context for our equity work.


Equity Themes

Equity as rooted in inequitable histories.

Equity work looks at inequitable outcomes and asks, “how did we get here?” This historical framing is a key starting point for imagining solutions. Equity requires us to look at the policies and rules that created an uneven playing field which has privileged some groups and left others behind.

Equity as a process.

Equity is about outcomes, but it’s also about process. When making important decisions (like in the planning process for the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan), equity asks, “Who’s at the table?,” and “Who’s not at the table who should be at the table?,” Equity asks us to create solutions with those who have historically not been offered a seat at the table.

Equity as building on our differences to benefit everyone.

Equity understands differences (such as race, class, gender, sex, language, ability) as an important and creative basis for action. Equity maintains that our differences are not something we should fear, but instead, should embrace. Equity insists, “how can we understand our differences as a way to build equitable solutions so that everybody benefits?”

Equity as often-misunderstood.

Equity is a complex concept. It’s not equality, which provides the same resources for everybody. Instead, equity provides for those who have been left out historically to be prioritized more fairly. And it’s not about shallow talk of “inclusion” or “diversity,” which can reinforce inequity if actions are superficial, insincere, tokenizing, or contradictory. This dynamic can make doing equitable work challenging, because equity requires a commitment to equitable practices on an ongoing basis. Equity is not about finding temporary or short-term solutions to long-term problems – it’s about addressing issues associated with power, privilege, resources, and recognition, and integrating solutions which are intersectional in nature—meaning they address those issues collectively and comprehensively.

Equity as an everyday way of living.

Equity—and conversely, inequity-- as a goal is a part of everything people do, whether we are intentional about it or not. For instance, it shapes the makeup of who’s on the Equity Team, our group’s understanding of problem-solving, how we work with community residents and partners, and how we frame the process of urban planning. At each stage of our process, equity asks: “Who’s being excluded? Whose voice is not being heard?” – and urges us to include those voices.

Equity as a feeling.

You can also feel equity. It’s not just about resources, but about emotional feeling; a sense of “belonging” to access those very resources. In a “Downtown for Everyone” that truly upholds equity, everyone who uses or is a part of downtown—residents, visitors, business owners, workers, social service providers, youth, seniors, immigrants, homeless people—would feel a sense of ownership or connectivity to the location. In other words, equity creates a sense of place and inclusion. It is not merely a concept which exists on paper, but must be actualized in everyday life, through participation in public space. In this case, equity asks, “Who feels included in Downtown? Who gets to hang out in public spaces?”

Equity as a personal commitment.

Equity-oriented work is often a reflection of personal callings and lived experiences. Many team members shared how their participation is motivated by their own biographies, families, and relationships. In many cases, equity work is driven by a personal awareness of inequity, of unfair or unequal practices, policies, and social or economic conditions—and how they have impacted life or career choices, where people live, how people live, how much money they make, and how much opportunity they are afforded to advance. A personal commitment to equity means seeing things through an equity framework, and constantly looking for better ways of doing things which benefit all equally.

Oakland Street Art

Selected Quotes from Equity Team Members

 
Eric Arnold

Eric Arnold

“So I would define equity as the concept of realizing that things have been in-equal, or unequal, and that inequality has been pervasive, and its impacted a certain demographic and population groups more than other demographics or population groups. That is, sort of the starting point for equity. Once you realize how in-equal or unequal things have been, then you can begin to frame things through an equity lens, which is, how do we get to equality?”

Tessa Cruz

Tessa Cruz

 “Equity encompasses the fact that people need different things to succeed and it’s recognizing that those different things aren’t the same.” 

“Equity is about meeting people where they are to ensure that they have access to those opportunities necessary to succeed.”

Sarah Filley

Sarah Filley

“Equity is the distribution of resources and opportunities in equal ways based on need to right historic wrongs.”

“For me, having a definition of arts and culture is really a primary role in imagining the future of the City of Oakland… We’re trained to problem - solve, and we’re trained to take risks as entrepreneurs, and we’re trained to imagine into the future in ways that other sectors are not.”

 
Greg Hodge

Greg Hodge

“[If] we give everybody the same thing in downtown, then we’re going to basically perpetuate the disparities that we already see. Equity requires us to do more. It requires us to apply unequal resources to unequal needs.”

“Equity means taking note of the historical and contemporary factors that put people into a particular place and figure out what are the things we need to do more of to get them to a place where equality would be feasible.”

“I think this project has a lot of opportunity to give a more robust approach to how equity plays out in Oakland.”

Dave Javid

Dave Javid

“Every planning process should provide multiple avenues for community members to provide input in a manner that is most convenient and comfortable to them. Creating an equitable planning process means giving every member of the community a voice and an opportunity to contribute and ultimately benefit from the implementation actions of the plan. That requires careful consideration of how/where resources are allocated to thoughtfully provide additional attention/funding to segments of the community that may have traditionally been overlooked..”

Julia Liou

Julia Liou

 “I guess equity for me… maybe I’m looking at it more as addressing barriers. So making sure that those who are most vulnerable, from our most vulnerable communities… are able to access the resources and are enabled to reach their highest potential whether that’s health, education, social mobility.”

“So we can raise up our most vulnerable, we raise up everybody.”

 
 
Mike Lok

Mike Lok

“You know equity is important to me because I think, for Oakland in general, our strength is, you know our diversity… and diversity more than just like different restaurants and different public arts, but just really an expression of different viewpoints and cultures and being able to you know, just like tolerate each other, or co-exist together, but really grow together as a community.”

Dwayne Marsh

Dwayne Marsh

“Well I think in the current context, I’d be more specific in defining equity – I would define racial equity. And our textbook definition is where race doesn’t predict one’s life outcomes… and as a consequence of eliminating those inequities that exist, we have to improve conditions for everybody.”

“The processes actually created the inequities that we have, if you don’t pay attention to the processes as you try to get to a better outcome, you actually aren’t going to get there. This is both a chance to change outcomes and the process for downtown to be a welcoming and viable community for all communities, and it offers a way to create a process where you can get those outcomes.”

Jme McLean

Jme McLean

“We live in a country (a planet) with a long and complex history of power dynamics, with insiders and outsiders, deciders and those for whom decisions are made. This is antithetical to a democracy. There are so many factors: Colonization, slavery, genocide. Land ownership, housing, employment. Health care, education, the right to vote. It all adds up, and it’s all connected with the world we live in today. The good news is that these systems and histories were built by people – so the systems and future can be changed by people. Every system we are part of – every decision we make – there is an equity choice available, and an equity choice to make.”

 
Equity in Oakland

Dhoryan Rizo

“…the voices of the people who have lived in this community for generations… not just years, generations… grandparents and what not."

“So it isn’t equality, but equity that gets at equal opportunity and access to a process of re-development.” 

Kalima Rose

Kalima Rose

“I work at PolicyLink and we have spent a lot of time thinking about this. So our collective definition is that equity is just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate and prosper.”

“Downtown plays a role in the economy of the region. Downtown plays a role in people’s access to arts and cultural expression. Downtown is the place where services for youth are centered. Many health services for low-income and communities of color are located downtown. So those are the things that are not usually thought deeply about in downtown plans. They are often thought about for the new things cities want to bring instead of anchoring the things that we value.”

 
 
 

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