Working for Economic Equity in the DMV

The D.C., Maryland, and Virginia region (the DMV) is prosperous, but it is no secret that opportunities to participate in that prosperity are not shared fairly and that disparity often follows racial divides. This lack of economic equity is a moral failing and holds us back from reaching our full potential as a thriving, productive community. Join us for a meaningful and substantive conversation on how companies and local governments can address inequities and help shape an economy that gives everyone a chance to succeed.

Moderator: Michael Akin, President of LINK Strategic Partners

Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director, Socrates Program, Aspen Institute
Denise Rolark Barnes, Publisher, The Washington Informer
Jaqueline N. Tucker, Race and Social Equity Officer, City of Alexandria
Tony Waller, Senior Director of Diversity Relations, Walmart

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What does equity mean?

Michael Akin, president of LINK Strategic Partners, begun the discussion by asking each of the panelists to define the term “equity.” Each panelist approached the answer slightly differently, but two themes emerged.

First, it means that all people must be able to succeed. Denise Rolark Barnes, Publisher of The Washington Informer, recalled a quote from Jesse Jackson about the need to level the playing field, making the point that equity is about fairness in how we are able to succeed in this world. This is the starting point.

Second, it means that we must meet people where they are and recognize that different groups of people have different needs because of historical factors. Jaqueline Tucker, Race and Social Equity Officer for the City of Alexandria, explained that race is the primary predictor of health, income, and wealth in this country due to historical marginalization that held non-white groups of people back from opportunity. While equality means we are all treated the same way, equity means everyone is being given what they need precisely to bring them up to a fair starting line, which may mean that some communities require different or additional measures or investment.

Tony Waller, Senior Director of Diversity Relations at Walmart, put it simply: “Equality is making sure everyone has shoes. Equity means everyone has shoes that fit.”

What can a major retailer do?

Tony Waller acknowledged that in 2015, the country was having the same conversations and many companies came out with corporate statements. Now, five years later, nothing has changed. Companies need to change their response.

Tony described the steps that Walmart is taking to make a substantive and not just symbolic impact on racism and racial equity. Those steps start in Walmart’s supply chain, where the company is examining what changes it can make to its procurement requirements to accommodate more small and minority-owned businesses, to beyond its stores, where it is helping neighboring shops rebuild after being damaged in the riots.

Walmart’s management is looking at the jobs and advancement opportunities it provides and asking if more should be done for people of color. For example, they are asking how they may be able to help people who were previously incarcerated come back to the workforce. Walmart is also examining what it can do to help people of color access better healthcare that meets their needs.

Walmart’s CEO recently made a statement about all these commitments and asked that workers who are not on board with the program seek employment elsewhere. This conviction meant a lot, said Tony, and is a strong demonstration of leadership in a difficult time.

What can a local government do?

Jaqueline Tucker provided an expert history lesson of the laws that have created the situation we are in today. She explained that for hundreds of years, laws explicitly discriminated against Black people by denying them freedom, the right to vote, the right to attend certain schools, or the right to buy a house. Eventually, the law achieved racial neutrality, where everybody legally has the same privileges regardless of their race.

However, we now know that racial neutrality is not enough to make our society equal because Black and historically marginalized communities do not have the same history of wealth-building and investment—we have not reckoned with our past, according to Jaqueline. She pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated these disadvantages.

She says that some local governments, like Alexandria, are now proactively designing policies, procedures, programs, institutions, budgets, and so on to help deliver what people need to succeed. For example, Alexandria focused its communications during the COVID-19 pandemic on the communities who would be most vulnerable rather than targeting everyone equally. It has also formed a community response group that not only includes people of color, but compensates them for their time, knowing that not everyone can easily volunteer.

What can a media company do?

Denise Rolark Barnes explained the value of the Black press. Newspapers like hers have been telling the story of Black Americans for decades—stories that do not always get told in other publications. She pointed out that regular readers of The Washington Informer would not be surprised to learn about police brutality or faults in our criminal justice system, since those are stories that are covered regularly.

Denise also made that point that the Black press does not just cover stories that matter to Black Americans, they track those stories and follow-up on their outcomes.

What can a nonprofit do?

Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director of the Socrates Program at the Aspen Institute, explained that his organization is dedicated to bringing people together to share ideas. That legacy may have started years ago with white men, but it has expanded to include everyone.

Cordell says that in doing this work, it is important to be willing to look at yourself, be sensitive, and know that you do not have all the right answers. He points to today’s protesters and observes that many are marching with “signs in one hand and books in the other,” searching to understand our current condition intellectually. This is important and can support the ground-up movement we need where people across sectors and backgrounds contribute to being a part of the change we need.

Action Items

Michael Akin asked each panelist to provide one action item for the event participants.

Tony Waller suggested that everyone commit to having one difficult conversation with someone in which both people end the conversation better. Give the other party the opportunity to express where they are and better understand where you are.

Denise Rolark Barnes suggested that each participant, if they can, support a Black-owned business. Get to establish a new business relationship or get to know a new business owner in your community.

Jaqueline Tucker recommends we all follow the three A’s: Assume, Assess, and Act. Assume that your institution has white supremacy and white privilege embedded in it. Assess your staff, payscale, policies, and more to understand what should be changed to improve diversity, inclusion, and equity. Finally, act—do the work and be committed to the outcome.

Cordell Carter, II implores us to read. His reading list:

Lastly, Jack McDougle, President and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, asked that everybody approach the work of creating racial equity as one region. We cannot be satisfied with leveling the playing field in some neighborhoods and not others.