What you can do to promote racial equity in Boston

Elevating Lives November 21 2019

On Thursday, November 21, 2019, YW Boston hosted the second and final Elevating Lives event of 2019, Conversation: Understanding what you can do to promote racial equity. Dr. Robert W Livingston, Lecturer of Public Policy at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, joined YW Boston for the event hosted at the University of Massachusetts Club.


Dr. Robert W Livingston is an expert on the psychological and physiological processes that underlie implicit bias. He presented on the topics of unconscious bias, equity vs equality, and how understanding these concepts can help create a more inclusive workplace. Following Dr. Livingston’s presentation, he and Beth Chandler, YW Boston’s President and CEO, further explored how these concepts can be analyzed and applied in the workplace.


Don’t miss out on the top takeaways from this event. Find our 5 highlights from Understanding what you can do to promote racial equity below.

1. Understanding and taking action to eliminate racism includes five main components.

As an introduction to his presentation and the morning’s conversation, Dr. Robert W Livingston shared with the audience a framework he developed for his upcoming book. The P-R-E-S-S framework includes “five steps to moving the needle.” As Dr. Livingston describes, these steps can be applied to many situations. During this event, he narrowed these steps to specifically explain how they can support anti-racist action plans.


Vertical graph PRESS framework Dr Robert Livingston

The five steps, as he explained them:

  • Problem Awareness: “Each intervention requires first acknowledging that there’s a problem.”
  • Root Cause Analysis: “Then, you need to determine where this problem is coming from.”
  • Empathy: “Do you care?”
  • Strategy: “Strategy is informed by and tied to the root cause analysis.”
  • Sacrifice: “This fifth thing really stops many things in their path, which is: Am I willing to invest the time, the energy, the effort, the resources, and incur the trade-offs to make this happen? The sacrifice is a direct result of how much you care.”

The five P-R-E-S-S steps laid the groundwork necessary for Dr. Livingston, during the event, to dive deeper into how each of these steps apply to eliminating racism.


2. Racism is still present, but how it is expressed has morphed.

In addressing the number one P-R-E-S-S step, Problem Awareness, Dr. Livingston explained that white and black people diverge greatly in how much racism they believe African-Americans experience in the 21st century. However, they closely agreed with how much racism they believe African-Americans experienced in the 1950s. What researchers found is that racism “tends to be defined in really extreme terms by white people and it tends to be defined in more subtle terms by black people.” While white people as a group feel that racism is no longer an issue, solved in part by the Civil Rights Act, people of color continue to experience the ramifications of racism, invisible to the white people who perpetuate it.

As Dr. Livingston explains through Aversive Racism Theory, “The Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation, and other mid-century movements changed our society’s values. There was a change in consciousness that white Americans now believe everyone should be treated the same.” However, people still held onto their hatred and fear of black people. This belief in equality alongside anti-black sentiment encouraged people to “push their negative feelings down, internally” without actually working to change their anti-black feelings. This conflict began to manifest in peoples’ implicit bias, which Dr. Livingston defines as “bias that occurs outside of awareness, intent, or control. People don’t know they are doing it, they don’t mean to do it, and they often can’t control it.” By acting on these biases, people began enacting a subtler form of racism that sustains systemic inequities today.


Dr Robert Livingston presenting to crowd at YW Boston Elevating Lives 2019 event

3. Equity means treating people differently in a way that makes sense.

As Dr. Livingston moved to step #4, Strategy, he asked the audience to picture a scenario. A group is out to dinner and the check comes. The group debates how to split the bill, either by splitting it into equal parts or by asking each person to pay for what they ordered. Dr. Livingston posed to the group, “Which of these answers is more fair?” As he explained, splitting the bill equally represents equality, because it treats everyone equally and does not acknowledge the history of who ordered what. Breaking the bill down by who ordered what is equity because the output (who pays what) is relative to the input (who ordered what).


In other terms, Dr. Livingston explains, “Equity is treating people differently in a way that makes sense.” We should be striving for equity rather than equality, because equity is a term that examines what is most fair for groups that have historically been marginalized. While it may seem unfair to treat certain people or groups differently in any circumstance, this does not account for the history of systemic racism which prevents people of color from being treated equally in the first place. Dr. Livingston puts it simply, “Different treatment does not equal special treatment.”


One of the reasons people default to working toward equality rather than equity is that, “Equity takes work.” As Dr. Livingston explains, “Equity requires taking out your calculator and adding up who had what,” which when it comes to examining historic and systemic injustices, is incredibly difficult. However, the weight of the inequities that exist today require us to work together to figure out these calculations and put equity into practice.


Elevating Lives racial equity panel

4. Discover your method to bring about social change.

During their discussion, Beth Chandler asked Dr. Livingston about whether he believes the United States has made progress in terms of equity. He turned to the well-known quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. which states, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” meaning that while progress feels as though it has slowed, we are ultimately moving in the correct direction.


What will move the needle, he explained, is each person finding their method to make change. Dr. Livingston described his younger self as “angry” about injustice, but found over the time “people don’t learn,” when confronted by anger. As he explained, “If you turn the lights on to someone in the dark, they cover their eyes. Instead you need to turn up the dimmer over time. The problem is the dimmer takes more time.” Therefore, his strategy is to continually educate people about their biases and about equity, in order to help them eventually see the light.


One audience member deepened the conversation, stating that having the time and patience to dim the lights requires privilege. They asked, “How can you begin the dimming process when you just want to shine a spotlight?” Dr. Livingston responded by stating every social movement requires many tactics. He acknowledged he chose the “dimming” strategy because his position as a professor “gives [him] access to a level of people who have tremendous impact.” However, “I wouldn’t want anyone to dim their light,” he states, because “There needs to be more partnerships between advocates, activists, and allies in ways that capitalize on the unique strategy that each brings to the promoting change.” As he put it, with this tag team strategy, “Some people will see clearly in the light, and some people will run.” For those who run from the light, Dr. Livingston will “deal with them and send them back” to the audience member, who can further activate them toward change. 


5. We all have an impact on our workplace culture.

Toward the end of the Q&A period, an audience member shared, “I don’t manage anyone and I do not have power over who gets hired,” asking, “How can I, as a colleague, encourage diversity in my workplace?” Dr. Livingston was quick to assure them that every person has an impact on their workplace culture, despite how hard it is to recognize that impact. As he explained it, the “culture [of an organization] has a major impact, because deep down, people want to be accepted by others. Culture is a regulator because it tells people what is appropriate or acceptable and what will you get you praise from the group. Instinctively, people modify their behavior to cultural norms.”

Therefore, Dr. Livingston stated, “One of the things individuals can do is speak up when you see something that is not good. When enough people do it, that will change the social norms.” In fact, no person is exempt from influencing culture, even if they do not speak up. Keeping quiet and not owning one’s own power in an organization, he explains, “is a form of complicity.” Instead, when you recognize your own power, you can become “the model that you want others to follow.” Beth Chandler added that it is important “to look for allies” in your organization who will speak up alongside you. As more people speak up, and norms evolve, an organization can create and commit to lasting strategies to promote racial equity.


Thank you to Dr. Robert W Livingston, our sponsors, and everyone who attended “Understanding what you can do to promote racial equity”.


You can find Dr. Livingston’s presentation, “Understanding Unconscious Bias and How to Minimize Its Effects in the Workplace” below and can access a downloadable file here. Please keep an eye out for his book, coming out next year, entitled The Conversation: How to Eliminate Racism in America and Make the World a Better Place for Everyone.



To make inclusion a key goal for your organization, learn more about YW Boston’s LeadBoston and InclusionBoston programs.

About LeadBoston

Become a part of YW Boston’s LeadBoston program and join a network of over 1,000 inclusive leaders in Boston. During this 10-month program, participants explore and learn how to address barriers to inclusion through facilitated dialogue, expert speakers, and peer learning. Through experiential activities, participants delve into the socioeconomic realities of Boston and explore innovative solutions to inequity.

About InclusionBoston

InclusionBoston advances diversity, equity, and inclusion by partnering with organizations looking for improved results. Using our advanced assessment tool and the latest research on behavioral and organizational change, we partner with organizations to create an action plan and provide them with the resources needed to drive lasting change. Our customized, evidence-based approach builds internal capacity and promotes cultural change while supporting organizations throughout their journey.

YW Boston also offers one-day workshops where participants explore frameworks, develop knowledge, and engage in dialogue.

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