Bridging the Equity Gap
By Andrea H. Reay
President/CEO of the Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce
With contribution from Sid Wambach
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound
It’s amazing how some lessons and experiences that we have as children can leave lasting impressions that still resonate with us as adults. One such experience for me was when my first-grade teacher taught my class a powerful lesson about equity. Like most children, we read books about Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglas. We watched recordings of Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. However, the lessons and stories about injustice felt very foreign and far away. There were no people of color in my class—we were a group of middle-class white kids, living in the suburbs and going to a private Catholic school. It was hard to wrap our heads around what segregation was or how racism could have governed policy. Knowing this, our teacher came up with a powerful and memorable experiential learning exercise to try to help us better understand what it must have been like growing up in that world.
She separated us into two groups; half the class was Group 1 and the other Group 2. On the first day of the lesson, Group 1 would experience what it might have been like to grow up black in a segregated community, while Group 2 would assume the roles of the white student population. On the second day, the groups would switch roles. This would provide each student with an opportunity to feel the experience from each side.
I was in Group 2 and I remember each moment in great detail when it was my turn to experience the other side of inequity. I had to wait at the back of the line. I couldn’t hang my coat on the hook on the wall. No one answered any of my questions, no matter how long my hand was raised. No one did anything when someone took the cookie out of my lunch box or threw my coat on the floor. I felt invisible. I felt hopeless. I left school that day in tears, as did most of my Group 2 classmates. This was just after one day.
Sid Wambach with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound shares with us an experience of his own:
Throughout college I was constantly questioned about why I was not attending trips with friends around the world, going out, or participating in social events. None of them knew that my parents were the first generation within my family to go to college or that I had to take care of my mother who was battling cancer. This created a large disconnect between the majority of my peers at college who received paid tuition and myself, who had to work two jobs in order to afford just being in the room.
The taste of injustice my classroom experienced lasted two days, Sid’s several years. How can we expect our children and youth to grow and flourish if these are daily realities? When the hurt is internalized and the trauma actualized?
We have come a long way since August 28, 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in DC as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but we still have a long way to go. The cultural and sociological impacts of institutionalized racism continue to contribute to a system that is off balance. The scale is still tilted. Personal bias, much implicit, still permeates the fabric of our social structures and systems. This impacts our education system, with communities of color graduating high school at lower rates than their white counterparts. It impacts our justice system, with people of color serving longer sentences and in greater numbers than Caucasians. Bias also impacts our economy, with people of color earning less and being passed over for promotions. The more inequity that exists in a community or system, the wider the gap that must be closed.
Bridging that equity gap by creating opportunity and bringing economic vitality to our communities is a key focal point and strategic initiative at our Chamber. It’s why we’re proud to produce, in collaboration with our friends at the Renton Chamber, the first-ever Pacific Northwest Economic Equity Summit. The goal of this summit is to gather regional business leaders, policymakers, and the community together to find real solutions to the challenges our community faces—specifically the economic inequity prevalent in King County.
As our local economy continues to soar, too many are left out of the ride in prosperity. Gentrification has forced small businesses out of locations they’ve held for years and families are priced out of communities they’ve called home for generations. In reference to his position at Big Brothers Big Sisters Puget Sound, Sid said, “This role really brought to light the number of moms who have to provide for multiple kids without a support system.” He went on to say, “Most community leaders do not know and couldn’t fathom how many families are one paycheck away from homelessness. Entire regions within the Puget Sound have been neglected for so long that foundational rights have been stripped due to reliance on inequitable algorithms, systems, and cultural norms.”
Many public agencies and private companies include equity initiatives as a goal or standard, but are we taking decisive enough action to encourage and promote meaningful change? This event is a big step toward that change and will challenge, inspire, and educate business leaders and policymakers on best practices and current trends as well as celebrate successes and encourage dialogue previously not part of the conversation.
“After seeing my mother work so hard to provide for me and my three brothers,” said Sid, “I vowed to never let my lack of the ‘college experience’ or my impoverished upbringing limit my ability to create large-scale positive change (RIP Rochelle Wambach, 1969 – 2014).”
We can build a bridge across the equity gap that impacts our community and our families. But we can only do it together. We hope you will join us in this work. If you’re able to attend, please register here: https://www.gorenton.com/chamber-of-commerce/events/event-details/_chamber_of_commerce_event_details/2020-economic-equity-summit
This article was written by Andrea H. Reay, the President/CEO of Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce, “A voice for business, a leader in the community.” Seattle Southside Chamber has served the communities of Burien, Des Moines, Normandy Park, SeaTac, and Tukwila since 1988. For more information about the Chamber, including a full list of member benefits and resources, please visit their website at www.SeattleSouthsideChamber.com.
Contributions were given by Sidney Wambach, Senior Community Engagement Manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound. Rooted in the Puget Sound region for more than 60 years, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound is the nation’s largest donor and volunteer supported mentoring network. Their mission is: To create and support one-to-one mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of youth. Learn more at www.bbbsps.org.