Reflections on Equity Summit 2015: Moving from inspiration to action

23 Nov 2015 | Henrissa Bassey
Reflections on Equity Summit 2015: Moving from inspiration to action


From October 27-29, nearly 3,000 dynamic leaders, advocates, and other equity stakeholders from across the nation, coalesced to attend Equity Summit 2015 in Los Angeles, CA, and take on some of the most pressing issues of our time. As soon as I entered the Summit, I instinctively felt that this conference would be transformative. It did not take long for this instinct to be proven correct. Beginning and ending with performance art, each of the Summit’s sessions leveraged the power of the arts to provoke and inspire change. During the Black Lives Matter forum, Pastor Michael McBride advised that, “the first revolution is always an internal one.” For folks stepping into various movements for the first time, this is not only a powerful action step, but also a thoughtful internal framework for equity advocacy. I was highly inspired by this statement and am cognizant of the additional mental models that are required to build a powerful equity movement. My conversations with other Summit attendees indicated that I am not alone in this inspiration and ambition to accelerate my work. To encourage all of us to challenge ourselves to move from inspiration to action, I have listed the four internal frameworks that resonated most strongly with me during this Summit. *Please note that this list is not intended to reflect all of the frameworks that are necessary to build a strong equity movement.


1.  Embrace Reflective and Adaptive Leadership 

A tacit, collective agreement to push and be pushed was weaved throughout every session. I was inspired by the willingness of many participants to trust the panelists and presenters to challenge their mental models and preconceptions.  During the Promise Neighborhoods Institute at the PolicyLink annual Convening, staff from the Annie E. Casey Foundation partnered with Promise Neighborhoods site leaders to guide Convening attendees through a session designed to: increase their capacity to infuse a results-based accountability framework into their work, and advance leadership to measurably improve Promise Neighborhoods results and indicators. Throughout the session, attendees were instructed to examine their “mental models” and sincerely ask themselves, “To what extent are mental models shaping what I’m doing?” This type of work is often the most difficult because it is not only personal, but requires the undoing of patterns of behavior and instincts that have served as ostensible barriers to achieving equitable outcomes for our target communities. Despite this difficulty, the session facilitators created a space in which participants could safely share their challenges, noting that the aforementioned questions are not intended to serve as “gotcha” moments, but are designed to truly uncover the blind spots and mental blocks that are hindering our abilities to execute certain strategies with discipline or to properly align internal structures with results.

2.  Connect with and Lift up Young Leaders

Though many presenters commented on the energy and willingness of young equity leaders to disrupt the status quo, many more presenters commented on the disconnect between the older generation of policy advocates and the younger generation of policy advocates. We must challenge ourselves to honor the viability of young leaders’ skills and lived and learned experiences, both personal and professional. In my personal opinion, to expect them to solely serve as the face of the equity movement, rather than as advocates and thought leaders, not only minimizes the impact of the Freedom Riders and other young leaders of the 1960s civil rights movement, but minimizes the present, demonstrated capacity of Ferguson protestors and Black Lives Matter activists to move the needle in areas like crucial reforms and community policing. During the “Charting a Course toward Effective Justice Reinvestment and Reform” session, James Bell, founder and executive director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, noted, “We need all the voices or we will not win. Nobody should be left out.” I echo this statement and look forward to lifting up young activists as results-driven leaders in the fight for equity.

3.  Infuse Intersectionality into Equity Movements

As someone who simultaneously exists as: a first-generation American, a woman, a person of color, and as a sibling of a young man of color with disabilities, I have often felt most connected to movements that target and address intersectionality. The Summit honored intersectionality by lifting up the disability rights movement and the LGBTQ community within sessions that discussed school discipline, and also by emphasizing the need for a more intentional partnership between the Black Lives Matter movement and immigrant rights activists. Acknowledging the intersection that exists across race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, and citizenship status will not only accelerate our capacity to work collectively to secure equitable opportunities for underserved communities to access health, safety, and economic wellbeing, but will also honor the crucial second line of the Equity Manifesto, introduced during the Summit, which states that equity, “embraces complexity as cause for collaboration, accepting that our fates are inextricable.”

4.  Leverage Political Power to Enforce Equitable Policy-making

Though many citizens are disappointed with our current election process, several Summit panelists lifted up the importance of voting, political participation, and policy advocacy to improve outcomes and results for underserved communities and secure funding to sustain equity work. During the “Election 2016: Alliances and Strategies to Put Equity on the Next Presidential Agenda” session, Stacey Abrams, House Minority Leader for the Georgia General Assembly, noted that, “demographics are not destiny, 65% of elected positions are held by White men.” This statement serves as a powerful reminder that we cannot conflate demographic dominance with political power. If we are to infuse equitable policies -- accessible, inclusive, and transparent -- into every sector and system, we must work together to: exercise our right to vote, expand voting rights for formerly incarcerated populations and underserved communities, leverage multigenerational and multiracial coalitions, and engage with key decision makers. I am excited to do this work and look forward to joining the PNI network and all Equity Summit 2015 attendees in turning our vision of an equitable America into a reality. Please share your thoughts on the Summit or PNI Convening with me at or on our Facebook or Twitter.