06/29 – Transnational Considerations in Equity Work in Three Contexts: Higher Education, Philanthropy and Public Policy

June 2019 / Feature Articles

Cristina Alcalde, M. Gabriela Alcalde and Gonzalo Alcalde

Cristina Alcalde

Cristina Alcalde

Gabriela Alcalde

Gonzalo Alcalde







It’s 2019 and racial equity is increasingly put forth as a promising framework for understanding and undoing centuries of racist and colonialist power structures. The framework of equity is both an important and urgent one to consider, given that a convergence of demographic, environmental, political and economic trends emphasizes the need to at least consider the strong possibility that inequities may be significantly contributing to our own destruction –killing us faster yet in more subtle ways than we may initially imagine (Inequality.org 2019; Mather and Jarosz 2014; Salverda, Nolan, and Smeeding 2011). There’s now a body of research that evidences the correlation between the growing wealth gap and economic inequality and negative health effects at the population level (Cassidy 2014; Neumayer and Plumper 2016). There’s perhaps even a growing realization that if inequality continues to destroy the lives of the most marginalized it may even harm the most privileged (Brown 2019).

We have found that in spite of differences across governmental institutions, global entities, academia, nongovernmental organizations, philanthropy, and grassroots community groups, these is also a growing interest in addressing inequalities and inequities (Abrahamian 2018). Across the co-authors’ national and professional arenas, this interest and concern has led to specific individuals, programs, or offices being designated as responsible for equality, equity, diversity and inclusion. In practice, how equity and related concepts such as inclusion, belonging, community, collaboration, sustainability, and justice are understood, implemented and adapted significantly depends on power distribution and racialized national narratives across sociocultural, political, and institutional contexts. In this piece, we understand equity to mean fair and just distribution of and access to opportunities, resources and power. Equity is both a process and an outcome. We understand equity to be a different framework and strategy than equality: equality is about sameness and allocating equally regardless of historical and present context; equity is about fairness and allocating according to need and with consideration to historical and present conditions.

We approach this as three siblings committed to better understanding and implementing equity, even as we each seek to more fully define it and put equity into practice in our particular contexts. Two of us live in the United States, and the third in Peru. Understanding that national boundaries are porous, we bring together our perspectives as immigrants and feminists, and our backgrounds in anthropology, gender studies, public health, philanthropy and public policy analysis to interrogate and suggest some ways that a critical transnational dialogue about equity, in particular racial and gender equity, within and across institutional and national borders, allows us to identify both context-specific and transnational challenges and possibilities in working towards equity and inclusion.

Intersectional dynamics produce both unique and parallel experiences and conditions across multiple gender, racial, ethnic and socio-economic identities. Through three brief glimpses of contexts with which we are each familiar, we identify the following three points as critical areas for further discussion in struggles for equity nationally and transnationally: a) the structure, culture and leadership of organizations  b) the role of policy in transforming institutions beyond the more easily achievable and quantifiable diversity goals (as opposed to equity goals) and c) that significant steps towards equity may not be politically comfortable or economically profitable in the short-term for those who hold political and economic power, even as achieving equity is the only sustainable way forward for economic, social, and political well-being across contexts.

The Case of Higher Education in the United States

Universities commonly list diversity and inclusion as objectives in their multi-year strategic plans even as, and sometimes in response to, the recognition of the systemic marginalization of under-represented groups in higher education. Operationalizing practices that foster respect, greater understanding, and inclusion of all members, however, has proven to be an increasingly elusive goal. Movements such as #MeToo (and NiUnaMenos in Latin America) and Black Lives Matter continue to bring attention to the gendered and racialized inequities and abuse against marginalized identities not only in society at large but also specifically within academia. At the same time, leadership has yet to adequately reflect demographic shifts and cultures entrenched in historic inequities pave the the road to transformation with obstacles.

Students of color find few role models who look like them among the professoriate, and faculty of color find even fewer people of color among the senior leadership levels in higher education. In 2016, 86% of administrators in higher education were white. Only 7% were Black, 2% Asian, and 3% Latinx (Seltzer 2017)– in a country in which Latinxs are the fastest growing population. The gender distribution of those in administration provides an even grimmer picture. Among university presidents, only 30% have been women and the majority (25%) have been white women (Moody 2018). Among faculty the trend is similar, with white men making up the largest numbers of those in senior positions, and white women having made significantly more gains than women of color in recent years (Myers 2016). Even after significant gains over several decades, the percentage of women on the boards of public universities in the U.S. today may be less than in the 1970s, and, internationally, women continue to make up only a small minority of those in senior academic leadership positions (Read and Kehm 2016; Smith 2017).

In part, the challenge is that even before we can get to discussions of how diversity is not the same as equity or inclusion, and thus discuss the importance of efforts that focus on retention and sustainability, we need to confront the common misconception of diversity as different from and not congruent with excellence. While the recent scandal about wealthy white parents bribing and cheating their children’s way into elite universities seems to have shocked many (Durkin 2019), the everyday reality faculty and students of color routinely face of being suspected of not deserving to be in a particular institution persists and is far from being perceived as scandalous. Michelle Obama, in her best-selling Becoming (2018), points to her own experiences as a working-class African-American student at a predominantly white elite university: she writes that a college counselor told her she was unsure that she was “Princeton material” upon initially meeting her. Such experiences are far from limited to elite institutions.

In some traditionally male fields, efforts to diversify the professoriate may focus specifically on gender and recruiting or retaining women (Muñoz-Boudet 2017), while in many others diversity efforts are intersectional. Whether focusing on gender, race, or multiple identities, coded terms such as “rigor,” “qualified,” and “fit” can become simple ways to hide gendered and racialized biases (e.g., stereotypes of the angry or emotional Black or Latina woman, or the “too different” racialized immigrant) that facilitate the rejection of those who are different from the mainstream in terms of supposedly legitimate academic qualifications, or collegiality. In addition to unconscious bias training for search committees, many universities now require diversity statements from candidates as part of their applications (Flaherty 2018). These statements push search committees and candidates alike to consider how diversity and inclusion inform teaching, research, and service. These efforts are important yet cannot on their own create the sort of structural and cultural changes often necessary to be inclusive.

Attention to leadership and the accompanying racialized and gendered power differentials and culture in specific institutions and areas, followed by difficult conversations and plans, policies, and resources for change, are necessary to stop the trend of viewing diversity as an “add-on” rather than as central to sustainable success in departments, colleges, universities, and higher education more broadly. In academia, as in other areas, it may seem more attractive to speak of diversity in terms of numbers than in term of sustainable inclusive practices and policies that require ongoing conversations, negotiations, and change. A reliance on numbers, however, may be deceptive as it runs the risk of perpetuating systemic inequities: behind numbers may be faculty entering to replace those tired of being excluded who have left.

Once inclusive practices are put into practice, sustainability requires active listening, strategizing, and securing of needed resources. Ensuring representation of diverse identities at different levels and roles, recruitment and retention, mentoring, programming, curriculum that reflects both international and domestic forms of diversity and inclusion, and fund-raising to secure needed resources for success of minoritized faculty, students, and staff are all areas that directly impact how women of all backgrounds and minoritized members may or may not thrive in a particular environment. Beyond the energy and efforts of a small group of dedicated individuals designated as responsible for “diversity,” sustainability requires resources (including financial ones) and political will and commitment of institutions whose past practices and success may have until recently been at odds with the very goals of inclusive practices and equity.

National Public Policy Perspective from Peru

National-level policymaking towards greater racial equity has become gradually more visible in Peru in the 21st century, in line with international commitments, and supported by institutional innovations as well as some new, relevant policy instruments. A growing emphasis on social inclusion and rights-based public policies in the last two decades has broadly set the stage for steps forward in terms of promoting racial equity and fighting racial discrimination, although overall progress is still partial and policy efforts rather fragmented. Two major groups that have been historically in situations of social exclusion are highlighted in this discussion: indigenous people (both from the Amazon and the Andean regions of the country) and Afro-Peruvians.

Despite significant social, economic and political transformations in the last century, racism has continued to be a part of daily life since colonial times in Peru, when ethnic distinctions were internalized across social strata (Flores Galindo 1986). In particular, in the context of colonial domination, a paradigm of racist discourse was constructed around the “White-Indian“ relationship which was then applied to relationships between other groups, including Afro-Peruvians and, after independence, Asian immigrants.

After independence in 1821, the republic of Peru was still characterized by racist policies and practices, where indigenous groups, while constituting the majority of the population until the first half of the 20th century, were not effectively recognized as citizens. National modernization efforts only began to explicitly consider indigenous communities under the Belaunde administration (1963-1968) and the military regime of General Velasco (1968-1975); for indigenous people, the right to vote became effective in 1979, over 150 years after independence. According to Quijano (2000), in countries such as Peru, after independence it became necessary to mask the practice of racist discrimination, which was not always done successfully. This was often done through social codes referring to differences in education and income that are, in reality, some of the clearest consequences of racist social relations.

Relatively recent institutional innovations in the state have set the stage for operationalizing and orienting national policies towards achieving racial equity, thus making it possible to finally begin to deliver on official promises of equity and equality that have been stated in numerous legal documents since independence. The creation of three national ministries, in particular, should be highlighted in this regard. Although two of them are relatively small in terms of budget and influence (MIMP and MINCUL), the third (MIDIS) is larger and has the responsibility, and potential, to consolidate and mainstream social policies that are based on racial equity considerations.

First, in 1996, the Ministry for the Promotion of Women and Human Development was created, and in 2012 it became the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations (MIMP, for its Spanish initials). Currently, MIMP´s stated mission includes contributing to overcoming poverty, inequity and exclusion, and its objective is to “make Peru a country where all of us are equal, live without discrimination and with equal opportunities“.

Second, and perhaps most relevant to racial equity policies, the Ministry of Culture (MINCUL) was created in 2010, and it integrated a number of existing official organizations that promoted the rights of Andean and Amazonian communities. Thus it now has a vice-ministry of Interculturality, in addition to a vice-ministry of Cultural Heritage and Cultural Industries; also, one of the ministry´s four programmatic lines of action is “Ethnic and cultural plurality of the nation.“ Currently, the Ministry of Culture is responsible, among other functions, for formulating and implementing strategies that foster the development of Amazonian, Andean and Afro-Peruvian peoples. In this regard, among other policy instruments, it has approved the country’s first National Development Plan for the Afro-Peruvian Population (2016-2020), and it is responsible for the crucial task of carrying out actions linked to the implementation of the right to prior consultation of indigenous peoples, providing technical assistance. This is especially important in a country that is still largely dependent economically on exporting raw materials, with numerous socio-environmental conflicts that are related to the activities of extractive firms.

Third, the Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion (MIDIS, for its Spanish initials) was created in 2011, and it has played an important role in better organizing and coordinating national social policy interventions, as well as managing the largest social programs. Although in practice it has tended to target the poorest populations as measured by income, particularly in rural areas, its underlying conceptual framework has been that of social exclusion, and has sought to prioritize attention to indigenous people as they are especially affected by social exclusion. As the key actor in Peruvian social policy, MIDIS’ responsibility for coordinating multi-sector efforts, across levels of government in a decentralized state, potentially assigns it a decisive role in mainstreaming racial equity considerations, and in orienting existing sectoral policies towards addressing racial inequity and reducing development gaps.

In addition to these institutional innovations, some important policy instruments have been put in place that are relevant to racial equity. For example, during this century the government has introduced affirmative action norms that are applied in political representation. The cuota indígena (indigenous quota) is applied to ensure representation of indigenous groups in subnational elections, at the provincial and regional levels, although not at the national level, and not in all areas of country. There is still significant criticism regarding the application of this norm (including by the National Ombudsperson), as it does not yet guarantee indigenous representation in subnational legislative bodies.

Laws against hate crimes have similarly been strengthened in the last decade, at the national and subnational levels. For example, national Law 1323 (2017) establishes that, if you commit a crime with motives of intolerance or discrimination (including racial discrimination), the penalty will be more severe.

Finally, questions regarding ethnic/racial self-identification have been introduced in recent official surveys and in the 2017 national census. This is setting the stage for much more profound knowledge of actual gaps faced by racially discriminated groups, but also provides valuable data to better orient existing racial equity policies and to formulate new ones. For example, the latest census shows that 9.4% of the Andean indigenous population and 14.4% of the Amazonian indigenous population have not completed any level of education, compared to 3.6% and 4.9% of the non-indigenous population in those areas, respectively; also, the illiteracy rate of the Andean indigenous population is 10.8%, compared to 4.2% of the non-indigenous population, more than double.

Despite the greater visibility of national policymaking that strives for racial equity in the past two decades, thanks to institutional innovations and some new instruments, this trend faces important challenges. Strong official discourse coupled with adherence to international norms and frameworks contrasts with policy sectors that are relatively weak within national government. Policymaking is not yet comprehensive, multisectoral, or oriented by long-term strategic considerations (OECD 2016), but still rather sectoral and fragmented. In particular, the overall approach to social inclusion in national policies is, in practice, still largely oriented by targeted programs rather than by comprehensive social development strategies with universalistic, rights-based aspirations, which could, in turn, be complemented by targeted interventions where necessary. While the new ministries, laws, and policies that speak to broad national goals of racial and gender equity have recently come into being, cultural practices that underpin inequities and discrimination are not as easily or quickly transformed.

A Glimpse at Philanthropy in the United States

Philanthropy in the United States wields significant power and resources.  While timidly recognizing its own origins and ongoing role in exacerbating economic inequality (Foxworth 2019), philanthropy has moved forward in full force with its equity agenda. Equity—and racial equity—are increasingly common themes at philanthropic conferences, publications, and grantmaking initiatives (Putnam-Walkerly and Russell 2016). Philanthropy wants to be a player in creating more just societies, and with its role as convener and funder of service providers, advocacy groups and even government efforts, it can certainly play a critical role in incentivizing, shaping and supporting such efforts.

Foundations are increasingly asking grantee organizations to work on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and to more closely represent the communities they serve in their staff and governance. Indeed, the nonprofit racial leadership gap has remained unchanged for almost two decades, with only about 20% of nonprofit leaders being people of color (Thomas-Breitfeld and Kunreuther 2017). Let’s note, also, that all racial and ethnic groups not identified as the ever-evolving category of white are lumped together, so that when we look more closely at Latinx, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and others, the percentages are in single digits or less, and not proportionate to population demographics or participation in the workforce. Given that 92% of philanthropic leaders (executives) and 87% of foundation board members are white (Brown 2015), it would seem that philanthropic organizations are doing their equity work externally before walking the talk of DEI in foundation leadership and governance.

Data are limited, yet we can further explore this racial disparity by looking at who and what is funded by philanthropy: here again, with under 10% of grant dollars awarded to people of color-led organizations, we see a picture reflective of the population leading philanthropy and nonprofits, rather than the broader population (Brown 2015). While grantmakers lack adequate data collection for a clear picture, existing data indicates that organizations led by people of color are significantly less likely to receive funding from grantmakers (Gónzalez-Rivera et al. 2008). In order to improve on this grantmaking inequity, philanthropy must first commit to better, comparable and consistent data collection (Brown 2018). Without data, we cannot track trends and patterns of who and what is funded or inform new philanthropic policies and practices to correct this skewed distribution of funds.

Concerns about exclusion of people of color and concentrated white wealth and power are not new; they’re reflective and symptomatic of the inequities philanthropy aims to dismantle. The fact that philanthropy’s existence is rooted in exploitation and inequality, and that the growing economic inequality and extreme concentrations of wealth continue to create new philanthropists, requires that foundations lead with intense introspection, humility and critical analysis of themselves and the cultures they have created. Funders should be mindful of their ability to shape, if not dictate, what nonprofits focus on rather than reflecting community needs and opportunities in their funding opportunities. Indeed, important and thoughtful  pieces have been written about the cooptation and watering down of radical change and movements by philanthropy, and calls to decolonize wealth and philanthropic practices (e.g., Francis 2019; Kohl-Arenas 2016; Villanueva 2018). Philanthropy must be aware of its history, inherent self-interests and continued potential to cause harm. Not being explicitly racist is not enough–color-blind and race-neutral approaches not only prevent progress, they perpetuate inequities and racialized power dynamics already present in the field (Wingfield 2017).

Moving towards more equitable communities will require all sectors to participate in deep transformation. Developing equity-grounded policies for personnel, governance, grantmaking and all philanthropic functions (including financial activities beyond grantmaking) are a necessary step in creating philanthropic organizations that incubate cultures that thrive on diversity and inclusion and become connected to the global multisector efforts striving to disentangle injustice, inequity and exploitation from the current system of philanthropic giving.

At a granular level, providing multi-year, general operating support, responsive capacity-building and reducing unnecessary paperwork all contribute to supporting nonprofits’ missions (Enright et al. 2017; Jagpal and Laskowski 2013; Orensten 2019). Better and disaggregated data collection of who and what is funded, increased funding of organizations and ecosystems working in anti-racist and pro-equity approaches, and targeted funding of people of color-led organizations is not optional. Continued efforts for representation at the leadership and governance levels must be accompanied by efforts to align organizational cultures with stated equity values. Further, by leveraging all philanthropic strategies (advocacy, convening, field-building, research, impact investment, evaluation and more) in a manner that reflects trust-based partnerships where we authentically address issues of power, implicit bias and institutional and structural racism (among other systems of oppression), philanthropy may effectively support transformational change towards equity (. It may even succeed in transforming itself into an institution more reflective of and responsive to our intersectional realities.

Common Threads, Particularities, and Moving Forward

The meanings and value attached to our identities have real consequences– in representation and power, in resources, and in opportunities. The work of inclusion and equity requires that we be attentive both to inequities in specific contexts and commonalities across contexts to identify local, regional and global forms of exclusion and challenge obstacles to belonging and a more just world. Inquiries across contexts aid us in understanding how social inequalities are renegotiated, challenged, and reproduced transnationally. Further, we must recognize that inequity (like racism) exists within and among individuals, institutions and societies. Focusing on individual-level changes alone will not undo institutional, societal or global inequities. Similarly, efforts that place the responsibility of diversity, equity, and inclusion on one individual, program, or institution are less likely to succeed in the long-term than those in which these efforts are embedded throughout and among  organizations, institutions, and policies. This requires the difficult work of developing and deploying allies, strategies and resources across fields, systems and nations.

Equity is justice, and as such, is not static and requires ongoing work, constant inquiry, and disruptive challenges. It takes a radical imagination to visualize a world that is equitable. We must consider that current leadership structures and cultures may lack the imagination to get us there; we must also recognize that the vision of intersectional equity may not be one that appeals to everyone who currently benefits from entrenched systems of injustice. Equity centers lived experience, but decision-making in our fields is commonly held by those representative of historical, political, social and economic power. Leadership is not just about representation; it is also about the culture that prevails and the assumptions made reality. Indeed, plenty of research indicates that the wealthy and privileged may lack the necessary lived experience and empathy to lead us into a more just world (Marsh 2011).

Whether focusing on equity work in higher education, public policy, philanthropy, or another field, we find that attention to the composition, structure and culture of leadership; allocation of time, resources and effort to operationalize multidimensional policies that move from diversity to sustainable inclusion and equity; and long-term, cross-sector approaches that look beyond immediate returns, profits and commodification of equity are common challenges and goals across our fields and national contexts.

Given the United States’ history (and current reality) of oppression, exclusion and violence against Native Americans and African-Americans, history of discrimination against Latinxs and others grouped together as “nonwhite”, and dramatic wealth inequality; and Peru’s colonialist legacy and continued experiences of racist, exclusionary and fragmented practices, we have presented these contexts as especially useful for examining equity work transnationally. In the U.S., we must see how inequality is harmful to the entire population, as in Peru addressing inequality is essential to growth. As individuals with personal and professional experiences across national boundaries and contexts, we suggest that intentional investment and work towards equity–and particularly racial and gender equity– in and among organizations and institutions shares challenges across borders, and contributes to and is necessary for the sustainable well-being of organizations, populations, nations, and, ultimately, the planet.


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About the Authors

Cristina Alcalde is Associate Dean of Inclusion and Internationalization and Marie Rich Endowed Professor in the Gender and Women’s Studies Department in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology and an M.A. in Latin American Studies. Her latest book is Peruvian Lives across Borders: Power, Exclusion, and Home (2018).

Gonzalo Alcalde holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and an M.A. in International Relations. He teaches at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú and Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. He also works as a consultant and researcher for public sector and international cooperation organizations. His research topics in recent years have included state decentralization, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and Peruvian social policy.

Gabriela is a public health leader with 20+ years of experience and commitment to equity and social justice. Gabriela joined the team of the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation (EBSF) as executive director in the summer of 2019 and in this capacity leads the integration of environmental, human and animal health and welfare as the foundation works to center equity and community voices in all of their work and strategies.

Prior to joining the Sewall Foundation, Gabriela served as the first Managing Director for Equity and Health at Richmond Memorial Health Foundation (RMHF) and as Vice-President for Policy and Program at the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. Gabriela has worked in the philanthropic, academic, government, nonprofit and grassroots sectors throughout her career and served in various volunteer capacities to promote equity.

She earned a DrPH in health administration at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an MPH in maternal and child health at Boston University and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Louisville. A native of Lima, Peru, she currently lives in Maine with her husband, children and pets.

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