Changing the course of the river: A conversation with Prof. Mary Guy on new social equity textbookToula Wellbrook | School of Public Affairs Sep 3, 2020
This year has been like no other in recent history, and issues of social inequity are front and center in the hearts, minds and consciences of many Americans, amidst a pandemic and protests against police violence toward people of color. The timing of the new textbook, “Achieving Social Equity: From Problems to Solutions,” co-written and edited by Mary Guy, professor of Public Affairs at the CU Denver School of Public Affairs, and alumnus Sean McCandless, assistant professor at the University of Illinois – Springfield, could not be better.
The textbook features 13 chapters, written mainly by faculty and doctoral students and alumni at the CU Denver School of Public Affairs, and each chapter delves into a particular lens of social equity:
- Chapter 1: The social equity imperative (PhD alumnus Dr. Sean A. McCandless and Prof. Mary E. Guy)
- Chapter 2: Gender Equity in the Workforce (Dr. Sebawit Bishu)
- Chapter 3: LGBTQ Persons, Allies, and the Pursuit of Social Equity (Doctoral student Jennifer Hooker)
- Chapter 4: Bringing First Nations into the Fray: Indigenous Americans and Social Equity (Dr. John C. Ronquillo)
- Chapter 5: At the Intersection of Identities (PhD alumnus Dr. Nuriel Heckler and Dr. Anthony Starke)
- Chapter 6: Layers of Inequity: The Challenges of Homelessness (PhD alumna Dr. Vanessa M. Fenley)
- Chapter 7: Race, Ethnicity, and Social Equity in Policing (Dr. Andrea M. Headley)
- Chapter 8: How Transit Matters for Social Equity (PhD alumna Dr. Samantha June Larson)
- Chapter 9: Exploring Social Equity in Child Welfare (PhD alumna Dr. Ida Drury)
- Chapter 10: Immigrants and Their Inclusion (Former School of Public Affairs Instructor Dr. Pamela S. Medina)
- Chapter 11: Social Equity and Environmental Justice (PhD alumna Dr. Jennifer A. Kagan)
- Chapter 12: How Administrative Rulemaking Can Advance Social Equity (PhD alumna Dr. Maren B. Trochmann)
- Chapter 13: In Pursuit of Social Equity (Prof. Mary E. Guy and PhD alumnus Dr. Sean A. McCandless)
A conversation with Professor Mary Guy gets to the heart of the lessons of this textbook.
“Everything is in alignment to really pay attention to social equity in a way that far surpasses anything that I had thought of when we were planning the book,” said Prof. Guy, whose motivation for the textbook was born from recognition that it is difficult for faculty to find materials to teach social equity and to integrate it into the classroom. Many materials address race and gender issues, but few expand to broader topics.
“We just have a wonderful cadre of assistant professors [at the CU Denver School of Public Affairs] who are very interested in social justice,” she continued, “and I’ve had the luxury of this wonderful cadre of doctoral students, each of whom has been very interested in social equity from a particular perspective. And I thought, what a way to take advantage of this expertise at a time when it’s being sought and a time when we need it in our teaching.”
When the textbook was published in March, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic across America, Prof. Guy was skeptical that the book would sell, but in fact, she says that book sales have exceeded those of any other book she has produced in her prolific career. She has it on good authority from her publisher that the textbook is being adopted into intro, social equity, ethics and policy classes across the country.
“There is such an interest in it,” says Prof. Guy, “especially now with the pandemic, because COVID -19 is like a magnifying glass; it’s forcing everybody to see the inequities that otherwise they could turn a blind eye to.”
“My dream,” she continued, “is to have any student who graduates from a public administration program understand that throughout their career in public service, they have an obligation and a responsibility to always be sensitive to social equity, to always be asking the questions: ‘Is my program fair to all the constituencies? Is it balanced in its actions?’ And that’s the message we’re hoping all students will take with them when they leave whatever class the textbook is used in and go out into the practice world.”
She says that to achieve the systemic change that leads to social equity, the change has to happen one practitioner at a time, one committee meeting at a time, and one planning meeting at a time, where people are considering who may be advantaged and disadvantaged by the programs being discussed. “When you are in your job and you look around the office and you look at the program you are administering, you must ask the question: ‘What is wrong with this picture?’ In other words, is there someone missing from this conference table? Is there someone missing from this discussion? Are all of us having this discussion looking pretty much alike? Who is being excluded?”
When asked about the barriers to social equity that her students must prepare themselves for when entering the public service workforce, she said that when the students are out working—whether for transportation agencies, in economic development, public education or healthcare—they will just be one of many people working there, many of whom are comfortable with the programs they have. “But,” she said, “those programs have in-built inequities, and you can’t change things overnight. They didn’t get created this way overnight. It takes patience, and it takes the wisdom of seeing the inequity and then judiciously being persuasive and seeing where you can push and where you can’t.”
To her students she offers the metaphor of the path to social equity as a river. “They will never make much progress pushing the river. The river is going to flow. Typically, the most we can do is learn how to sculp the riverbank and know that we’ll change the direction of the flow,” she said, “But what we want to achieve now, will actually take years to have an effect. And it takes patience, it takes perseverance, and it takes a steadiness of course.”
She praises the city of Seattle’s roadmap to social equity, which includes social equity goals, benchmarks and measurements for each city department. “Until we grow accustomed to thinking about equity, having benchmarks and measurements and holding departments and programs accountable is the best way,” she said.
When asked what accountability looks like, she said that she asks herself that same question. “To some degree, the way I answer that,” she said, “is individual accountability. If each person is asked at their annual appraisal or performance evaluation: ‘What have you done to advance social equity in your program?’ that person should be able to articulate an answer and have a heightened sensitivity to it, so that it’s at the personal level. At the same time, at the department level, leadership has to talk about equity and mean it. It’s more than nailing a poster to the wall that says nice things.”
Prof. Guy describes the dynamic tension between power bases, between group identities, between those who feel advantaged and those who feel disadvantaged. “It’s a push and pull,” she says, “and it’s constant.” Nonetheless, Prof. Guy has optimism about a more equitable future.
“We have a generation of college students and graduate students who came of age at a time when the status quo did not work for them,” she says. “They saw their parents get laid off. They saw their parents not have health insurance. They see their parents now not have retirement incomes. They see all the projections that their incomes will be less than their parents’ and less than their grandparents’, so they’re very aware that the system isn’t working for them, and that has heightened their interest in social equity. I think that’s why we have such an interest among college students about leveling the playing field, about having more balance, more fairness.”
Her overarching message is of the constant vigilance it takes to shift power from one group to another. According to Prof. Guy, “No one gives up power of their own. They might scoot over a little bit and make a little bit more room at the table, but you still get the smaller chair. It’s like adding a variable to the equation, and it just has to stay in there. We have to stay aware of it.”