Kelly mentioned “social equity” in her blog topic on Chaske Spencer and Native Americans Giving Back, and it got me to thinking, just what is social equity? Well, there are many broad definitions and there are many focused definitions. And although the definitions vary slightly based on the field of study or the context of topic being discussed, the theme remains the same:
Social equity “implies fair access to livelihood, education, and resources; full participation in the political and cultural life of the community; and self-determination in meeting fundamental needs.”
So, how does social equity apply to Native Americans? Well, to begin with, many Native Americans do not have fair access to these things. There is a disparity that extends into Indian country and the results are terrible – without open and fair access to these things, the conditions of poverty are aggravated. And this is not something that happened recently, or as a result of an inability to try.
I have seen firsthand the courage and determination and steadfast adherence to a plan to “make things better” for a family or community, yet that plan falls short for reasons as simple as lack of resources. This lack can be insufficient funds for a community project such as a garden where hoses, tools and other equipment are needed to raise healthy natural food for a community. Or, it can be loss of hope in the face of incredible and extreme hardship… lack of money for heat in the winter, or food to feed the family, or transportation to get to work or take the kids to Head Start in the morning.
When I think about equity, I don’t think of equality (which is important too), but rather, I think of fairness. In an attempt to clearly define social equity, it was stated:
“To be clear, ‘equity’ and ‘equality’ are terms that are often used interchangeably, and to a large extent, they have similar meanings. The difference is one of nuance: while equality can be converted into a mathematical measure in which equal parts are identical in size or number, equity is a more flexible measure allowing for equivalency while not demanding sameness.”
I like this facet of the definition because we are not all the same. We do not have same cultural or religious beliefs, yet we all deserve the fairness that social equity implies. Nobody should be left out of this life. We should all have fair access to food, shelter, education. We should all have open participation in what is happening in our community and the opportunity to meet our own fundamental needs.
But, this is not the case for all of us. Native Americans have been dealing with issues of social inequity for decades, as we navigated treaties that were unfair and continuously altered to benefit the growing non-Native American population of the United States. This was the case with my tribe and our original homelands. We were sent to live on a tiny reservation along the Minnesota River, until the U.S. decided to waive their obligations to the 1851 treaty and ultimately kicked the Sisseton and Wahpeton out of Minnesota.
My point is this: The lack of social equity is really everybody’s problem. We are all a part of this complex mess of how to be fair and how to allow all the citizens of the U.S. fair access to everything that they need in life. And I’m not talking about the latest cell phone or a tablet to watch Netflix movies on while they wait for their plane to Florida for vacation. I’m talking about fair access to basic human needs such as food, clean water, education, adequate housing and the ability to forge their own livelihood and contribute to decisions that affect their community. I’m talking about the opportunity to create projects in a community that bring sustainable impact for everyone in that community. I’m talking about the opportunity to learn and to attend college so that communities can have Native American doctors, nurses, electricians, architects, community developers and business people.
Social equity is about ensuring and creating equal access to basic needs and opportunity so that individuals and families can share in a reasonable quality of life.
I remember a little Sisseton Wahpeton boy that was hungry at school because he missed breakfast. And I remember how that little boy was sent to the principal’s office that same morning, where he ate a bowl of cereal and had a small juice, because the teacher and the principal knew the boy was hungry and they simply wanted to help.
That little boy was me…and I will always remember that. And it’s not that I was hungry because my parents didn’t care or because they didn’t love me, but rather, we simply didn’t have the resources or the access to them. We did the best we could, and sometimes that meant falling just a little bit short. Sometimes you just need help from those that are able and willing to reach out.
We can all play a part in ensuring Native Americans have fair access to the things we should all enjoy as citizens of the United States and as human beings. And whether you donate money to make life better for the people that National Relief Charities serves, or you donate material goods and services, or you simply donate your voice to create awareness of the issue, it all helps. Whatever you do makes a difference.