Putting Equity into Practice: A Perspective from My Professional Journey

Altinay Cortes, MSW, is program associate for the New Connections program and a consultant at Equal Measure.

Equity is a term used frequently and in new spaces every day. But what does this term mean, and how can we practice equity?  To start, my organization, Equal Measure, defines equity as existing “when individuals, in any community or organization, have equal opportunity to overcome structural barriers and achieve success. When equity is present, all perspectives are acknowledged and considered, and people can truly exercise agency and power when making decisions that affect their lives.”

That definition resonates strongly with me, as I have experienced its relevance in different stages of my career. For more than ten years as a social worker, I helped students who viewed higher education as an achievable and worthwhile goal by helping them navigate the often confusing and difficult transition from high school to college. Most of those students were first generation college students and/or minorities with little knowledge about the college admissions process. As a result of services such as educational workshops and one-on-one counseling and mentoring, I believe I helped place them on a path to overcome structural barriers and achieve academic success.

That is what equity looks like in practice.

Over the last two years, I transitioned my focus to working with early- and mid-career academicians and researchers. As a consultant for Equal Measure, I am also the program associate for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) New Connections (NC) program. Equal Measure serves as the National Program Office for New Connections. RWJF created the program, in part, to provide research grant funding, networking, and skill-building opportunities to scholars from backgrounds that are historically disadvantaged or underrepresented in research disciplines. Through the program, I have worked closely with scholars who are often isolated at their institutions and research organizations and are overlooked for funding—which is vital to advance independent research and publications for tenure and promotion. Often, these researchers lack mentorship and could benefit from opportunities to build networks and further hone the skills needed to successfully navigate academia.

Prior to working for New Connections—and even through my experience at Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania—I never realized that there were inequitable practices in academia among lecturers and tenured professors. However, according to a blog authored by my colleague, Tia Burroughs, “in the nation’s colleges and universities, minorities are underrepresented in tenure track and tenured faculty positions. While Blacks and Latinos make up 13% and 12 % of the student population respectively, each group only accounts for 3% of full-time professors. Native Americans account for less than 1% of full-time professors.” And Brent Langellier, a Drexel University professor and NC grantee, emphasizes, “I see inherent unfairness in the fact that the neighborhood you’re born in, or the color of your skin, or how much money your parents have, are so consequential—not just for where you end up, but the opportunities you have to get anywhere else.”

This is why the work of New Connections is so vital. The program has contributed to the professional development of over 170 funded researchers and more than 900 diverse scholars, who have taken advantage of New Connections’ workshops, trainings, and networking opportunities—such as the annual Symposium, Research & Coaching Clinic; and leadership, writing, and methodological training through webinars, workshops, and regional forums and meetings. I have attended many New Connections events and have felt the impact of being in a room of diverse scholars. There is a sense of community and solidarity, and everyone has such a deeply felt commitment to helping each other.

But there is still much work to do. As Keisha Bentley-Edwards, a New Connections scholar and professor of general internal medicine at Duke University, notes, “When you’re the only black woman in the room, when you’re often working in elite circles where you are the first or you are the only, there is a toll to be paid.” She believes that the constant pressure of feeling like you must represent more than yourself at any given time can be stressful and exhausting, and even have negative health implications. Jonathan Kahn, James E. Kelley Professor of Law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, writes that institutions like universities “need to develop not only cultural competence, but also “structural competence”—an awareness of the social and historical legacies that shape how the institutions in which they work are part of a broader system that perpetuates racial inequity.” New Connections aims to elevate and provide resources to people from diverse backgrounds so that there will be more Native, Southeast Asian, Latinx, Black, disabled, and/or rural representation in academia. Representation matters, and it is vital that research and academic institutions do the work required to create environments where traditionally underrepresented faculty and students are given an equitable chance to thrive.

That is what equity looks like in practice.