Racial Equity in Public Policy
Tips to Consider
Discussions, like policy advocacy, are more art than science. You have the power to move deftly through a conversation, with complete arguments that draw clear connections between current disparities, historic inequities and effective solutions, and to persistently keep the focus on racial equity. The following tips answer some of the requests we heard from advocates and grantees.
To better understand the current demographics of your community, visit the United States Census Bureau. Learn what tribes are in or near your area, and whether your county abuts sovereign tribal lands. Your state or local public health department may be good sources of information on how that has changed over time, and why. As much as possible, be specific about the racial and ethnic groups in your area rather than speaking in blanket terms. Seek and use disaggregated data, which breaks down information by discrete population groups rather than in broad categories.
Your local historical society may have information about the history of racism in your area—history that likely significantly shapes people’s experiences today. You might even consider creating a timeline of racism and segregation for your state. You may be surprised by some of the historic policies and practices that have deprived certain communities, populations and tribes of economic resources. You can also discuss this with your coalition, but doing your own homework first is essential. One tool to try: An interactive site from Mapping Inequality embeds 1930s redlining maps from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation on a map of the United States. Select a city to see the old map images and the ratings given to different communities. Seeing how areas where you live were made inaccessible to Black residents less than 100 years ago (and often continuing today) is a stark reminder of barriers to equity and inclusion.
This “Researching Roots of Community Inequity and Health” worksheet can help with this mapping.
Strategic policy advocacy includes building a coalition representing the many perspectives, voices and communities that care about and can help advance a bill, regulation or other policy. Community members most affected by an issue are the best people to help you understand lived experience, impact of current policies and priorities; define the issue and identify solutions; and customize the messages. Listen. A conservative decision-maker said that she always asks advocates if they have talked to other stakeholders who may be allies or may have concerns. Anticipate this, and bring community members, local stakeholders or other organizations to your meetings with decision-makers. Information about where other groups and organizations stand might prove to be effective supporting statements.
Asset-based language focuses on positive outcomes, personal strengths, aspirations and contributions. This framing makes it much easier for people to see that the problem is not the person but situations and systems that block their worthy aspiration.
In contrast, deficit-based language—focusing solely on disproportionate outcomes, barriers and risks—can reinforce negative stereotypes and perceptions, and can imply that negative conditions are impossible to change. While it is important to be clear about disparities, this must be coupled with information about their structural causes.
In the words of Opportunity Agenda, as social justice advocates, we should be accustomed to centering the voices of those who are most affected by any issue. This does not mean expecting only people of color and Indigenous peoples to speak out about racism. It also does not mean asking members of each group to relive their particular oppression by describing it or giving examples of it for the benefit of the larger movement. There is room for many voices and a role for different people with different audiences to do the work of changing the narrative about race in this country. Talk openly with your coalition about which role each person will carry.
- Focus on an area you know is a priority for the decision-maker—for example, people living in rural areas or working families.
- Use stories from their district. Use power mapping to find someone who may have a connection to the decision-maker through church, work, civic organizations, etc.
- Tell stories through the lens of community—that is, describe how the beverage industry markets more heavily in communities of color, show the community conditions that make it hard for the mom to get to the grocery store, or describe what food and physical activity looks like in some child care settings—then talk about the impact this has on individuals and families. This helps keep the focus on policies and conditions, and avoid the default to individual responsibility.
- Talk about where there is success—specifically within communities of color.
- Show, by example, how policy change can create the change the community wants to see.
- Share a story about a good policy that’s not doing all it’s intended to do because it didn’t start where the need is greatest. Describe how it would be more efficient and effective if that had happened.
- Share what other decision-makers in similar places are doing and the results their actions are creating.
- Show or describe a contrast between areas. For inspiration, see this New York Times feature.
- For examples of success stories you can use in your work, please visit www.voicesforhealthykids.org/success-stories.
Most decision-makers—and most people in general—get lost in too many numbers and statistics. Have one or two great data points, and illustrate them well. Walk through the points and help the decision-maker connect the dots to see the racial disparities. Some ideas:
- Maps are rapidly digestible and can boost the effectiveness of your message.
- Show which areas lack grocery stores or sidewalks, or are overloaded with sugary-drink marketing and convenience stores. For maps that might support your work, visit County Health Rankings and Roadmaps. Check Voices for Healthy Kids toolkits for infographics you can use and adapt to convey your data. Also see Voices for Healthy Kids and AHA’s Fast Facts on our policy priorities.
- Use social math  to help people contextualize, visualize and understand whether the data reflect something big or small, and whether they show progress or backward movement. For example, break down numbers by:
- Time (“This is the equivalent of 50 kids every class period.”)
- Place (“That is enough to fill our high school stadium 30 times over.”)
- Comparison with familiar things (“Last year, schools served the equivalent of 70 railcars full of apples each lunch period.”)
- Ironic comparisons (“We spend 10 times more money on pizza in a year than we spend on x.”)
- Personalized numbers (“This means more than x for each child.”)
Some decision-makers say they want to see that focusing policy—and allocating funding—differently makes economic sense. So it wasn’t surprising that in our message testing, one of the most persuasive points for focusing policies where the need is greatest, especially in communities experiencing structural racism was this:
A study by the financial company Citigroup estimates that systemic racism faced by Black people over the last 20 years has cost the U.S. economy $16 trillion, including gaps in wages, access to housing and higher education, and investment in Black-owned businesses.
Other decision-makers are wary of economic data, saying that cost-based arguments can be overused and that some of the claims (e.g., “Spend $1 now, get $33 in return.”) feel unrealistic. If you do use cost information, keep in mind that without a values-based conversation first, an economic case can trigger short-term or scarcity thinking versus long-term thinking, individual responsibility values, and questions about deservingness. So be sure to sandwich it in between values messages: first values, then requested details about cost, then back to values.
-  Trabian Shorters, “Asset Framing: The Other Side of the Story,” The Communications Network. https://www.comnetwork.org/resources/asset-framing-the-other-side-of-the-story/.
-  This paragraph adapted from: “Ten Lessons for Talking About Race, Racism and Racial Justice,” The Opportunity Agenda, (updated July 2020).
-  Jeff Niederdeppe, Sungjong Roh and Caitlin Dreisbach, “How Narrative Focus and a Statistical Map Shape Health Policy Support Among State Legislators,” Health Communication 31, no. 2 (2016): 242-255. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26086340/.
-  Lawrence Wallack, Katie Woodruff, Lori Dorfman and Iris Diaz, News for a Change: An Advocate’s Guide to Working with the Media, (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 1999).
-  “Closing the Racial Inequality Gaps: The Economic cost of Black Inequality in the U.S.,” Citi Global Perspectives & Solutions Report (September 2020), https://www.citivelocity.com/citigps/closing-the-racial-inequality-gaps/
-  “Talking About Budgets and Taxes,” FrameWorks Institute, https://www.frameworksinstitute.org/toolkit/talking-about-budgets-and-taxes/.