Equity Audits: Using Data to Drive Equitable Change
Recently, Every Hour Counts hosted a data symposium titled “Putting Data to Work for Young People: Collecting, Interpreting, and Using Data to Advance and Drive Continuous Improvement.” At the symposium, Providence After School Alliance (PASA), a longtime member of the Every Hour Counts network, led a session about their equity audit. In the session, PASA described how one organization can use the Every Hour Counts Measurement Framework to put equity at the forefront of their data collection efforts. The following is a recollection of their journey as told through their session.
PASA’s Equity Journey
PASA’s mission is to help close persistent opportunity gaps by expanding and improving quality after-school, summer, and other out-of-school time learning opportunities for all youth living in Providence, Rhode Island, by organizing a sustainable public-private partnership that contributes to student success. They have raised over $24 million to transform the lives of over 16,000 middle and high school students, who are primarily Latinx and Black. PASA’s strong focus on equity began in 2018–2019, when their senior-level directors attended conferences and symposiums across the country to learn more about equity and to identify ways to adequately meet the needs of their local population.
In 2020, Providence youth experienced disproportionate impacts of COVID shutdowns, and, at the same time, the series of high-profile murders of Black people resulted in a racial reckoning across the country. These two events prompted PASA to think of new ways to inform their equity work. A group of self-selected staff formed a committee on diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging. The committee focused discussions on how to weave equity into the organization and their work, and examined questions like who has power, who sets policies, and who makes decisions. They also discussed larger national issues, such as the role of policing, and how those impacted their work.
The committee sought to establish short-, intermediate-, and long-term equity goals for the organization. The group identified questions they could tackle themselves, such as finding and engaging experienced facilitators to provide a training series focused on these areas. At the same time, the committee also engaged with other, much larger questions, such as designing engagements with the Providence police and education departments. For these larger questions, PASA turned to the Every Hour Counts Measurement Framework, and more specifically the equity questions, to help inform their strategy and what they wanted to investigate. PASA engaged an outside consultant to conduct an equity audit to help identify any gaps and why they existed.
Data Collection Challenges
The equity audit surfaced a need for additional data to examine gaps in services. For example, PASA did not have access to any demographic information about youth participants (i.e., race, ethnicity, limited English proficiency status, individualized education program status), and thus could not disaggregate data to know if distribution was equitable. Additional demographic data would enable PASA to answer important questions about access to services, such as whether multilingual learners and differently abled youth participate at the same levels as their English-speaking and mainstream classroom peers. The data would also allow PASA to explore the root causes of inequities.
PASA previously received demographic information directly from Providence Schools. When that agreement ended, they considered adding demographic questions to their registration process, but hesitated because families had already expressed concern about its length. PASA decided against collecting demographic information during registration, but later found, through the equity audit, that they needed this information. Interestingly, when PASA added the demographic questions last academic year, most families selected "prefer not to answer." Even though this information is essential to ensure equitable service delivery and outcome, families’ perspectives on sharing demographic information must be respected and better woven into the narrative of youth-focused equity work.
A Holistic Approach to Organizational Changes
Through the equity audit, PASA realized that small changes could address equity in the Providence community without prohibitive costs or increased staffing.
- At the youth level, the audit revealed that while there were pockets of strong youth voice and decision making (e.g., involving high schoolers in the interviewing and hiring process for program director positions), this type of access did not exist organization-wide. PASA revived the practice of having youth review program proposals and helping select the programs offered in the next season.
- At the program level, they aimed to become more linguistically inclusive by translating their online registration portal into multiple languages. While all printed materials were already available in both English and Spanish, the online system allows far more families to access the registration materials in their preferred language.
- At the systems level, they aimed to better reflect the community PASA serves. To diversify their senior level applicant pool, PASA revised their job postings to highlight the heart of their work, reflect the organization's culture, explicitly state PASA's commitment to equity, and identify the attributes of ideal candidates for positions. PASA saw an immediate change in the racial and linguistic make-up of highly qualified applicants and, through the widespread staff turnover the country experienced post-COVID, saw the demographics of the senior team shift from 17% to 67% people of color. Additionally, most of the senior team grew up in Providence or similar communities and have a deep understanding of the youth served by PASA.
Shifting Perspective on Youth
Finally, the equity audit led PASA to shift their perspective on youth, their agency, and programming. Focus groups revealed that staff viewed youth as a monolith, as opposed to a diverse group of young people with varying preferences and strengths. Youth who attended programming frequently had a voice and were represented, but those who were multilingual learners or differently abled students had fewer opportunities to share. The equity audit allowed PASA to address these issues.
The audit was well timed, with its findings coinciding with the release of Every Hour Counts' Youth Voice Initiative request for proposals. Through this new project, PASA is partnering with Young Voices, a Providence nonprofit that excels at youth agency, to put youth at the center of identifying needed changes and how to make them. In this way, the adults at PASA are stepping back to let the youth guide them into the future.