Equity Audits as a Tool for Change: Holding Up a Mirror to Organizational Practices
An increasing number of informal STEM education (ISE) institutions and organizations have committed to become more equitable and inclusive in their strategic approach and organizational practice. Centering equity requires organizations to recognize the interconnectedness of internal operations and externally-focused work and examine institutional structures, policies, processes, and culture. Conducting an “equity audit” is one strategy that can help organizations take stock and create accountability for addressing and making progress toward equity.
In this blog the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE), the resource center for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program from 2007-2022, shares our work conducting an equity audit. We hope that some of our experiences and lessons-learned will be helpful to other ISE organizations and projects in centering equity. (For an overview of our process, watch the recorded presentation where we describe on our goals and strategy for the audit. We also recorded our team members’ reflections on the nuances and challenges of our approach, which we share in linked video clips throughout this piece and in this playlist.)
CAISE’s charge from NSF was to strengthen and advance the informal STEM education (ISE) and science communication (SciComm) field, including science centers and museums. We provided infrastructure, resources, and connectivity for informal STEM learning practitioners, researchers, evaluators, and others. Attending broadly to DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) was also part of our charge with regard to how we serve our professional audiences. Our 2019 Broadening Perspectives on Broadening Participation toolkit is one example of such work, which also planted the seed for our seven-person team at CAISE to turn a mirror internally and critically examine the equity of our own operations and identify strengths, gaps, and opportunities to more deeply center equity in our practices. During our early considerations, racial equity became the focus of our audit, as racial inequity underlies every part of our society, including in informal STEM education. (Watch the video where we discuss the consideration process here.)
What is an equity audit?
An equity audit involves collecting and systematically reviewing a range of data sources to leverage accountability in making progress toward greater equity (Capper et al., 2020, Skrla et al., 2009). Results from an audit can identify areas of strength to build on, as well as gaps and opportunities to address equity in an organization’s or project’s structures and practices. Ultimately, an audit can help teams develop and monitor concrete action plans and milestones. Conducting an equity audit also reflected CAISE’s commitment to strengthen the resource center and engage in a process that we hoped we could share with others to help organizations interested in taking practical actions to achieve their equity goals.
There is no standard method or formula for conducting an equity audit, in part because it needs to be tailored for the specific context. But audits as a strategy to address organizational inequity have also been less prevalent, particularly in the ISE field. CAISE found some helpful, relevant evidence-based work in the formal K-12 education sector (Green, 2016 and Skrla, 2009), and as we developed our plan, we drew on our own experiences observing and working on equity in informal learning settings, as well as external expertise.
Our plan for the audit focused on these key questions:
- To what extent, and in what ways, have CAISE’s internal structures, processes and practices been attending to racial equity?
- To what extent, and in what ways, have CAISE’s key activities and initiatives been focused broadly on equity and more specifically on racial equity?
- To what extent, and in what ways, if at all, has CAISE been a leader in the ISE field in centering, advancing, or modeling racial equity?
We also focused on gathering data and feedback, surfacing issues, and integrating lessons learned into new inquiries and actions. This graphic illustrates our initial conception of how the audit could work.
Seven Lessons CAISE Learned from our Equity Audit
1. Focus on organizational-level systems and use an evidence-based framework: Focusing at the organizational level helped us consider how all the elements of our organization were (or were not) aligned to support equity. To help structure our work, and after reviewing several frameworks, CAISE selected the Awake to Woke to Work framework from Equity in the Center (EiC). It identifies seven “levers” that can be used to make progress toward racial equity. (Watch the video where we discuss the value of the framework here.)
The stages of Awake to Woke to Work are in the center of the circle and the levers are in the outer circle. Each organization will be at some point along the Awake to Woke to Work continuum with regard to each lever.
Grounding our efforts in a framework helped CAISE conceptualize the stages of our development toward racial equity. No single framework will work for every organization; further, as we found, a chosen framework may not perfectly align with the organization’s structure and needs. But having a strong evidence-based template to use meant that the issues, and the levers suggested for addressing them, were broadly recognizable and actionable.
2. Develop a shared vision and language
Getting clear on our vision for the equity audit was critical and required multiple discussions, both within the team, and with the NSF AISL program. CAISE also recognized there are many ways of defining equity; we decided to use the EiC’s definition of racial equity: “the condition where one’s racial identity has no influence on how one fares in society”–a criterion that we continued to revisit throughout the process. A useful exercise at the outset was to do some level-setting, including reflecting on the terms used in the EiC framework glossary, noting where team members first encountered the terminology and whether and how they grappled with particular concepts. (Watch a video where we discuss level-setting here.)
3. Engage a cross-project (or organization) team and work to build trust
Given CAISE’s size, our whole team was expected to participate in the equity audit. Two CAISE co-principal investigators (co-PIs) (and lead authors of this piece) led the audit, with the participation and support of the project director, two center staff, and two additional co-PIs. Team members engaged in audit activities throughout the process, although individuals’ level of involvement necessarily varied depending on their availability to participate directly in all activities. A broad range of voices and perspectives was critical to the process. While that may not be practical in larger organizations, it is still important to include individuals from across the organization (e.g., in different departments, roles, and tenure) to actively lead and participate in the process. (Watch a video where we discuss team trust here.)
4. Build in flexibility and plan for an iterative process
CAISE recognized from the outset that the audit would likely generate emergent questions and themes in real time that would warrant deeper investigation and even, possibly, a shift of audit priorities. Building in flexibility meant that we could respond to what we were learning and to the feedback we received. Iteration also required building in time and space for reflection and decision-making along the way and often in real-time. This adaptability became particularly important as the timing of the audit coincided with our planning and implementation of a major CAISE deliverable–hosting the 2021 AISL program Awardee meeting. Being flexible meant that we could integrate what we were learning from the audit into our strategies for developing a more equitable meeting.
Throughout the process, CAISE learned the importance of creating a team culture and a set of practices that would support carrying out the equity audit, including building trust, holding space for vulnerable conversations about equity, aligning on concepts and common language, and acknowledging the diverse lived experiences related to equity that exist within the team. It also allowed the team to hold each other accountable for acting on and meeting stated equity-focused decisions, behaviors, goals.
5. Seek input from external advisors and critical colleagues
CAISE convened an external committee of eight professionals with varied expertise and experience in equity work to help inform our approach and provide ongoing feedback and insights during the equity audit process. Committee members were paid an honorarium in an intentional effort to acknowledge and compensate for advisory work that is often requested on a pro bono basis, especially from BIPOC-identifying individuals. Our intention was that input from the committee would help ensure that CAISE was accountable to the audit’s goals. The actionable feedback from the committee on documents, current plans, processes, and the Awardee Meeting planning in particular proved invaluable. (For more information about the purpose and charge of the committee, watch the video here, starting at 11:13.)
6. Create, and/or leverage reflective tools
As CAISE progressed through the audit, we recognized the need for additional tools beyond the starting point that the EiC framework provided. We needed ways to systematically assess the processes we were using, monitor the presence or absence of specific equity indicators, and make decisions in real time. Since the team was conducting the equity audit while simultaneously planning and hosting the Awardee meeting, we developed several rubrics and tailored checklists that provided us with structure and accountability for both efforts. A racial equity rubric we developed, for example, was instrumental in helping the CAISE team identify where and/or how issues or practices of inequity had previously (and could later) show up at the meeting, as well as potential steps to prevent or address them.
An example of how CAISE used our racial equity rubric to investigate patterns of inequity for meeting planning. Download a blank version of this tool by clicking the link above.
We also created an equity criteria list for the Awardee meeting and later adapted it for use as an “equity check-in” at the beginning of all CAISE meetings (both staff-only and weekly all-team meetings). Check-ins required us to intentionally set aside time for individual and group reflection on equity-related issues and opportunities that had emerged over the previous week, and to be attentive to ones that seemed to be on the horizon. Each check-in was framed around these questions:
- Who or what is being centered in this process or decision?
- Are we defaulting to what we’ve typically done?
- Are we defaulting to who we know?
- How is our language aligned with an equity focus?
- How are we ensuring that we are not overburdening BIPOC CAISE team members on equity-focused tasks and efforts?
7. Be attentive to overburdening BIPOC staff
Having two CAISE co-PIs lead the equity audit grounded the work in the leadership team and provided direct, consistent access to personnel and resources. However, CAISE relied heavily on the two co-leads—who identify as Black and Latina respectively—to coordinate the audit process. While all team members played important roles in various audit activities, we did not adequately define explicit roles for other team members at the outset. This led to a disproportionately higher level of BIPOC team member work compared to that of White team members. This pattern is often seen in equity work and was an issue that the team noted in our equity rubrics and checklists. We discussed this inequity of labor at length when we debriefed about our experiences.and we recommend that future equity audits conducted by other organizations or teams would benefit from ongoing review of team roles over the course of their own processes. (Watch a discussion about our experiences of, and reflections on this and related challenges here.)
Overall Reflections and Recommendations
While the purpose of the equity audit was to to investigate and reflect on CAISE’s racial equity practices, it was always our intention to be transparent about what we learned and share what might be applicable and useful for others. Our original timeline for the equity audit was about six months but due to other ongoing work it expanded to about 18 months including planning, and conducting the audit. That said, we aren’t positioned to recommend a set amount of time or funding necessary for any organization or project to conduct an audit of this type. As mentioned above, our situation was unique in that we were simultaneously charged to concurrently plan and implement the 2021 AISL program Awardee meeting. Our circumstances extended the time frame needed to conduct the audit, but also provided us with a real time activity in which to apply what we were learning from the process.
We note, however, that dedicated, focused staff time is required and, if external expertise is to be sought—which we also highly recommend—adequate funding is essential to support engaging others’ expertise and input. We also suggest taking the time to research and create, and/or adapt tools, rubrics, and other resources that are appropriate and useful for your organization or project.
Finally, as this endeavor may be a new, uncharted approach for an organization, we encourage teams conducting an equity audit to be flexible and attentive to the ideas, tensions and opportunities that emerge throughout the process. Perhaps the most important lesson that we learned was to prioritize and protect time to build capacity for the entire team to collectively pause and reflect honestly on our practices and to be willing to respond by making changes. (To hear CAISE’s overall reflections on lessons learned watch the video here.)
Special thanks to the CAISE Equity Audit Committee: Jennifer Adams, Calgary University; Phillip Bell, University of Washington; Dionne Champion, University of Florida; Joanne Jones-Rizzi, Science Museum of Minnesota; Nancy Maryboy, Indigenous Education Institute; Andrew Plumley, American Alliance of Museums; Robert Ulrich, University of California Los Angeles; Tifferney White, Discovery Place
Bevan, C., Calabrese Barton, A., and Garibay, C. (2018). Broadening Perspectives on Broadening Participation in STEM: Critical Perspectives on the Role of Science Engagement. Washington, DC: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education.
Capper, C. A., Young, M. D., & Frattura, E. (2020). The Equity Audit as the Core of Leading. In Leadership for Increasingly Diverse Schools (pp. 259-272). Routledge.
Equity in the Center, (2018). Awake to woke to work: Building a race equity culture. Equity in the Center. Retrieved from: https://equityinthecenter.org/resources.
Green, T.L., “Community-Based Equity Audits: A Practical Approach for Educational Leaders to Support Equitable Community-School Improvements.” Educational Administration Quarterly, 53:1, 2017, p. 5.
Skrla, L., McKenzie, K. B., and Scheurich, J. J. (2009). Using equity audits to create equitable and excellent schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.