January was a busy policy month in the US. In this episode I take a close look at one part of the Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, and suggest an action that anyone (including federal agencies) can take when it comes to enhacing equity through policy.
(PS I recorded this episode at the end of January, but it’s published in February, so “this month” = Jan 2021 🙂
In today’s episode, I’m talking about policy. Multiple policies came out of Washington this month, focused on action toward different kinds of equity. One in particular has a kind of request in it about how they might move forward. So I’m going to weigh in with my suggestion for these federal agencies, but it’s something that you can also do in your organization–no matter where you are.
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Right so I am talking about policy. Why? And why on this show? This story kind of starts several years ago. People are telling me I should talk a little bit more about what I do, because it’s not always evident. I do a lot of educating in this series and beyond. I’m a consultant. I help people and entities all across the health sector have more equitable and impactful communication and education. But where does policy come into this, and why am I talking about it?
So several years ago, when I was defending my dissertation, it, my dissertation also included policy. And my chair, Dr. Susan Lytle at Penn GSE (hi Susan!), she said to me, she’s like, “this dissertation could not have existed 10 years ago.” And what she meant by that was that–my research was on a lot of ordinary people and their encounters with education policy. And now policy is in the air, you know? It’s not something that we can really ignore.
Now maybe policy is your job and you talk about it all the time. If so, I’d be really interested in what you have to say about what I’m going to share. But if you’re not someone whose job involves policy but you care about equity, I’m going to suggest you’ve got to keep your eye on the ball, now. Even in my dissertation, I wrote, “we are all policy people now.”
As I wrote on healthcommunicationpartners.com earlier this month, the US House Ways and Means Committee released a new document. It outlines policy pillars and priorities, and it’s called A Bold Vision for a Legislative Pathway Toward Health and Economic Equity. And they gave us a report called Something Must Change: Inequities in U.S. Policy and Society. I’ve got links in the show notes to them.
And then on January 20th, President Biden issued an Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. Again links in the notes. So among many other things, this Executive Order contains a request and that’s what I want to kind of focus on now. I’ll tell you what it is, and then I’ll share my response. I’ll set it up first with a brief excerpt. And this is from the Executive Order, from the White House Briefing Room website. And it says:
“The federal government’s goal in advancing equity is to provide everyone with the opportunity to reach their full potential. Consistent with these aims, each agency must assess whether and to what extent its programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups.”
Now that’s the, that’s the kind of backdrop. The request comes a few lines later, for “study methods for assessing whether agency policies and actions create or exacerbate barriers to full and equal participation by all eligible individuals.”
Now to be clear, the way I read it, the agencies are being asked to study barriers. Speficially, whether “agency policies and actions create or exacerbate barriers.” And I’ve got lots of thoughts on this! I, I bet you do too.
But one of the things that jumped out to me first was that hey, this is reflective! This is their stopping and looking at what they are already doing, to see if maybe they are unintentionally contributing to inequalities! Right? And I think that’s a very smart step.
It also is going to take a certain kind of bravery for these federal agencies. Because it’s not easy to admit that sometimes the call comes from inside the house. That sometimes we all can be doing things that unintentionally are working against our stated goals. So first of all, yay! for the kind of reflective stance that this takes.
Now that request for what these agencies can do, to see if they’re getting in their own way, as far as promoting equity. There is where I want to go ahead and make a suggestion. Now there are a lot of ways to approach policy. But right now I’m going to suggest something that these federal agencies can do. But it’s also something you can do if you are interested in thinking about policy and its relationships to what’s going on in your organization. Whatever your organization is, wherever you are in it.
It’s not going to surprise you, but it has to do with language.
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Now, let me explain a little bit. People who look at language and literacy in the way that I do, we approach language use as a structure. We see it as a social structure. And you heard me before say, if you’re talking about structural inequalities, one structure you could look at is language. Language is a bunch of structures, right, we’re all participating in it. And it’s very strong! Language is a very durable structure, and it has real effects. Right? Conversations are structures we participate in every day. Written texts are structures. Now we’re getting into the territory of laws and policies.
So these written texts, these structures, can be analyzed for how they’re made, what they hold in, and what they try to keep out. Who they allow to matter, and who’s not allowed to belong. All of this happens through the written text. And I spent a fair amount of time trying to draw a line from the ways we use language through to equity, all across this series, and this is another example.
In policies, words matter. Through specific word choices, policies have social effects. Different word choices lead to different effects. So I’m going to suggest federal agencies begin by reading their policies. Studying them, their own policies, as written texts. I suggest the agencies read their own policies carefully, as if they were seeing them for the first time.
Now there are many ways to read texts like this, and many questions you could ask. But I’m going to give one question that’s inspired by a similar question my mentor has used to analyze federal education policy. And it’s this: what images of people emerge in these policies? How are people portrayed in this policy through the use of specific terms, phrases, or discourses?
For instance, if your goal is equity, and you want to treat people with dignity and respect, is the language of your policy reflecting that? Are the images of people that emerge when you read your own policy, images of dignity and respect?
Let me be clear: I’m not talking about simply going in and swapping out some terms for others. I’m talking about noticing the assumptions about people underneath specific word choices in these policies. It’s hard to imagine a more concrete example of the relationships between words and action than there are in federal-level policies. What we don’t want–in old policies or new ones–is the same old set of assumptions that got us here in the first place.
As I’ve said before, since language is powerful enough to contribute to health disparities, I suggest it’s powerful enough to reduce them.
So I’m suggesting you wherever you are, you can do something very concrete and straightforward. Find a policy in your organization. Like, literally the text. Print it out or take a screenshot. Read it, and mark it up! How’s it sound? Do you hear dignity and respect in the words? Are the people who are the subject of this policy written about in a way that reflects dignity and respect? If not, make some noise! I like to think this is kind of a punk attitude toward policy action. Anyone can do it. Anyone. You don’t have to have a degree in it. You just decide that reading a policy and commenting on in your organization is what you want to do, and you go after it. The only qualification you need is the desire. It’s on you to turn that desire into action.
If you want some support in doing this, I’ve got two options for you. Our Addressing Implicit Bias 2nd edition helps you examine language and its often-hidden connections to bias. It’s an audiobook, ebook, there’s links, powerpoint shows, resources. It’s affordable, and your purchases support this podcast series. Digital download, immediately available. If you’re an instructor and you’re looking for something that’s handy and digital for your classes, go ahead and ask me: we’ve got institutional copies.
Your second option is contacting me for support. Write me at annemarie at h-cpartners dot com. Find me on Twitter at amliebel, or message me on linked. That includes you too, President and Doctor Biden. This is 10 Minutes to Better Patient Communication from Health Communication Partners, a health equity focused education and communication Consultantcy. Written and hosted by me, Dr. Anne Marie Liebel. Audio engineering and music by Joe Liebel.