CMA Stories

Examining Equity with Robert Sember and Listening to the LES

Frankie, one of the P.S. 140 students, explains the difference between equality, equity, and liberation.

As our month of examining Equity comes to a close, we asked our neighbors at Artists Space, a non-profit art gallery and arts organization, for their thoughts. Within their arts education program, Expanded Art Ideas, the students took a closer look at equity, differences in equality, and privilege alongside Teaching Artist Robert Sember. Their group, Listening to the LES, is a new media art project at P.S. 140 with special education students in Grades 5 and 6. It is lead by Robert Sember, member of sound art collective Ultra-Red. Find his reflection below.

On the Difference between Equality and Equity

as heard by Robert Sember

I am a sound artist. Photographers use cameras to collect light. Sound artists use microphones to collect sounds. Listening is the most important part of my work. I like to listen to the sounds I collect. I especially like to listen with other people. When we listen together and talk about what we hear we teach each other about the world.

For the past two years I have collected sounds and listened with student sound artists at P.S. 140 in Manhattan. We have walked around the city with microphones collecting sounds. This is a way of exploring how and why different parts of the city sound different. We also find old sound recordings of the city. When we listen to those we hear how the city has changed over time.

Recently, we discussed the difference between equality, equity, and privilege. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to learn about these ideas by going into the city and making sound recordings so we listened to each other and our school to see what we could learn.

It was hard at first to understand the difference between equality, equity, and privilege. Being equal is good. Treating everyone the same sounds like the best thing we can do so we thought equality sounded best. Equity sounds like equality so we thought it was basically the same thing. And, it sounds good to be privileged because it is like having a special ability. But as we looked more deeply into these ideas and learned more about them we started hearing the difference.

Some of us have more than others just because of who we are. It is not just that we have more things; we actually have more power. With more power we can take up more space and can push other people out of the way. For example, in the neighborhoods around our school wealthier people are moving in because they can afford the high rents. As a result, people who have lived in these neighborhoods for a long time are being forced to move. Sometimes they even have to leave the city altogether because they can no longer afford to live here.

In our classroom, we noticed that those of us who identify as or are seen by others to be men sometimes feel that we have the right, the privilege, to control things. In our classroom this can mean that the men will talk more than the women. Sometimes we even interrupt women when they are speaking. We do not always do this consciously. Our privilege as men is so normal that we just take it for granted that this is how things are. This difference in power even happens between the men in the class. We talked, for example, of how difference in height can be connected to difference in power. Taller people do take up more space and sometimes take control of things like basketball games.

If you already have more power than someone else and then everyone gets the same thing, it means that differences or inequalities continue to exist. Now everyone just has something else to use in an unequal world. Equality by itself cannot solve the problems of inequality.

To help us understand the difference between equality and equity we watched a video of a disabled man who uses a wheelchair to get around New York City. We heard him describe how difficult it is for him to go to shops or restaurants because they have stairs or the doors are not wide enough. Even a small step from the sidewalk into the store can be a barrier. Most of us can easily climb onto a bus or go down the stairs to a subway. This man cannot. Now, imagine that everyone in New York City was treated equally by making the subways and the buses free. Everyone would be able to ride the buses and subways without having to worry about having money for a Metrocard. However, for many disabled people this would not solve so many of the difficulties they have getting around the city.

As we talked about this man’s story we came to understand that equality usually means that we all start off different and stay different. If we start off being privileged, equal treatment of everyone will not change inequality.

Equity is when we start off different and then do things to make everyone as equal as possible. This does not mean that everyone will be exactly the same in the end. We are different from each other and this is good. We love our differences. But our differences do not mean that some of us have to be more privileged by having more power than others.

In our classroom, for example, equity would mean doing things to make sure that those of us who identify as or are seen as women have opportunities to share our thoughts and to learn in ways that are most helpful for us. To do this, the men in the class may need to decide to keep quiet more and listen to what we have to say. We have lots of important and powerful thoughts and feelings about what we are learning and what is happening in our world.

So, equity is when we start with a situation in which some people are privileged and others are not and we then work to ensure that everyone has what they need to live full and happy lives. This may mean that different people will need different kinds of support. Going back to the man in the wheelchair. Equity means we must understand the world from his perspective and do everything we can to remove the barriers he faces. This is what will make him welcome, respected, and loved.

How do we make sure that we are practicing equity rather than equality? Well, it is important to listen. Often, equality is an idea other people have about what we need. Equity begins with us understanding what others need to live full and happy lives. It also means we have opportunities to tell others, like the other students in our classes, our teachers, and the people in charge of the schools, what we need so that we can be the best we can be. Equality often ignores our difference. Equity begins with our differences. That’s the difference between the two. We start by listening, really, really listening.

Expanded Art Ideas, Artists Space’s arts education program, was founded in 2001 with the mission of encouraging mainstream and special education students in New York City’s public schools to develop a personal artistic voice and to express their creative capacities with confidence. The program’s combination of weekly classes, intensive 10 to 20-week artist residencies, community events, exhibitions, and publications allow students to experience art-making as a serious daily practice producing work that explores identity as a deeply complex intertwining of personal, social, and cultural relationships. Expanded Art Ideas expands Artists Space’s commitment to working artists by providing the opportunity to collaborate with different communities in an educational setting. Learn more at artistsspace.org.

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