The “Equity v. Equality” illustration created by the Interaction Institute for Social Change and artist Angus McGuire often trends on social media. A reimagined version of the original, this illustration articulates the difference between equality and equity, a necessary distinction for social change work. Learn more about the differences and how this illustration has evolved to help further your understanding.
The framework starts with this illustration on the left. Three people of different heights are each standing on a box behind a fence, trying to watch a ball game. The boxes are all the same size. As a result, the first person can easily see above the fence. The second person can just see above the fence. And the shortest person, despite the box, still can’t see at all. This represents how equal distribution of resources across communities with different needs doesn’t yield even outcomes. Proponents of “equality-based” interventions think that this is fairer. But it doesn’t consider the unique needs of each population involved.
In contrast, the equity side changes how the boxes are distributed to ensure everyone can see over the fence. In the image, the shortest individual is standing on two boxes, the middle-height person on one, and the tallest without. It’s a simple way to advocate for needs-based distribution that creates a similar outcome for all. Some examples of this in real life may include offering financial aid based on a family’s income. Another could be prioritizing those immunocompromised first to get access to vaccines. Note that the same number of boxes were used in both illustrations, indicating that the same resources can be distributed more effectively.
The third image in the illustration series removes the barrier altogether. The fence is gone so that everyone can see the ball game without any aid, regardless of height. Entitled “liberation,” it reflects the notion that “instead of working against the constraints, why don’t we just remove them altogether?” This line of thinking is common in more liberal calls for change. When people call to abolish the criminal justice system, they emphasize that we need to think beyond the current system entirely. The creators of the illustration note that this image “introduces the idea that narrative assumptions often hide in plain sight.”
The 4th Box
In April 2016, the creators of this framework and the Center for Story-based Strategy revealed another iteration to this illustration. This is an empty box, positioned alongside the other three, designed to be envisioned by the viewer. The creators and illustrator explain why on their website: “[we] want you to know that while distinguishing the concepts of equality and equity is useful, it takes a lot more to start a fruitful conversation. In fact, when we stay in these two boxes only, we often invite dangerous and counterproductive conversations.” Including the 4th box activates the viewer, prompting them to draw their own interpretation of a more equitable society.
The creators have noted, the illustration itself isn’t perfect. One issue is that it depicts three people of different heights. The issue, as drawn, isn’t the fence or the ball game but the physical composition of the individuals. That implies that the system doesn’t work solely because of someone’s shortcomings. This might be OK when discussing height, but it gets complicated for other inequities. For example, some people might be disenfranchised because they have less money. That’s not a characteristic of those people but the deliberate structure of our society. So it’s important to remember that we’re not reimagining the system because some people inherently lack, but because the system itself creates the conditions that cause inequity.