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Recognizing and Responding to Inequity with Allison DeMarco

March 2, 2022 @ 3:33 am CST

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About This Episode

(Season 3, Episode 2)

We are continuing our series featuring conversations with the course authors for Family Well-Being: Navigating the Social Justice, the 2022 Military Family Readiness Academy (MFRA).

For this episode, we talked to Allison DeMarco, author of the upcoming MFRA course, “What Can Family Service Providers Do to Recognize and Respond to Inequities?” Allison is an advanced research scientist at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and adjunct faculty at the School of Social Work at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on racial equity, poverty, neighborhood effects, work and family, and well-being for residents of rural communities.


Allison mentioned two important books during our conversation, How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. She also spoke highly of the tools and resources offered by the Local and Regional Government Alliance on Race and Equity.

Storytelling for Cultural Competence  – this resource includes a Personal Storytelling Journal, a guided journaling experience encouraging self-knowledge (an important part of cultural competence), and an Advocacy Action Plan to help you create your own cultural competencies, make a plan for working toward those competencies, and reflect on cultural competency as an ever-changing journey.

“Why Knowing Yourself Matters,” Part 1 and Part 2 – In 2021, we discussed the importance of self-knowledge in building relationships with Teresa Curtis and Jessica Jane Spayde. Teresa and Jessica have worked with our own Jessica Beckendorf on a Relational Networking program rooted in self-knowledge, interaction, and reflection.


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Jessica Beckendorf: Welcome to Practicing Connection in a Complex World, a podcast exploring the personal stories and collective practices that empower us to work together to improve our resilience and readiness in a rapidly changing world. I’m Jessica Beckendorf.

Bob Bertsch: And I’m Bob Bertsch, and we’ve got a couple of exciting things to talk to you about in this episode. We’re going to continue our series featuring the authors of the upcoming 2022 military family readiness academy courses. First, we want to share a big change with you from our parent organization. For the past couple of years, you’ve been listening to the podcast and you may have heard us say that it is produced by the Military Families Learning Network.

The podcast is part of Jessica and my work for the Military Families Learning Network, or as we refer to it, MFLN. MFLN has been providing high-quality professional development to service providers who work with military families for more than a decade now, but now we’re going to do that under a brand new name that better reflects who we are today and represents our values and mission as an organization.

Our new name is OneOp. O-N-E-O-P, OneOp all together. Practicing Connection in a Complex World is now a production of OneOp, formerly the Military Families Learning Network. If you want to find more information about OneOp, and about the name change, and about the podcast, and all kinds of great stuff including the fantastic work that our partners in OneOp are doing, please visit our website. The new website is That’s O-N-E-O-P dot O-R-G.

Jessica: As Bob mentioned, we’ve been featuring conversations with the course authors for the upcoming military family readiness academy. This year’s academy is centered on social justice and family, health, and wellbeing. It will feature three self-paced courses, two live events, and opportunities to share your stories and engage with others around the topics. You can learn more at justice.

For this episode, we to talk to Allison De Marco, author of the course, What Can Family Service Providers Do to Recognize and Respond to Inequities. Hi, Allison. Thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Practicing Connection in a Complex World. I’m really excited about the class you have coming up with the Military Families readiness academy. I guess I’d like to start by asking you, how did you come to the work of training on racial equity, or how did that work maybe come to you?

Allison De Marco: That is such a great question. I guess I’ll first start just by sharing that I’m a social worker by training. I have a master’s degree in social work and a PhD in social work. One of the things that really drew me to the field and keeps me in the field and committed to it is the code of ethics. We have written in our code of ethics, which I think is very unique, is a specific call for us to work for social justice and for racial equity.

Along those lines too, is also thinking about, because a big piece is direct practice. I’m not a direct practice social worker, but I train students who are going to become direct practice social workers. Thinking about self-determination and folks to determine what’s best for them. When I think about that, that really guides my thinking around designing this course, but thinking about what our role is, and not just mitigating the inequities that our community members experience, but thinking about to how we transform now those systems so folks aren’t facing inequities anymore, but we have a transformed society that’s more just for everyone.

That training, that mindset, and then– I’m primarily a scientist at UNC, but then had some colleagues reach out to me and said, “You don’t use to be in the classroom.” I’ve been teaching an economic justice class for the last six years. That is a service-learning class, so our students, in addition to being in the classroom with us, also work with an organization in the community that works with folks at risk ever experiencing homelessness and has a very relationship-based perspective on working with clients and particularly thinking about how to impact power dynamics in working with members and working in support and alongside of them and not as experts or leaders.

That’s probably been what got me here, what’s keeping me here, and then what keeps me going is working with students, talking about these topics. I love talking about these topics and thinking about them more deeply in as we’re working into create social justice in our communities.

Jessica: Wow. That is a lot. I know you can’t see my face right now, but you would’ve seen me going from smiling and then having- for a little while, I had my open like a gape. I’m really excited about the work you’re doing, and you talk about this idea of transforming, and then I’m curious, that’s a big job, right? You’re already doing a big do, but this idea of like transforming and justice for all, what is really important to consider when you’re thinking about transforming? How can we dig into that a little bit?

Allison: This is a great question. I think this is a challenge too because some of the framing is around charity responses to human need versus just responses to human need. I think of these two, Marceline DuBose and Paul Gorski, who do some training around educational settings and equity talk about mitigative responses versus transformative responses. Transformative is hard. That feels really hard. While we’re working towards those issues, we also need to be working to keep folks- to meet needs now.

We know that school breakfast programs are needed. Now kids are hungry now, but I want to be working towards living wages for everyone, access to what everyone needs so I can afford to choose what I want my kids to eat and have plenty. Everyone has what they need. There are really a lot of ways we begin to work on this and it’s a continuum we need to be doing the mitigative [unintelligible 00:07:06] work while we also want to be doing the work that transforms and moves us towards justice and one of those things.

We’ll talk about this in the course, is thinking about getting to understand what the root causes of these inequities are. Really thinking about one of the reflections that we have just to get folks starting to think about this topic, is thinking about, what are all the ways that our communities or organizations work to respond to homelessness? Then once you think about those things like shelter, soup kitchens, then think about too, what are all the way– Are any of those ending homelessness? What are ways that we actually end homelessness? What is just taking care of folks’ needs now versus getting rid of those needs.

A lot of it too is thinking about policies and how we’re framing policies and how we’re making sure policies are equitable in terms of who they’re serving. Looking at some work of the government alliance on race and equity have created this toolkit that I’ve used in my [unintelligible 00:08:17] justice class that help us think about how a policy might impact communities and then thinking about, for the most marginalized communities, we want to maximize their benefits. How do we make sure we do that?

Then as we’re doing that, that’s benefiting everyone. Thinking about, well, lower-income communities, often communities of color, are more transit-dependent. We want to adequately and have good transit that has frequent headways is the official name. They come often, they serve people. That’s better for everyone. We all have the opportunity to take public transit that’s better for our environment. When folks take public transit, they walk more, that’s better for our physical and mental health.

Just as we think more transformatively and have our policies move in that direction, it becomes better for everyone. That’s just one example that I come to in thinking about mitigative versus transformative.

Jessica: Yes, that was really helpful to think of it in those terms, because I’m a county-based extension agent, and I’m working on a number of the mitigative issues. Those, I see them on a day-to-day basis. I see how much people need things like transportation. I work in a rural county and so I’m working on this transportation initiative that is intended to help people get to all of the things that would benefit their health, so to their jobs, reliably helping them get to social functions to– All the things that people need to thrive. I see it at that level, and of course, I follow the news. I follow what’s happening on a larger stage, the national stage. I’m just wondering, in your experience, and with what you do, what are some of the biggest challenges or barriers at both the mitigative level and EPA transformative levels? I know that’s a big question, sorry. [chuckles]

Allison: No, but I mean, it is a big question, but it’s important question because I think that helps us understand why it’s not either, or, we have to be working at both ends. Because often, I mean, some of the things within the educative, and I think it’s easier to understand when we frame it as charity responses, there’s power differentials there. There’s me deciding who needs help, why they need help, what help I’m going to give them. There’s rationing often going on because there’s not strong funding for those things. That is definitely a challenge of the board mitigative charity-based responses

It’s not ending that need, it’s responding to it in the moment, but it’s not ending it so it happens again tomorrow too. We know that transformative, it’s really challenging because sometimes it’s hard to really understand what that root cause is. Even if we do understand that there may not be the political will to respond to it. For example, if I work in the homelessness fields and have a lot of experience in housing and homelessness, we know, I mean it’s not just in my community, it’s all over, that affordable housing is a huge need.

My community houses the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We’re a wealthy community. If we were all to pull together and had our eye on the prize of ending homelessness, we could do it given the wealth in our community. There is so much different ideas of what needs to be done and how infrastructure, what is needed, how it should be paid for, what we should be prioritizing, that getting the transformative response is very difficult.

Also, sometimes it’s the vision is hard. I think sometimes it’s very hard for us to dream into what those new better systems might look like because we haven’t done that. We really need to be thinking. We did deeply imagine I think what these worlds could look like in a transformative way, and how they can be different. Sometimes that’s hard when we’re stuck in our day-to-day of just taking care of immediate needs and getting by. I think that’s it’s really hard now too given the global pandemic, which has also just been like an excellent case study in pointing out these inequities too.

Jessica: Yes. One of the things that I think a lot about when it comes to the more transformative change that’s needed, one thing that feels it’s desperately needed is like a commitment to being in relationship with each other even when we don’t want to be so that we can work through these things so that we can imagine these things together. Is that something similar to what you’ve seen? How do you imagine that we might be able to imagine together across by?

Allison: Jessica, that’s such an important point that you’re making and pointing out because really, I feel like that is the foundation of all this work. It’s the foundation of the work to end poverty, it’s the foundation of the work to end homelessness, to work and talk about racial equity, racial equity and racism. Those conversations are very hard, and folks like to avoid them because they’re very hard. We worry that we’re going to say the wrong thing, shame ourselves, be embarrassed, not look like the experts that we feel like we should be, particularly in a university setting that taking the time to build the relationships is what then allows us to keep going.

When we make mistakes, we have strong relationships with people with different identities than we do, who are able to say to us, “You really just messed up. Can we talk about how that happened?” and I’m able to say, “Yes, I want to understand what I did so I can do better and commit to doing better.” That’s really important in just these conversations around social justice and working together, and then too thinking about coming back to like the course content and the model that I came from with the community empowerment organization that I work with is all around relationships.

If there’s a level of trust there that I’ve established, and that I’m working towards the goal of the person that I’m working with, not what I think is best for them. I think it’s all relationship-based and helps us in the– I think the first course talked about this, and this course will talk about this a little bit too about identities and mindfulness and understanding our biases, and give us some skills to just to have these conversations and be brave in having these conversations because they’re hard.

Jessica: I mean, I guess it’s probably always hard, but especially at first, when someone first starts going through the journey of learning about things like equity and racism and privilege, it can be really, really hard to have a spotlight shining on your biases because it’s shameful you feel like it’s– There’s a lot that you feel. You feel like, “Oh my gosh, it’s obvious. Oh, maybe I am a racist or maybe I’m a bad person.” I think that’s originally the first thoughts that come to mind.

As time goes on in that journey, you start to really appreciate those moments because you’re so hungry to learn and do better and to make that transformative change. I think in the work that you’re talking about in this policy and practice of transforming, especially as it relates to social justice, having a really deep knowledge of ourselves, which the first course is going to talk a lot about is really necessary for us to be able to move on and be in relationship with each other authentically and openly. Openly, especially. I didn’t mean to go on and on about that.

Allison: Yes, that’s great.

Jessica: This is about your interview, but I feel very passionate about this, obviously. Given that this is still growing and that there’s this struggle with, I guess, being able to move the needle. Especially some of the transformative and the policy stuff. How can we invest time? [chuckles] The time that we’re in right now, how can we best respond to the discrimination that we see embedded in policy?

Allison: One of the things that is not just related to policy, but it’s really a lot related to what we’ve been talking about is learning to see, make visible what has been invisible. You’re looking at an example of this in an initiative in actually in library systems to create more diversity. The application procedures that were required were actually just reinforcing whiteness. They were requiring things that you have to have a very high level of privilege to be able to access, and then using that as your rubric to admit people into your program that is supposed to be increasing representation is failing. That is something where we need to be looking at with a very close eye about what exactly were our expectations are.

One of the things I have appreciated was several years ago, we were talking about higher rain. Just a little tweak of a question, instead of who’s the best candidate, what is the best candidate look like? What are all the candidates? What are all those– What might they look like? To be much more open to people with different experiences, different lived experiences, different educational experiences, rather than being so concerned about the first author publications, the most prestigious universities, things like that, because that is really gatekeeping and it’s really based on privilege that is highly based on race in this country because of historical racism and current racism.

There are some toolkits out there. I do like the one that the government Alliance on Race and Equity uses. Some organizational assessments that I like too that really help us learn to start seeing what is so hidden. Thinking about where all these things that we’re doing that feel like they’re doing the right thing because we’re applying them equally, but it’s really not. Thinking in the educational system around parent engagement. What are you really assessing there? You’re assessing parents that have time affluence, and not parents desire or care about the education of their children and how much they value that.

Jessica: I love to use dress codes as an example of shining a light on this. I’ll never forget one of my department heads once. We didn’t have a dress code, a specific one, and we have in our office, we had some ag folks who often had to go out and do farm meetings on farms. They sometimes would wear jeans. We had some horticulture folks who would wear sleeveless shirts in the summer. I recall our department had gave us this dress code and I was younger and I was maybe could have handled this slightly more professionally, but it had things on there like oh, skirts shouldn’t be any shorter than knee length and no form-fitting clothing and no distracting earrings. If your earrings are distracting, you may be sent home for the day. Things like that.

I think now when she asked what we thought of it, I said, “Well, I think it’s incredibly sexist and ages.” Frankly, when I think about some of the things that were on there, there was certainly racist things on there as well. I do love to look at dress codes and I don’t know why I feel so strongly about dress codes, but I like to look at those as good examples of, if you’re new to noticing the stuff in policy, take a look at a dress code, you’ll start to see things.

Allison: It’s great example.

Jessica: I’d love to think a little bit about, so we’ve been talking about change transformative and mitigative, and we’ve been talking about how we can be in relationship around it. I’d love to now focus on the family really quick. How are all these concepts, how is social justice in general related to overall family wellbeing?

Allison: That’s a great question. I think one of the things that we don’t do enough that we’re trying to do more in our research and we need to be doing this as in our organizations is just talking to community members about what they need, what they’re experiencing, what their barriers and challenges are. Because families are engaging with these institutions all the time. I know in my work, I want to have an understanding because I have a different lived experience. I was privileged. I didn’t have to come into contact with child welfare systems or departments of social services.

Really understanding what families’ experiences are of those systems to help us think how we do that work better, how we have that work be more guided by the folks that have to interact with it all the time on a daily basis, and how much work that is too. Honoring all the expertise that families have in navigating these systems, thinking through that. That is some initial thoughts. I’ll see if anything else bubbles up that I want to share about that.

Jessica: It’s a very short, simple question that is way more complex than the short question would make you. It’s a very deceiving question. [chuckles] One of the things that we like to do is end each episode with a practice that our guests would recommend in. Do you have any practices that you would recommend that would move them forward on their social justice journey or that would move them forward in noticing things like embedded discrimination in policy? Anything else, anything like that?

Allison: A couple of things. First, I will start by sharing that one opportunity that may go along with this course is to participate in the 21-day Racial Equity Challenge, which was developed by Dr. Eddie Moore a couple years ago to really be this habit-forming daily set of emails that has a wide variety of things folks can engage with and react to. Podcasts, videos, blog posts, readings, but that gives you something to react to and think about and process every day for 21 days.

Then the way we’ve been doing it is there’s an online forum. Folks have reflection questions. They can also interact with other participants. There’s some community development and then there’s also some opportunities to come together in a virtual environment and do some processing. That has been, I think, transformative not to use that word too much, but it’s been really impactful for participants because it just opens a door to a lot of things that they’ve never really thought about outside. We don’t think a lot outside our own identities, so that is going to be probably an opportunity for folks participating in these courses.

The other thing is if there are discussion groups or reading groups within your community or your workplace, I think finding a group of like-minded people who are on this journey too to challenge each other, to hold each other accountable, to have these conversations with, is really important. That’s where I think my biggest learning has come from. Definitely, I read things. I’ve read a lot of great work, like How to be an Anti-Racist by Dr. Ibram Kendi, the Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, really great books, but then having a community that then I can go to and process and think about how this applies to the work I do, how I am in my community, that is really, really valuable. Even if it’s just a few people, I think that is a very important part.

Then I also think just doing some self-care work. We can’t be in this work for the long haul if we are burned out. Thinking about what works best for us in terms of mindfulness and self-care. Research science definitely shows that getting out in nature is one of the big things. Taking walks to heal our ourselves, doing things that work for us, meditation, yoga, reading something fun, listening to music. I think all those things are great ideas.

I mentioned this briefly about accountability, not just learning and having to checklist, but thinking about what are my actions steps, both continuing my education, but also how I’m going to start making a difference in my community and in organizations that I work with and in my workplace. What are those action steps we can take? Then how are we going to keep ourselves accountable that we’re doing that and moving forward? Again, I think those communities as a practice maybe that we create for ourselves are really helpful in that instance too.


Bob: Thanks so much for that, Jessica. That was an awesome conversation with Alison. I really, really enjoyed it and appreciated that discussion. If this talk intrigued you and you want to learn more, you can check out our show notes for links to some of the resources that Allison mentioned and other resources like where to take sign up for the MFRA course, the Military Family Readiness Academy courses. You can find some of our podcast episodes to the podcast that relate to the conversation we had today as well. You can find the show notes and all of those resources at connection.

Jessica: We’d like to thank our guest Allison De Marco for joining us for this awesome chat today. We’d also like to thank Hannah Hyde and Terry Meisenbach for their marketing help. Of course, Nathan Grim, who composed and performed all the music that you hear on the podcast. We also like to thank you for joining us today. Thanks for listening and keep practicing.


[00:29:11] [END OF AUDIO]


March 2, 2022
3:33 am CST
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Family Well-Being: Navigating the Social Justice Landscape