TEDx Portland 2019 —Paloma Medina — How Equity Tops Diversity as a Core Human Need

Paloma Medina

Awkward silence greeted the first few minutes of Paloma Medina’s talk at the Keller Auditorium in Portland, Oregon on Saturday, April 27, 2019. She had just told the audience of this uber hip, liberal town that 99.9ish% of them had “some level of ethno-centrism or some other kind of unconscious prejudice towards people who are different than us.”

A kind of a hush fell over the room as everyone looked at his or her neighbor and thought, “Not me!” “Yes, you,” said Paloma, “but, just wait, there is no judgement.” “Whew,” thought the audience. An expert in psychology and the workplace, Ms. Medina went on to blame the limbic system of the human brain. The limbic system is our older, less logical brain, housing elements of action, reaction, emotion, survival skills, and autonomic functions, like breathing. Never mind that we are sophisticated, well-educated, well-traveled, and committed to a world that works for everybody. The limbic system, notoriously behind the times, is still worried about survival. As a result, when our ancestors saw someone who looked different or who grunted in a different accent, they were wary. Their very survival depended on knowing and understanding their territory and everything in it, because what a cave dweller didn’t know could be fatal!

It is from these atavistic beginnings that our human bias against diversity arises. It is not an excuse, but rather a “what’s so.”

You just can’t get through to the caveman in all of us — Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Nowhere in the limbic system are their connections for diversity, tolerance, or other high minded concepts. The system, in fact, is a bit of a thug. Food, location, warmth, shelter, safety, and sex pretty much cover the limbic systems concerns. However, within this system’s complicated bits of ganglia is one abstraction that triggers strong reaction and that is equity. Our forefathers and mothers could spot unfairness in a hot jungle minute.

Paloma explained how scientists learned that neolithic age tribes were capable of discerning equity. The answer was by investigating the behavior of other primates, our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom. In 2011, another TEDxer, Frans de Waal, spoke about how he and his team had been curious about the moral behavior of animals and so they tried an experiment with capuchin monkeys.

“ So what we did is we put two Capuchin monkeys side-by-side. Again, these animals, live in a group, they know each other. We take them out of the group, put them in a test chamber. And there’s a very simple task that they need to do. And if you give both of them cucumber for the task, the two monkeys side-by-side, they’re perfectly willing to do this 25 times in a row.”

So far, so good. But, as Paloma continued, when the researchers started to give just one of the monkeys a grape in response to the correct performance of the task, the dynamic in the cages changed. Full disclosure — Monkeys love fruit! The second monkey, rewarded again with only the “meh” cucumber took note of the greater reward handed to her partner. Still, Monkey 2 ate the cucumber.

Over time, as Monkey 1 continued to received the grape and Monkey 2 got the cucumber, the unfairness of the situation wormed its way into Monkey 2’s limbic system. Ultimately, Monkey 2 could not ignore the partiality shown to Monkey 1 for the performance of the same task and an equal level of result. Does that sound familiar? It should, because inequity is really what this country is experiencing. Are we Monkey 1 or Monkey 2?

Merely knowing that this imbalance occurs is a shortsighted bit of information. The monkey experiment and the other studies using a variety of animals indicate that equity is a core need. Why would this be so? Equity is a moral issue, right? No, if you think about adequate food as one example, equity is about survival. If one member of the group does not receive sufficient food to maintain life function, he or she will die. Even an unsophisticated brain can figure that out. Humans, like other creatures inhabiting the planet, are programmed to seek out equity and to note its absence.

How our brain and body reacts to neglect of core needs.

“When any core needs are threatened, our brains and our bodies are wired to go into a stress state,” Paloma clarified. As a culture, we are learning more about stress all the time, so this connection, equity to stress, raises a few flags. As she explained, “As stress continues, now we have chronic stress, and chronic stress leads to inflammation. We are finding that people who experience reoccurring racism, indeed, show chronic inflammation in their bodies.” The pattern of inequity, stress, chronic stress, and inflammation are shown to trigger cancer, heart disease and other ills…not to mention early death.

Which is why equity, not diversity, should be the focus of our attention. Diversity derives from equity, because equity is the core need. Using an equity metric, society needs to:

  1. Verbalize the goal
  2. Make it Measurable
  3. Ensure it is Time Bound
Apollo 11 on its way to the Moon, 1969

What this method looked like in recent history was President John F. Kennedy’s statement in 1962 that,

“ We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

This same statement, if you swap out “go to the moon” and replace it with “achieve race and gender equity”, could serve as the action mantra for a nationwide, statewide, citywide, businesswide program to achieve the promise of the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement of generations past. Paloma Medina ended her presentation with a task for the audience. In capsule form, it was to find and replace use and discussions of diversity with equity, a core need of the human life condition.

Writer, ESL instructor, editor, traveler, seasonal ex-pat— my life is both an intentional and serendipitous circumstance. Motto — “Buy the ticket, and go!”

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