Finding Our Way to Equity*

Find your way to equity in higher education with the help of the North Star

This article is featured in the resource guide, Effective Online Teaching Strategies.

By now, most educators have seen the images of equity versus equality versus justice, and we argue over the merits of these images. What’s missing is a deeper conversation about what equity means, and how our various curricular initiatives contribute to transformation. We tend to talk about equity in ways that strip it of its revolutionary call for social justice.

The North Star Metaphor

I see the problem as one of orientation. We are orienting to equity like it’s the North Star.  Because it’s a fixed point, Polaris or the North Star, is used in Navigation. The North Star is also used as a metaphor to mean an individual’s internal purpose and meaning in life.

We operationalize equity as the North Star to establish the fixed point we are trying to achieve—percentages and quotas. However, setting equity as a North star fails in two significant ways. First, focusing on the North Star fails to signal the complexity of achieving equity. The terrain people must traverse to achieve equity is complex. Telling those in an academic institution to set equity as a fixed point does little to help teachers, academic support staff, and other frontline administrators as they confront institutional issues, policies, and practices that prevent equity. Second, we run the risk of stagnation and burnout. Teachers committed to equity in their classrooms and others who aspire for equity across the institution may get tired of always striving for equity and still seeing little progress. 


We need a different way of orienting that recognizes the complexity of the equity work we’re being called to perform. That concept is wayfinding.

Ancient navigators traversed and populated the Pacific using stars, the sun, the moon, weather, waves, and other signs of nature. Present day wayfinders spend a lifetime studying nature to help them find their way. In preparing to voyage, Nainoa Thompson studied the stars—all of them—and out of that study, he developed the star compass so he’d know star houses (where stars rise and set). Wayfinders study the weather to notice what’s up ahead, and how it compares to an hour, two hours, a day ago, all to determine the best path forward. And in the dark of night, with no other signs of nature, astute wayfinders can lie in the hull of the canoe to determine wave patterns to find their bearing. 

If we want to find our way to equity, then we can’t continue imagining that by looking in the direction of the North Star we’ll find our way there. We need to be like wayfinders who study to figure out the equivalent “stars,” “weather,” “waves,” “sun,” and “moon” to help us find our way to equity. Further, we need to understand that this work of achieving equity is our avocation in life; achieving equity is the result of on-going praxis—reflection in action in our classrooms and across campus.

Most importantly, we need to understand that we always find our way in community.  When we wayfind, we move forward by building on the collective capacity of everyone on the boat, everyone in our community.  It’s not one person reading the stars or waves. It’s not one person or one committee that champions equity or has the knowledge. We find our way to equity together; we do it in community. 

People as islands

In high school, I read John Donne’s Meditation 17, published in 1624: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man/ is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Donne is right.  People are not islands “entire of itself.”  But he’s also wrong because islands are not solitary pieces of land that extend out of bodies of water. They are connected. Take the Hawaiian islands, formed from a hot spot under the Pacific plate. Magma continuously erupts forming masses of land, and as the plate moves, the magma flow continues as well. As the Pacific plate moves, new islands form, all still connected below the ocean and not readily visible. 

People are not islands. We are connected by bonds that we are not always able to see. We focus on the water that separates, rather than the bonds that flow and connect us. 

So, as we move forward finding our way to equity, we need a new orientation that recognizes the bonds that connect us. That helps us focus on building our individual and collective capacity by learning together in classrooms and beyond them. May we soon come to realize that the path to equity is always about finding our way. 

*Some ideas originally shared at Equity Institute 2.0. 

Bio: Lauren Servais is a coordinator with the California Community College Success Network, where she collaborates with other educators to design professional learning experiences that embody what we know about powerful learning and equitable learning environments. Her varied professional interests are firmly rooted in her experiences of growing up on Oahu, talking story, speaking Hawaiian Creole, and being mixed race, multiethnic, and a first-generation college student.  Servais’s main inquiry has been how to most effectively help first-generation, linguistically and culturally diverse students acquire agency in higher education and gain access to multiple literacies, including academic discourse, to transform their worlds. She is also an English instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College, where she co-coordinates the Asian and Pacific Islander American Student Success Program.