Of Equity, Equality, and Apple Boxes

3 min read

Tavis Smiley
Tavis Smiley

Here in Indianapolis, Christian Theological Seminary has launched its Faith & Action Project, which aims to address poverty in our city and beyond by awarding grants to innovative poverty-fighting programs. The initiative kicked off last night with a public conversation at Butler’s Clowes Hall featuring media icon/philanthropist Tavis Smiley and David Brooks, conservative pundit of The New York Times.

At times, the program was less a conversation than a collegial contest of dueling monologues; if we were judging the outcome by time-on-mic, Smiley won (and it wasn’t close).

But it was clear from the outset that both men care deeply about the issue of poverty in America. They’re both men of faith. They both profess that love is at the heart of the solution.

All morning, I’ve been thinking about something Smiley said. He made a point about the difference between equality and equity—and told a story to illustrate.

The Difference Between Equality and Equity

Imagine three kids: a tall kid, a medium kid, and a short kid. They’re all trying to see a baseball game over a ballyard fence. You give them each an apple box—that’s what they’re called in TV production, Smiley told the audience—to stand on. That’s equality.

The middle kid stands on the apple box and now can see the game. But the tall kid never needed his apple box: He could see over the fence without it. And the littlest kid—even with the apple box, he’s still too short to see.

Smiley’s point was that, even though we’ve achieved equality, there’s no equity in this situation. It’s equality without justice.

The mention of apple boxes reminds me of my own production experience. Video producers use wooden boxes—apple boxes, they’re called—to raise the height of an actor in a shot, often to even out the height of multiple actors in the same scene.

The thing is, the grip truck comes equipped with different sizes of apple boxes.

Apple boxes.
Apple boxes.

Sometimes, your actor needs only a half-apple or a quarter-apple. People need varying levels of support to do the same job. To get, in other words, to the same place.

Smiley was using the word equity in the sense of fairness. But it would also behoove us to consider his call for equity in light of its other definition, which concerns ownership. For too many years, too many people have had expectations thrust upon them like identical apple boxes. It’s scarily similar to taxation without representation. We need equity in the sense of ownership, too—of the society we want to become, and how we’re going to achieve it.

Which is why I agree with David Brooks when he said that his job, when talking about poverty, was chiefly to listen. Those of us concerned with poverty, but not living in poverty, would do well to join him.

I also agree with another point both speakers made: Ultimately, success is not about the program. It’s about the human connection. It’s about relationships. It’s about love.

Which means, as Brooks said, the best approach to fighting poverty is the kitchen-sink approach. Try everything.

In other words, bring all the apple boxes.


Equality/equity image courtesy of Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire. But we also found this interesting story about the genesis of this graphic.

One of the nicest photos of apple boxes we’ve ever seen—nicked from Exploding Goldfish Films.