DEI Resource of the Month: Upstream Flows Downstream, and Downstream Flows Back Up


People are drowning in a river. Individuals are foundering and shouting for help. Rescue efforts understandably focus on pulling people from the river to safety. Eventually, someone walks the length of the river to try and figure out what is going on upstream that causes folks to keep falling in.

This metaphor is used to explain upstream and downstream approaches to equity work, an approach borrowed from the field of public health. Upstream efforts are looking at the cause and what systems contribute to that cause—what is making people fall into the river? Downstream efforts focus on individual assistance—pulling people out of the river one by one.

Focusing on upstream work allows us to not only address but to disrupt structural inequities, including mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, discriminatory lending, redlining, structural racism, and more. If we don’t address upstream issues, or what is happening at a systemic level, the ramifications of those issues will continue to flow downstream and affect people on an individual level. As legal professionals across private, nonprofit, and other sectors, we have clients entering our offices every day who could be impacted by upstream issues.

For example, the U.S. Department of Justice states that there is still racial discrimination in housing, more than 30 years after passage of the 1968 federal Fair Housing Act.1 This may affect clients on an individual (downstream) level if housing providers give false information about availability to applicants of color. Clients will continue to be affected by upstream issues when there are  policies in place that allow systemic inequities to continue. For example, law firms can revisit their accommodation and accessibility policies and practices to see if their services can be more inclusive to clients who are blind or low-vision, who use mobility aides, or who need accommodations in client meetings because of a physical or psychiatric impairment. 

Looking at both upstream and downstream solutions can assist with ensuring equitable outcomes for clients.