For the past decade, especially in 2020, we saw companies, nonprofits, and other organizations make bold claims about their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Workplaces started book groups, hired consultants, and formed, re-imagined, or expanded committees.
I work directly with people dedicated to transforming their organizations, schools, and libraries to make those places more just and equitable. Every day I meet people who give their time, energy, and passion to this work. They are frustrated by their lack of progress. And I think I know why improvement is so slow or nonexistent.
DEI work is often set up to fail.
DEI directors, committees, task forces, teams, etc., are often given an impossible job.
This is not a criticism of the people trying to make a difference. In fact, I think the folks doing this work in companies and organizations are among the most dedicated. They are also the most frustrated. Many professionals working on DEI committees or in roles explicitly dedicated to DEI find the work extremely challenging for many reasons, including:
- Lack of institutional commitment.
- Internal informal resistance.
- Lack of resources.
- Impossible workloads.
I think lack of a shared language or understanding of the roots of the issues they face also contribute to the difficulty of this work.
In so many of our organizations, we need to take a long, honest look at the history of oppression.
When we work with organizations, we often use Iris Marion Young’s “5 Faces of Oppression” framework, which describes oppression as a “structural construct” composed of the following faces:
- Cultural dominance
We argue that justice work is only possible when we collectively acknowledge, address, and dismantle all five faces of oppression and actively build and share power.
A shared understanding of oppression is foundational for any organization wishing to truly advance justice internally and in the communities they serve. A framing of DEI without this understanding informing a shared vision will only stifle leaders and slow the bold work necessary for change.
What is missing in diversity, inclusion, and equity?
Diversity just brings new faces to broken places.
We sometimes use the metaphor of getting a seat at the table to describe diversity and inclusion. Our collective imagination might see people of different races all sitting at a conference-room table where decisions are being made about the community to which we all belong.
Many organizations believe that hiring more Black or other people of color will be sufficient for institutional change. But diversity only addresses marginalization. To measure progress with diversity, we look only at demographics. Diversity doesn’t invite us to examine the structure and power dynamics of the organization. This approach ignores historical and ongoing marginalization, violence, and exploitation. In other words, it takes the problem out of context.
Diversity means that people traditionally marginalized or kept out are invited to sit at the table. But everything else about the metaphorical table remains unchanged. The dominant culture still determines the agenda and drives the conversation.
Inclusion fails to recognize cultural dominance.
If we look at the seat-at-the-table metaphor, in terms of race historically, white people have controlled who’s allowed to pull up a chair, how the table is set, what food is being served, and what is considered permissible conversation.
Inclusion, often incorrectly, assumes that the table was built for everyone in the first place. It provides an additional chair, perhaps with a cushion, and an opportunity to speak, but it does not require us to examine the rest of the dynamics at play.
At best, inclusion can build on diversity by allowing us to begin examining the culture as a whole. Inclusion invites us to consider whether a company’s culture actually welcomes different people. However, implicit in inclusion are assumptions about the health and desirability of the organization itself.
If the organizational culture was created to serve only a few people, it is quite possible that those of us who are new will simply never fit in.
Inclusion means we’ve invited people to join the table and attempted to bring them into the decision-making process. But inclusion efforts do not require us to have self-awareness about cultural dominance and recognize where the power lies. Inclusion even assumes that everyone wants to be at the table in its current form.
Equity isn’t actionable.
Equity imagines a table built by all, which is clearly desirable. But equity alone doesn’t tell us where the tools are to build this new table and what to do with the old one.
Equity is often too abstract for a committee to make actionable. As an idea, equity doesn’t lend itself to being translated into the daily decisions and actions that will achieve change. It’s too big. People need something more concrete to help them operationalize values to facilitate institutional change.
Make justice central to a framework for change.
Justice does not only ask who is represented at our table but moves us to inquire about who is served at the table that has been set. Further, it asks: Are there any barriers that prevent certain people from being served? It requires that we name and examine historical and current systems of oppression. It helps us expand the conversation beyond diversity and embrace the complexity of addressing oppression in all its forms, not just marginalization.
A justice framework invites us to examine who has power and why.
Social power is simple. When we have power, we have access to resources, safety, voice, visibility, and self-determination. A desire for social justice means that we believe that everyone should and can have all these things regardless of identity. This approach rejects scarcity and embraces a belief in abundance — a belief that social power is accessible and for everyone.
The work of advancing justice is a lifelong pursuit that can begin with tangible, immediate steps. It invites us to start with the self and then commit to doing the ongoing work of fighting oppression in all its forms and building workplaces and communities where power is shared, not hoarded.
To do this, we cannot just hire more people with marginalized identities and attempt to make the place more welcoming. We have to take a close look at our organization’s culture, policies, and structure and commit to making deep and meaningful shifts at every level. This type of commitment requires trusting relationships, shared language, and being brave enough to keep doing the work, even when we fall short.
Justice work requires making a commitment to dismantling oppression and invites us to do the work to build relationships, communities, and systems where everyone has power, regardless of identity. With this clarity in vision, our DEI leaders can be a part of a movement with a past and a future — one that connects people, rethinks resources, and expands our ideas of what is possible.
Mia Henry is the CEO of Freedom Lifted, which offers hybrid justice + equity trainings for nonprofits, educational institutions, and public libraries. Check out the flagship training Justice at Work.