After 30 years, I Left Diversity Work. These Are the Five Awkward Reasons.
“But I thought our job was to put ourselves out of business!”
My objection was heartfelt, but my coworkers squirmed. I glanced around the room. I suddenly realized that despite their sincere words and good intentions, my colleagues and I weren’t on the same page about social change, or our organization’s role.
It wasn’t the last time I’d be dismissed as a “radical” or “idealist”, nor the last time I’d find myself frustrated and on the margins. But I didn’t know it yet.
It was 1992. Three days after college graduation, I’d started my first full time job as a social worker for a nonprofit agency in urban Los Angeles. My city was just getting its bearings after the uprising sparked by the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King. Neighborhoods still smoldered and communities reeled from police corruption, gang violence, poverty, crack cocaine, and rising waves of refugees from Mexico and Central America. Most of the kids in my caseload of Latinx and Black families faced serious threats to their lives and livelihoods, every day.
I was 22, and I believed not only that we could eradicate racism and oppression — I believed I should play an active role in that eradication. I believed it was my job to provide “my” families with the golden key to their thriving — that one experience, resource, or perfectly-timed encouragement that would change everything. I believed it was our job as a social services agency to collaborate broadly and plan for our obsolescence — for a world where families of color facing unfair odds no longer needed our services. Every day, I thought about how to do my part.
I gradually came to two troubling realizations. One, the families that “made it” were going to make it without my help. I just eased the process or sped it up. Meanwhile, the families that didn’t make it weren’t going to, no matter what I did. The barriers were too immense, the problems too complex. I was like a tiny mole digging a burrow in an ancient desert on a fault line 100 miles long.
Two, none of the nonprofit or government agencies who claimed a commitment to ending social ills were planning for their obsolescence. They were more dedicated to self-perpetuation by growing revenue and garnering political influence. This true commitment was neither malicious nor conscious, but actions reveal truth, and systems dwarf individual efforts despite what our culture preaches. The dogged efforts of the many good people in these organizations only scratched the steel plating protecting the larger machines of power and profit that ground away in the opposite direction.
Three years and one more organization later, I left social services. I was frustrated with a system out of integrity with itself, and out of alignment with the vision I had for what was possible and necessary. I wanted us to take seriously the mission of ending oppression and putting ourselves out of business. I found no likeminded kindred to join, so I left.
This true commitment was neither malicious nor conscious, but actions reveal truth, and systems dwarf individual efforts despite what our culture preaches.
Nearly 30 years later, at 52, I’m having déjà vu. I just left the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) field, for eerily similar reasons.
My exit was set in motion in 2012 by two events: First, the murder of Trayvon Martin (and later acquittal of his killer), and second, the racist hazing of Dr. Christian Head, an African American surgeon at UCLA Medical School. Almost exactly twenty years earlier, I’d been a UCLA senior marching past that very medical school protesting racism and the King verdict, confronted by jittery cops while the city burned from betrayal and fury.
Faced with these two events, I began to deeply question myself and my society. We’d said we wanted a more equitable world, but what had all our work really accomplished? What difference had any of my work made? And what could we — what could I — do differently now?
I found new hope and inspiration in the ways evolutionary biology and emerging neuroscience could reframe the way we talked about what was newly dubbed “diversity and inclusion”. I incorporated science into the TEDx talk I gave in fall 2012, and I evangelized about unconscious bias. I leveraged the language of business and metrics to persuade leaders to adopt “D&I” best practices, and I provided them with tools to take practical action.
But a decade later, I have little hope or inspiration left. I recently wrote that one of the reasons I left DEI was because I’m no longer fit for duty, but my lack of “fitness” is just one symptom of deeper issues bigger than me. I see now that — much like in social services — the systemic problems dwarf individual efforts. I’m still a mole digging in a desert on a massive fault line. I see now that those who declare commitment to change are more committed in action to other goals: profit, influence, status quo priorities, existing power hierarchies, and other people changing.
I’m still a mole digging in a desert on a massive fault line. I see now that those who declare commitment to change are more committed in action to other goals: profit, influence, status quo priorities, existing power hierarchies, and other people changing.
My story and conclusions are deeply personal and unique to me. However, I offer them so those who labor in frustration might know they’re not alone. I offer them in the hope that those who are fit for duty can utilize my insights to create actual change when the world is ready. I leave them as legacy for kindred, wherever and whenever they may be.
These are the five awkward reasons why I’ve left DEI work after nearly 30 years, and what I believe must happen to catalyze true change.
1. DEI is creating little-to-no meaningful, positive, significant transformation.
To feel my life and work are making a meaningful contribution, I want to not only feel like I’m making a difference, I want to see evidence that my efforts are creating the change I want. The change I want is a world that works better for more of us.
I believe that the purpose of DEI work should be to end oppression and co-create equity. Oppression exists when people exercise power over others in unfair, unjust and/or inappropriately harmful ways. Oppression occurs when we harm or inhibit others’ lives and livelihoods for unfair, unjust and/or ineffective reasons.
Equity exists when all people have equitable access to all the resources and opportunities necessary to live their happiest, healthiest lives. This access enables people to fully contribute their unique gifts for individual and collective benefit. When equity exists, people are granted access and evaluated based on their abilities, skills, character, and behaviors — not on their group identity or any irrelevant trait over which they have no control.
The purpose of DEI work should be to end oppression and co-create equity. Equity exists when all people have equitable access to all the resources and opportunities necessary to live their happiest, healthiest lives.
DEI work has not made enough of a difference in ending oppression and co-creating equity. In fact, there are signs we’re worse off now than when the field began. Cities and schools have become progressively more segregated than they were in the 1980s. Income inequality is rampant and on the rise. Despite billions of dollars spent on DEI initiatives, African Americans are still grossly underrepresented in corporate leadership roles, and that number has barely moved in three decades. Women are faring slightly better, but at a geologically slow pace. And only a third of us feel engaged at work. The low-to-no ROI on our colossal investment in DEI was covered in a series of excellent articles in the Harvard Business Review in 2016. I provided my own take on the pitfalls and promises of “new school” DEI in my own piece for Workforce that same year.
There’s additional evidence of low-to-no ROI from my personal experience. Over the last three decades I’ve been a DEI-oriented employee, leader, or external consultant in over 150 organizations in nonprofit, corporate, higher education, government, and health care sectors. I’ve read hundreds of books and articles, attended multiple conferences, and followed dozens of social media accounts. I’ve delivered hundreds of workshops and talks to thousands of people. I spent two years actively seeking “D&I Success Stories” from organizations and individuals, and I worked for a large international consulting firm that prides itself on the DEI results it provides its Fortune 500 clients.
With all that time and exposure, I can’t cite one single example of meaningful, positive, significant results that came from a DEI initiative. Not one.
I do have multiple examples of individuals who experienced a lasting “ah-ha” from a training — myself included. I do have multiple examples of Chief Diversity Officers hired, DEI committees formed, DEI initiatives funded, DEI trainings rolled out, and DEI awards won.
But activity is not achievement. I’ve seen no evidence that any of these DEI activities or roles are leading to the well-documented benefits of DEI, much less ending oppression and co-creating equity. Trainings in particular are a colossal waste of time, talent, and budget. DEI should be the means to an end, not the end itself. However, most organizations celebrate the means — committees, trainings, roles, documents, etc. — as results. They are not.
Activity is not achievement. DEI should be the means to an end, not the end itself. There are many reasons for the failure of DEI initiatives to produce meaningful, positive, significant results. But the core reason for our failure is usually overlooked: thinking too small.
Furthermore, many DEI efforts have the inconvenient effect of negative results. First of all, diversity is not a panacea, nor a value-add for all human activities — for instance, when uniform execution is the goal, diversity is actually a liability. Second, adding diversity to a human group creates inevitable conflict which requires effective leadership and communication to navigate in service of a common goal. Effective leadership, effective communication and a common goal are sorely lacking in most organizations and society at large. Negative effects of many DEI trainings and policies are well-documented, and I myself have advised some potential clients to not launch DEI initiatives because to do so in their existing climate or structure would cause harm.
There are many reasons for the failure of DEI initiatives to produce meaningful, positive, significant results. Common ones include (a) lack of clarity and unity about the purpose of DEI work, (b) organizations’ lack of knowledge about their existing gaps and therefore (c) lack of strategic DEI goals, also (d) organizations’ lack of sufficient leadership and resources dedicated to DEI, and (e) the inconsistent quality of DEI professionals (reason #3, below).
But the core reason for our failure is usually overlooked: thinking too small.
Ending oppression and co-creating equity requires transformation — a fundamental shift in how organizations function, what we identify as “DEI work”, and how we think of “work” in general. Convincing a community of color to buy a product they don’t need isn’t ending oppression. Recruiting and hiring more women to work in an industry that causes more problems for humanity than it solves doesn’t end oppression. Making it easier for immigrants or queer people to get promoted in an organization that actively oppresses local communities doesn’t co-create equity.
If we think about an organization (or society) as a building, DEI initiatives tend to focus on remodeling one room of the building. Individuals, committees, and entire organizations squabble over the colors of paint, the style of furnishings, the type of window treatments, and the size of the flat screen TV. They spend years and millions of dollars on this endeavor, without ever considering the reason for the remodel in the first place, much less the purpose of the room or who will be using it.
Most DEI initiatives are just paint on walls that are rotting from mold and termites, in a poorly-designed building on a cracking foundation in swampy terrain.
Those few who do ponder such issues rarely question the location of the doors and windows or the configuration of the walls, much less the location of the room in the building. Far fewer look inside the walls or under the floors to find the faulty wiring or outdated plumbing causing the issue the remodel is supposed to address. Almost no one questions the size, location, purpose, or existence of the building itself. Those who do are dismissed as radical idealists, or crazy.
Most DEI initiatives are just paint on walls that are rotting from mold and termites, in a poorly-designed building on a cracking foundation in swampy terrain. They are putting glitter on sh*t instead of getting out a shovel. DEI issues in organizations are almost always symptoms of nonexistent or poor systems, policies, processes and norms. They are manifestations of outdated, oppressive, unchallenged beliefs about people, relationships, and the nature of work and human worth itself.
As one of my trusted colleagues says, we need a new operating system. You can’t plant an orange seed and expect an oak tree to grow — systems provide an output determined by the input. They aren’t “broken”, they’re bad systems, set up to produce exactly what they were set up to create. Many of ours were created centuries ago to support slavery, not to provide what most folks today seek from work beyond a paycheck. And, as we continue to abandon or starve traditional sources of human identity, meaning, purpose, and belonging (families, communities, clubs, associations, places of worship, etc.), we increasingly expect all those psychosocial needs to be met by the workplace — needs that workplaces are not designed to meet.
DEI works. On my website I have an 11-page annotated list of over 80 books and research articles that demonstrate the superior ROI of diversity and inclusion in profit, revenue, decision-making, leadership effectiveness, employee engagement, innovation, healthcare, legal outcomes, health outcomes, and scientific research.
And DEI is being done, and well — but rarely due to DEI programs.
2. People are acting to end oppression, but rarely due to DEI.
Two actions seem to make the most difference in ending oppression and co-creating equity. One is passing laws and policies. Legislation, most of which stems from decades of dedicated activism, has made a tremendous difference in providing more of us with equitable access to all the resources and opportunities necessary to live our happiest, healthiest lives. In the United States, equity increased with landmark legislation like the 13th Amendment, the 19th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act, Roe V. Wade, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title IX and many others. Multiple nations have passed laws requiring adequate female representation on company boards. And some companies have implemented policies and processes that increase equitable access and advancement for talent and reduce the effects of unintended bias in HR processes. To my knowledge, few if any of these changes came from DEI initiatives.
The other action that makes a difference is leading effectively. Effective leaders today are, by definition, sufficiently inclusive and equitable. They are self-aware, skilled at emotional self-regulation, curious, compassionate, confident, and decisive. They care, and also take no crap. They exercise integrity, demand accountability, admit and correct their mistakes, and do the right thing.
Effective leaders create healthy cultures. These cultures function in alignment with clearly stated purpose and values. They are workplaces where excellence is expected yet expectations are humane. They are rigorous with accountability yet tolerant of mistakes. They balance collaboration with independence, diversity with unity. They are responsive, responsible, and trustworthy — just like their leaders.
The most inclusive leaders I’ve known don’t work in the DEI space. Many have never attended a DEI training or served on a DEI committee. They’re simply quality people and great leaders. The most equitable cultures I’ve witnessed didn’t get that way because of a DEI initiative — but because of effective leadership.
Too many DEI initiatives are launched without addressing the rotting walls or cracking foundation of the organization or industry. Too many are solutions either looking for a problem or ignoring core issues.
Too many organizations limp along with faulty or non-existent talent systems and processes, or insufficient personnel. Too many employ leaders who are fearful, controlling, arrogant, incompetent — or mired in their own prejudices or internalized racism. Too many tolerate toxic cultures reeling from too much change or hurting from unrepaired violations of trust. Too many allow toxic behaviors and poor performance to poison their culture. Too many buy expensive consultants and costly training programs while ignoring the words and expertise of their own people.
Too many DEI initiatives are solutions either looking for a problem or ignoring core issues. Most organizations don’t need to start DEI initiatives — they need to restore sanity and humanity.
Most organizations don’t need to start DEI initiatives — they need to restore sanity and humanity. They should hire and develop excellent leaders, repair damaged relationships, ensure that every job is doable by one human being in 40 hours per week, and develop an allergy to incompetence and toxic behavior. Most leaders don’t need to hire consultants or roll out trainings, they just need to lead.
Like the families I worked with in social services, the organizations that “make it” in DEI already had the foundation to do so without my help. The ones that don’t make it won’t, no matter what I do and have done. Ending oppression requires new ways of being, not just doing. If an organization’s leaders aren’t emotionally and psychologically ready to change themselves — to look behind the walls, under the floors, and at the foundation — the DEI consultant or DEI office becomes a scapegoat for their fears and frustrations. It’s not only a losing battle, it’s a setup.
3. The DEI field lacks sufficient rigor and unity.
To feel my life and work are making a meaningful contribution, I also want to be part of a profession with high integrity, high standards, and united purpose. While there are some individuals doing DEI work who exude these qualities, they are a minority, and the field overall lacks these traits.
Two other fields I know intimately — fitness and professional coaching — only labored for a few years to generate professional standards and certifications. Despite myriad modalities and diverse philosophies, the psychotherapy profession has long done the same.
But after nearly 40 years in existence, not only is there no code of ethics, professional standards, or central professional association for what is now called DEI, there are fewer reputable conferences in the field than there were a decade ago. In the U.S., this stagnation is occurring despite our country becoming steadily browner, more multilingual, more immigrant, more inequitable, and more concerned with injustice and police brutality against communities of color. While DEI certifications and conferences do exist, they are niche in either topic or sponsorship, created by one private organization.
“Diverse” individuals are too-often thrown into DEI roles or sought for consulting just because they belong to a marginalized group. That’s like asking someone to cut your hair because you like their haircut or asking a friend who’s good at math to do your taxes.
In addition to a lack of professionalism and purposeful unity in the broader DEI field, too many DEI professionals lack sufficient rigor. Most lack the qualifications and experience to assess root causes, analyze data, facilitate difficult conversations, clearly explain complex core concepts, manage culture change, coach leaders, or train groups. It has long been the case — but especially following George Floyd’s murder — that being BIPOC has been sufficient qualification to do DEI work or lead DEI. Individuals who are seen as “diverse” are too-often thrown into DEI roles or sought for consulting just because they belong to a marginalized group.
That’s like asking someone to cut your hair because you like their haircut or asking a friend who’s good at math to do your taxes. It’s deeply harmful not only to the reputation of the field, but to ending oppression. It’s not that members of marginalized groups don’t possess critical knowledge relevant to DEI. It’s that expecting people of color and women to be the ones — and the only ones — to do DEI work relegates them to a new professional ghetto that is underfunded and undervalued. I’ve argued that those who created and benefit from oppression should be the ones to dismantle it. White people therefore definitely need to be doing DEI work, freeing up people of color to do whatever other thing their brilliant minds and yearning hearts desire. That is the whole point of ending oppression and racism — not asking those harmed by a system they didn’t create to shoulder the burden of dismantling it.
Lack of rigor is also harmful to clients and organizations. It’s far too common for the well-intended DEI practitioner to behave like a physician who prescribes a drug simply because the patient asks for it. This is unethical, unprofessional, and dangerous. Well-educated, ethical physicians know that when a patient presents an issue, what’s needed is to first take a full medical history and run lab tests to determine the cause of the symptoms, then apply their expertise to recommend treatment. Just like in medicine, DEI interventions do harm when the problem is misdiagnosed, the “drug” dosage is off or interacts with another medication, or additional supportive treatments are excluded.
The comparison of DEI to medical treatment is not hyperbole. When I wrote about the 10 reasons DEI programs don’t work (and the five ways to do DEI right), I said that tapping HR, training professionals, or employees in general for DEI advice is like asking hairdressers and accountants for medical advice. That’s not to denigrate the valuable expertise of other professionals, but to highlight the high stakes of DEI and critical nature of this work. When it comes to equity and ending oppression, most organizations are on respirators. Racism and oppression are stage four lung cancer — not asthma, bronchitis, or an allergy, and definitely not a haircut.
It’s far too common for the well-intended DEI practitioner to behave like a physician who prescribes a drug simply because the patient asks for it. This is unethical, unprofessional, and dangerous. Racism and oppression are stage four lung cancer — not asthma, bronchitis, or an allergy.
The DEI field and individual practitioners need far more rigor to deliver meaningful results with such high stakes. Best-in-class DEI professionals (a) identify and live from their “personal business case” for DEI, (b) continually do their “personal work”, (c) demonstrate fluency in multiple areas of DEI, and (d) display competence in critical knowledge areas outside of DEI. Such expertise requires years of study, practice, mentorship, self-reflection, and personal healing. It’s not a skillset someone can gain in one certificate program or by reading a few books.
It’s also not a skillset that interculturalists, HR consultants, organizational development practitioners, or leadership development experts necessarily possess. While those fields make important contributions to DEI, interculturalism in particular, professionals with those areas of expertise do not automatically qualify as DEI practitioners, despite what their presence on the post-George Floyd bandwagon suggests. If we are serious about ending oppression, we need to be serious about preparation, rigor, accountability, and integrity — just like in any other field on which our very lives depend.
This includes business practices. The DEI field is not honest about the glaring lack of meaningful results we’ve produced, much less committed to correcting this failure. One reason is ignorance — most practitioners don’t read (or conduct) research. Another is that most of us approach our work from a hierarchical, scarcity-mentality, misaligned, disembodied orientation which runs counter to ending oppression. We miss or ignore the big picture, fail to live sufficiently from core values of DEI, overreact to the dictates of the market and our paychecks, and lose direction.
In particular, too many DEI consultants over-defer to clients instead of staying focused on equity. I’ve heard too many of my former colleagues say, with relief, “the client liked it” when describing a completed piece of work. In so doing, they reinforce organizations’ misguided preoccupation with employees’ feelings, instead of working to end oppression. Like the leaders I saw during my social work years, these consultants are more (unconsciously) dedicated to growing revenue than creating a world that works better for more of us. In reality, clients often “like” solutions because the client is uneducated, or the solution made stakeholders feel (or look) good. That doesn’t end oppression. In fact, powerful stakeholders “liking” DEI too much can be an indicator it’s going in the wrong direction. It might just be glitter on sh*t — paint on rotting walls and expensive couches in useless rooms in the wrong part of the building.
Clients often “like” solutions because the client is uneducated, or the solution made stakeholders feel (or look) good. That doesn’t end oppression.
“How are we supposed to make a living, then?” counter DEI practitioners in response to this critique. My reply is the same as it was to my social work colleagues: “How are you planning for your own obsolescence?” On an article I wrote about DEI, a right-winger once called me out for profiting from racism. He was right. That awareness is why I used to talk some clients out of working with me (or anyone else) if launching a DEI initiative would be ineffective, premature, or even harmful. It’s also why I planned for my obsolescence by ensuring both my businesses weren’t 100% dedicated to DEI; that way I avoided being overly invested — literally — in the very thing I declared I was committed to ending.
But even if the DEI field developed more rigor, professionalism, integrity, and unity, there’s a bigger obstacle to staying in the profession. I believe that DEI isn’t the work we need most right now.
4. The work that’s being done isn’t the work we need most.
On May 14, 2020, I was the guest on a podcast hosted by an African American colleague. The world was two months into COVID-19 lockdown, and listeners appreciated our lively discussion about “Leadership, Integrity and Intention During the ‘New Normal’”. I talked about how organizations didn’t need DEI as much as they needed spaciousness, a humane workload, true leadership, and attention to relationships. I talked about how our nation — six months before the presidential election — needed to find more commonalities to bind us together in united purpose to tackle the problems we face. I said I’d be publishing an article soon to expand on those initial thoughts about what we needed more than DEI.
Eleven days later, George Floyd was murdered. The world erupted, masses of white people woke up to racism, and the DEI field exploded.
I didn’t publish that article. Now two years later, in the great cooling-off of anti-racist fervor, it’s time to talk again about the work we need right now more than DEI. I believe there are six actions which require our immediate, sustained commitment to get organizations off their respirators, and society out of the ICU.
- Transform the “building”. We must profoundly re-imagine how to live together. We must re-envision what qualifies as “work”, how we get our basic needs met, and how we each contribute to the collective. Most of us in the professional class are nonessential workers. Most of our organizations (a) cause our core problems, (b) create things we don’t need, or (c) stem the bleeding caused by our failure to invest in the commons (i.e., nonprofits). We require a revolution in purpose, meaning and identity — individually and collectively. And whatever form organizations take, they need the effective leaders and healthy cultures described above. Without this transformation, DEI is just paint slapped on a rotting wall.
- Identify common goals and build unity. If we’re going to live together, we must figure out what makes it worthwhile to do the difficult work of living together. We must discover what we can agree on. If we can’t find enough worthwhile reasons or agreement, we must find a way to live apart. If we don’t, like any unhappy couple or family, we’re going to tear each other apart, and infect anyone near us. Leveraging diversity and co-creating equity can only happen with a foundation of trust and commitment based on sufficient common ground and a shared story.
- Pass, and strengthen, essential laws and policies. Many of the last century’s equity achievements are under coordinated attack by the right wing — and the far-right is increasingly organized and violent. We must fiercely protect the Voting Rights Act and Roe v. Wade, pass the Equal Rights Amendment, do away with the filibuster and Electoral College, and end gerrymandering. We must pass and enforce rigorous laws around living wages, humane working conditions, corporate tax liability, corporate accountability, and limits to executive compensation. We must reinvest in the commons by supporting union organizing, public campaign financing, public education, and public healthcare. Laws and policies create equity, and they require immediate concerted focus in the face of direct threats.
- Engage in deep personal healing work. Each of us must begin to heal our individual and inherited traumas. We must develop greater self-awareness, self-reflection, self-care, and self-compassion. We must build our capacity to feel, metabolize and transmute our emotions. We must learn to self-regulate and choose effective behaviors. We must develop discernment and maintain healthy boundaries. We must expand our capacity for courage, clarity, and accountability to ourselves and others. We cannot co-create equity on a collective scale without maturing as individuals. When we don’t do our “personal work”, we stay stuck in systems of internalized oppression and perpetuate oppression through unconscious patterns of harm.
- Engage in communal healing work. Individuals cannot heal in isolation, nor when surrounded by a toxic environment and unhealthy people. Also, much of our trauma and harm happened on a group scale, so it must also be healed as a group. We must vent the centuries of accumulated rage in a safe container until every last roar is uttered. We must create spaces for collective grief and mourning until every last tear is shed. We must reckon with our past through truth and reconciliation commissions, art, and ritual. We must actively repair damaged relationships and violated trust, and take radical responsibility for ourselves and the state of our communities. We must mature as societies by creating a path for each individual to discover their unique gifts and best contribution to the community. Without collective healing, we stay stuck and perpetuate oppression through communal patterns of harm.
- Make more art and express more creativity. Creativity helps us be human, and humane. Art in all forms keeps us alive and wanting to be here. Creative expression connects people and inspires our imagination. We need more humanity, more thriving, more connection, and imagination — not just to live together, but to co-create equity.
Without committing to these six actions, DEI as it’s practiced today is worse than just glitter on sh*t — it’s a waste of vital energy, a primary source of divisiveness, and a subconscious vehicle for venting centuries of grief and rage. It’s a steel buttress for a decaying building that needs to be demolished.
Without committing to these six actions, DEI as it’s practiced today is more than just glitter on sh*t — it’s a waste of vital energy, a primary source of divisiveness, and a subconscious vehicle for venting centuries of grief and rage.
5. The foundation necessary to do the work we need is lacking, and eroding.
The work that’s needed to do DEI right and co-create equity sounds impossible to many, but I firmly believe we can do it. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can mobilize vast amounts of money, people, knowledge, and creativity when we find the will — because we believe it’s necessary.
However, not only do we lack sufficient will to co-create equity, our culture is moving away from readiness. The lack of transformation that DEI efforts have failed to catalyze and the lack of rigor and unity in the field aren’t enough to make me leave. After investing decades of study, effort, and creativity, I wouldn’t exit unless I believed that continued investment would yield dramatically diminished returns, and at increased cost to myself.
Four trends have undermined our readiness, and eroded the foundation needed to do DEI right.
- Epidemic levels of stress, trauma, and overwhelm. We are more stressed than people our age 30 years ago, including younger people. People are overwhelmed like never before with relentless overwork, impossible expectations, ubiquitous screens, ongoing pandemics, economic volatility, institutional decline, and climate chaos. Stress is driving epidemic levels of chronic illness, substance use, anxiety, and depression. The distortions of social media and 24-hour news amplify a false sense of urgency and scarcity. Humans cannot connect, listen, learn, or innovate broadly without sufficiently settled nervous systems. Overwhelmed bodies and minds simply cannot successfully navigate a challenging transformation without first experiencing relief and spaciousness.
- Extreme political polarization, mistrust, and violence. The U.S. has become increasingly polarized over my lifetime, with the right moving farther to the right than the left has moved left. We no longer trust each other or our institutions, and neither agree on “facts” nor share a common story. The far-right is increasingly vocal, organized, and violent — January 6, 2021 was only the tip of the spear. More and more, we vote strictly along party lines, see “the other side” as the enemy, and lack a shared set of values and rules most are willing to respect. In both camps, we now squash dissent within our own ranks and express hostility towards moderates. Powerful interests, including social media companies, encourage outrage, polarization, and misinformation for their own short-term financial and political gains. In some corners of DEI and the political left, there is a destructive trend of extreme cancel culture, rigid expectations of consensus and perfection, and a distracting over-focus on terminology and language policing. We cannot do difficult work together without trust, respect, shared goals, and a shared story. Our very democracy is in grave danger, and if we do not salvage it, DEI is moot.
- Over-reverence for corporations and workplaces. We expect workplaces to meet multiple human needs they cannot. We expect corporations, or billionaire megalomaniacs, to solve problems they are neither equipped nor motivated to solve (because their primary goal is profit). Co-creating equity requires tremendous time and long-term commitment, solid relationships, and tolerance for mistakes — line-items organizations don’t budget or plan for. See, those who fund DEI initiatives don’t really want transformation (unconsciously). Equity requires those with too much power to relinquish some, but those with power aren’t motivated to change the status quo, because it’s precisely how they obtained power. Organizations are the focus of most DEI work, but they cannot and will not lead the transformation we need.
- Rigid commitment to diversity and integration at all costs. I’ve seen no compelling evidence that women, girls, and people of color do significantly better in integrated spaces. In fact, the chronic stress, unnecessary obstacles, lowered confidence, and poorer performance they experience in mixed spaces is documented in many studies and my experience as a woman and leadership coach. In fact, recent research shows that in both education and health care, black people have better outcomes when their teachers and physicians are black. Shared identity creates safety and trust, which is also why identity-based ERGs (employee resource groups) are a DEI best practice. We should consider that our real problem might not be separation, but the disparate way value is assigned. Maybe the problem isn’t separate spaces, but the way female-only spaces are judged inferior and frivolous, and people of color-only spaces are deemed suspicious and threatening. The initial purpose of assimilation was access, equity, and justice, but assimilation can’t accomplish this — and hasn’t — because power is still exercised inequitably in integrated spaces, and the assimilation approach has patriarchy, white supremacy, and classism baked in. However, our culture cannot tolerate challenges like this to the established catechism of left-wing DEI doctrine.
Things have, indeed, changed in 30 years — and they’re not moving in a promising direction.
The real work of DEI — ending oppression and co-creating equity — requires sufficiently settled nervous systems, adequate trust and unity, and sweeping imagination beyond our current structures and beliefs. It also requires “shadow work” — a walk on the dark side of our individual and collective psyches. Courage, commitment, time, trust, and safe containers are mandatory for such trekking, and we don’t have them. Our culture doesn’t support this kind of work. Yet.
Our culture doesn’t support this kind of work. Yet. Our culture is too immature to carry such collective clarity, courage, creativity, and power. For now.
And those with lots of money will not pay for such work. It’s too unpredictable and too threatening to the status quo — which is its purpose. Our culture is too immature to carry such collective clarity, courage, creativity, and power. For now.
This work also requires radical honesty, starting with ourselves. My truth is that I cannot do DEI anymore. I’m not just unfit for duty, I’m having déjà vu. As with social work, I’m frustrated with a field out of integrity, and out of alignment with what I believe is not only possible but necessary. We “radical idealists” have always been the ones pointing towards the future, but it can be lonely in the present. As it was 30 years ago, I haven’t found enough likeminded kindred to join me, or to join. Yet.
But when the tide finally turns, if I still walk the earth, I will gladly dive into those surging waves.