10 Things Equity Practitioners Should Think About While DEI Jobs are Being Cut, Funding Slashed, and the World is Still on Fire
For the past few months or so there has been a never-ending barrage on my LinkedIn feed of people stating their opinions around the decline of DEI. Some assert that DEI is not dead while others are genuinely and rightfully concerned about the priorities of all these organizations large and small that promised they would work for change in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Well, here we are three years later—and if the Supreme Court is any indicator—we the minoritized are sitting with even less protections of our rights and humanity. So, what’s a DEI practitioner to do? I’ve compiled a list of 10 things I hope you think about, to center the urgency of the work and help us strategize collectively to pull, push, or drag it forward.
- We have made progress. Yes, the world is still on fire. The Supreme Court has decided that I don’t need control of my own uterus and that race is no longer an important factor in opportunities. And the world is quite literally on fire. But all is not lost. In the three years since the murder of George Floyd, many places across the country, including Indianapolis, have seen measurable growth in racial equity. Just this year, the city of Indianapolis has called for the redevelopment of Indiana Avenue, the historic cultural haven of Black Indianapolis destroyed in the mid 20th century. The original request for interest from the city cited “reconciliation” of the Black community as a primary outcome. The city has also implemented a clinician-led response team to replace police presence when appropriate during mental health crises. In a city where you couldn’t really even say Black a few years ago, this is measurable progress. Sociology and race scholars like Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Victor Ray would have us believe the outlook is bleak. Their perspectives suggest that racism is deeply ingrained in our society, seemingly impossible to eradicate. Yet, amidst these somber projections, there is a shared belief, and one that I hold dear, that the fight for liberation is essential. It is through this fight that we refuse to be complicit in our own dehumanization. Despite widespread nihilism, I find solace in the belief that systemic change is not only possible but attainable through tangible, measurable efforts. I actually find no greater joy than in helping organizations measure that change. I mean, I probably could find greater joy, but the point is I really like it. We can refute the notion that we are powerless in the face of injustice and discrimination. We can find strength in the fight for our liberation, embracing the belief that change is possible, no matter how challenging the road may be. Together, armed with data, compassion, resilience, and of course, great strategy we can push forward, sowing the seeds of change and nurturing them until they bear fruit.
- Funding has always been cyclical. Funding for equity initiatives can feel as fleeting as a summer romance. Just like a seasonal trend, there’s a pattern of highs and lows in the availability of resources for equity work. Since the integration of the military, attempts to decrease disparities have seen waves of formal support followed by periods of neglect—we’ve seen multiculturalism, cultural competency training, and now DEI. But fear not, dear equity practitioners, because your commitment to the cause doesn’t depend solely on these monetary tides. As long as there has been oppression, there has been resistance. While large companies may shine a spotlight on Chief Diversity Officer roles today, the true essence of the work lies in the passionate hearts of those dedicated to creating systemic change. The enthusiasm might fluctuate, but remember, you’re in this for the long haul, regardless of the funding fluctuations.
- The People Cutting Jobs May Never Have Really Understood the Work. Imagine working for someone who treats equity initiatives like a trendy accessory they can toss aside when it becomes inconvenient. Pro tip: you don’t want to work for them anyway! Now, I’m not saying this is true for every organization. It’s quite possible that the approach to the work has not moved the needle in any way. They may not have been measuring it. To cut any position is difficult. But a Chief Diversity Officer shouldn’t be the one in charge of doing all of the equity work, that’s everyone’s job. A CDO should be supervising and holding everyone accountable to their part in the work. If that is not the case, then the work was never really for this organization. If you were let go, whatever the reason, it’s still a tough pill to swallow. This might be a good time to analyze who’s really about it and surround yourself with individuals and organizations that are genuinely committed to the cause. Your passion and dedication to making a difference deserve an environment where they can thrive.
- Ensure your approach to DEI isn’t causing more harm than good. We need to be very thoughtful about how we approach this work, because if DEI is not done well in an organization, it absolutely can cause more harm than good. Research has quantified the harmful effects of a poorly-executed DEI strategy. If the work is superficial, merely ticking boxes without enacting transformative change, it can foster a false sense of progress. This, in turn, creates a hostile environment for those who face everyday injustices, stifling their voices and dismissing their experiences as trivial. For instance, imagine a scenario where someone, let’s call her Keisha, tries to speak up about microaggressions. However, her concerns are brushed aside with remarks like, “Why are you always complaining?” “We did that training last year.” “I didn’t mean it like that.” “You shouldn’t be so angry all the time.” Such responses reflect a lack of genuine commitment to DEI and exacerbate existing disparities. As you navigate the complexities of equity work, remember that it goes beyond mere tasks and initiatives. It’s about building relationships, understanding the human experience, and fostering empathy and understanding. A relational approach, which we’ll delve into further in an upcoming blog, emphasizes the significance of listening and learning from diverse perspectives. Collaboration, not isolation, is the key to building bridges and dismantling barriers. But it’s essential to acknowledge that this journey isn’t easy. The impact of your work will be more profound and sustainable when rooted in authentic relationships and collective buy-in. Of course, this doesn’t imply waiting for everyone to be on board before acting. Rather, it calls for a balance between progress and inclusivity. Many organizations have stumbled by approaching DEI in a way that alienates people before any meaningful steps are taken, leading to slow or limited progress. Perhaps the downsizing of CDO roles in some organizations is a result of not providing these leaders with the necessary tools for success. To truly infuse DEI into an organizational culture, it must go beyond being a mere strategic plan pillar or a passing trend. It must become the guiding ethos, requiring thoughtful strategy and change management. This way, your DEI efforts can genuinely flourish and create a positive, lasting impact on the organization and the people it serves.
- Consider a fugitive approach. Many organizations hire Indy Equity because they have specific questions around strategies for DEI. However, many other organizations have hired us because they’re just looking for long-term business strategy, leadership development, conflict resolution, change management solutions, or team building—no DEI required. They have heard good things, so they talk to us. Some of our clients are not even aware that we consider ourselves a DEI Strategy and Research Firm. However, regardless of the nature of our assignment, we always center voices that have been historically marginalized. The work is the work even if it doesn’t carry the title. We call this our fugitive practice, a term inspired by Jarvis Givens who writes about fugitive pedagogy, a practice of Black educators doing the work even when expressly forbidden. I’m sure there are many educators in Florida right now figuring out their fugitive pedagogy. If in your organization, last year DEI was all the rage, and now executives are ready to move on, consider how you might re-strategize your practice to operationalize DEI initiatives under a different strategic priority. The heart of the matter remains; the fight for antiracism, equality, and inclusion doesn’t depend on a fancy title. As culture wars swirl around us, some leaders might shy away from taking a stand publicly, but they’re often more than happy to support initiatives behind the scenes. So, don’t lose hope if the work seems to be masked under a different name. Keep pushing for change, whether it’s in the spotlight or not.
- Evaluate and Make Sure This is the Work You Really Want to Do. Let’s be real for a second, friend. Equity work isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires resilience, patience, and a whole lot of passion. And frankly, it costs a lot. The emotional load required to carry centuries worth of systemic oppression, along with every day microaggressions, and our own personal shit. . . is heavy. Have you ever considered just putting it down for a while? Before you dive headfirst into a new job search, take a moment to evaluate whether this is the work that truly ignites your soul. If you find yourself nodding emphatically, ready to embrace the challenges and triumphs with open arms, then you’re on the right track. But if you’re not entirely sure, it’s okay to take a step back and reassess. Remember, your energy is a precious resource, and it’s worth investing it in the work that aligns with your core values. Not quite sure if you should stick with it? Check out the LeadFree Journey, an experiential series of discussions that will help you focus on how to experience and create freedom IN your work–not outside of it. It’s not about healing and restoration during rest—which is critical—it’s about creating the mindset, conditions, and reality to feel free while doing your freedom work. If your work doesn’t feel liberating to you, it might be time to explore something new, and that’s okay. Participating in equity work shouldn’t rob you of your joy and peace. It should be the source.
- Remember to Rest. I’m truly excited for the Indy Equity Collaborative First Annual Restoration Retreat. Although our organization is young, I recognize the need to model intentional rest for folks who have never seen it. We live in a society that rewards hard work, grit, and sacrifice. . . even when the price is your well-being. So, I’m taking the crew to Puerto Rico for a few days of nature and naps and laughs and solidarity. But mostly naps. I have been inspired by organizations that take care of their staff by insisting on periods of rest. At Beloved, the entire team takes a sabbatical in February. Like, no work. Intentional rest. The. Whole. Month. It doesn’t matter how much satisfaction your everyday work provides you personally, it’s going to take a toll. And in order to keep going, we need to continually fill our emptying cups. I was inspired recently by a post from a mentor, Carmita Semaan, outlining the need not only to remember to rest but to reflect on the many different kinds of rest we need. I immediately created this infographic for the IEC team to prepare themselves for some serious rest. For a deeper dive, check out this original article.
- Find Your People: A big part of the work we do at IEC is focused on bringing equity practitioners together to form intentional collectives of solidarity. Our Just Community Fellowship brings together folx from youth serving organizations across to Indianapolis to share best practices and to build innovatively solutions to emergent issues. We have a cohort for nonprofit leaders beginning in the spring. Doing the equity shuffle alone can be isolating and exhausting. That’s why it’s crucial to find your people. Seek out fellow equity practitioners who share your passion and commitment. Surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals creates a support network, a place to exchange ideas, and a community to lean on when the going gets tough. Connection is key, it will fuel your collective fire and inspire greatness.
- Remember the big picture. In the ever-changing landscape of equity work, it’s easy to lose sight of your purpose and get caught up in the daily grind. But don’t let the noise drown out your original why. Your passion and commitment stem from a deep-rooted belief in making the world a better place, just like your desire to feel good in this life. So take a moment to reflect on why you embarked on this journey in the first place. Reconnecting with your purpose will reignite your fire and remind you of the impact you can make, even during times when funding and enthusiasm seem scarce.
- Your Work Matters, We Can Change Systems Together. Amidst the challenges and the ups and downs of equity work, it’s essential to remember one fundamental truth: your work matters. While the scope of systemic change might seem colossal, the reality is that systems are made up of people. Rhonda Broussard, CEO of Beloved Communities, reminds us that people make up systems. People can change, therefore systems can change. Individuals within organizations drive the transformation of systems. Your efforts in your organization ripple outward and impact the larger landscape.
Think about it this way: when one organization takes courageous steps towards equity and inclusion, it draws the attention of others in the same industry. They notice your progress, your dedication, and your success. And what do they do? They follow suit. It’s the domino effect of change. Your influence goes beyond the walls of your workplace and extends to the broader industry, sparking a chain reaction of positive transformation! I can’t tell you how many times I have proposed an initiative and the first reaction of a funder or strategist is, who else is doing this? Is anyone else doing this as well? How do we copy what they are doing?
So I’m talking to you, Innovator of Equity. Dreamer of Justice. Do not be discouraged by all the LinkedIn posts. We have been here before, and we will be here again. But your work is powerful. The changes you initiate become part of a collective movement, fostering a culture of inclusivity that permeates throughout various sectors and industries. That’s how you change the world—one organization at a time, inspiring others to follow your lead and challenging the status quo.
So, dear equity practitioner, your work matters, and together, we can change systems. So, keep iterating, keep advocating, and keep pushing for a brighter future. You have the power to create a world where equity and inclusivity thrive, one step at a time. The journey may be long, but remember, every journey begins with a single step, and your step is a critical part of the movement towards a more equitable world. Let’s keep working together and changing the world one organization at a time.
Nicole Carey PhDc, founder of the Indy Equity Collaborative (IEC), is a social science researcher with expertise in race, organizational change, and community engagement. IEC is a consulting firm supporting orgs and communities through research, strategy, education, and leadership development. Aside from her day job, Nicole is raising five kids ages 12 to 1 alongside her partner Chris. She’s also an elected Board Commissioner for Indianapolis Public Schools.