The cultural impacts of a racialized pandemic have created a rejuvenated interest in DEI spaces over the past few years. Such interest has opened new doors for folks to join the ranks of “DEI experts,” while also creating new pathways for underrepresented peoples to gain access to positions of power—and perceived power. According to LinkedIn data, between 2015 and 2020, there was a 71% increase worldwide in all DEI roles. The number of people globally with the “head of diversity” title more than doubled (107% growth).
Despite this growth, not much has changed regarding the power structure in these spaces, which still center on C-suite (statistically less diverse), and tend to be populated with groups that are less knowledgeable on research in the DEI space. Black and Indigenous people and other people of color (BIPOC) make up just 17% of the C-suite, according to Gartner, a technology research and consulting company; less than 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs publicly identify as LGBTQ+.
This power imbalance is further compounded when people in these positions of power fail to actively engage in corporate DEI training themselves, which often means a missed opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the factors impacting underrepresented peoples.
As part of my academic work in the DEI space,leading up to my appointment as the director for RAND Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy (CAREP), I was heavily engaged with an organization called #BlackandBrilliant, an advocacy group for creating a more diverse workplace. In 2020, I was part of a series of conversations focused on “Breaking through the Middle” and had a LinkedIn conversation with Ronnell Rock, the managing director of Brand Apostles, who said that among the challenges of the C-suite paradox are “building and maintaining diverse pipelines for hiring, holding everyone accountable for building sustainable infrastructure, devoting leveraged energy to the mission, and achieving measurable outcomes.”
As a byproduct of these conversations, I started to ask myself what it means to be an “expert” in the DEI space, who gets to make that determination, and how these folks might best create a DEI framework within organizations and businesses that reimagine power and positionality in equitable ways?
Here are seven strategies for building a more equitable DEI program:
Embrace equity-centered design
Equity-centered design is the practice of involving diverse communities throughout planning and implementation, to allow their voices to impact solutions to the inequity at hand. Equity doesn’t happen by chance, but with intent and focus. While it is a broad practice, applicable to all kinds of institutional environments, equity-centered design lends itself well to education and learning—and it has applications for research design. It can also be used to redesign existing power structures in an organization or business, such as advisory boards.
One example comes from my work at CAREP, where our equity-minded board members include public and private sector leaders who provide wealth in at least one of three key areas: critical strategic guidance around community knowledge and advocacy, academic research and/or policy expertise, and relevant philanthropic experience that will help to meet the objectives of racial equity research and policy analysis at RAND.
Partner with trusted messengers
While a profitable consulting sector has risen up to help companies achieve their DEI goals, they often exclude the voices of the communities their work is supposed to advance. For organizations wanting to pursue DEI, partnering with trusted messengers within underrepresented communities is not an act of charity or goodwill, it is an act of economic and social justice. Establishing trusted messengers takes time, active listening, and humility. This means relinquishing some power to allow others to feel included in the conversation. It is important to note that due to lack of access in specific communities, it will take time to create the feeling that they are a part of the conversation. One strategy I would recommend is to create safe and brave spaces for folks to articulate their understanding of DEI without judgment, and allow for growth at all levels of the organization. This means facilitating difficult conversations with intention. Here’s a few strategies for developing trust:
- Engage in community stakeholder conversations that intersect with your company stakeholders and culture—invite community members as well as company staff members to regular dialogues that create space for input, opinions, ideas, and feedback.
- Don’t be afraid to formalize discussions: specify who gets to speak when and for how long and what topics are “off-limits,” and assign roles, viewpoints, questions, or topics in advance.
- Allow data and reflection to drive the conversation, not emotion. The focus of deliberation is on the exchange of ideas rather than trying to win everyone over to a singular viewpoint. Recognize where and how reasonable disagreement can exist, and give folks time to build on each other’s ideas, rather than assuming every issue has just two or three possible viewpoints.
Including trusted messengers can enable us to shift the optics away from the superficial reasons organizations might engage in DEI—it refocuses this work on real organizational and systemic change.
Offer DEI learning opportunities
One person cannot change an organization. It takes a team of individuals trained in DEI spaces to truly create organizational impact. It is also crucial to recognize that people will be in different parts of their journey. That is okay. You cannot expect each person to be in the same space. Taking a developmental, ongoing approach to DEI learning opportunities is vital to allow such learning to spread across your organization. In my work at CAREP, I have set up learning opportunities that target different levels of knowledge in the racial equity space (introductory, intermediate, and advanced). This should be an iterative process. No one can know all there is to know about DEI. Things change, terminology expands, and issues that impact DEI evolve. You must build a fluid, not stagnant, structure—or risk getting left behind.
Include wellness in DEI
Another potential strategy is to destigmatize mental health breaks and exhibit healthy work/life boundaries by role modeling healthy corporate norms and processes. This might encourage employees to find mentors or sponsors who can help with balancing personal, professional, and (if applicable) spiritual needs. Or this might look like a corporate-wide healthy work/life balance program. At the organizational system level, this might involve prioritizing mental well-being by offering self-care days, instituting more robust holistic health programs that address racial fatigue and trauma, and embedding required well-being and self-care components in leadership and employee competencies.
Realign around inclusive language
Drop noninclusive terms like “diversity hires.” Conducting a thorough analysis of your organization’s culture and employee experiences within that culture and across stakeholders is a good first step. Language is culture, and how we frame our DEI-related terminology matters. One strategy for developing inclusive language is to create a list of words and ask stakeholders to provide their definitions. Leadership could then cocreate working groups to finalize terms. It would be important that these groups are comprised of different levels of people in the organization and that leadership of these subgroups has leadership representing different levels of the organization. Doing so illustrates an intentional recognition of power dynamics that may be in play within the organization and expands ownership of definitions to a larger group of stakeholders at your company. As part of your process, be sure to recognize and celebrate those who were a part of the process and not just the folks who remain engaged through the entirety of the process. Everyone’s contributions matter, even if the DEI engagement is intermittent.
Reexamine written vs. actionable commitment
This would mean interrogating your organization’s articulated and implied “why” for committing to this work. It also means monitoring your organization’s strategic follow-through on identified blind spots and gap areas. For example, you could read over materials and listen to leadership to determine if the work is rooted in principles like “competition, innovation, profit” versus concepts like “collaboration, inclusivity, and active listening.” If the former rationales supersede the latter, then you should think critically about the authenticity of the work in that space. Committing to diversity and inclusion for “profit margins” only pales in the backdrop of a sociopolitical environment where oppressed populations are literally under assault.
Create ongoing checks and balances
Adding ongoing checks and balances on all levels of the DEI organizational process can hold everyone accountable, from the C-suite to entry-level employees. It is important to reiterate that all stories must be included in these conversations and training; I state this because I have frequently encountered exceptions for middle management and the C-suite. When this arises, the DEI loop is broken. Often, the policies in these spaces are drafted at the top, so it is crucial to make sure that all levels of leadership are held to the same standards as employees. As Ronnell Rock said to me, we all need to “stay focused beyond the moment to ensure movement.” I would take this one step further: Sustainable change occurs when we begin to take a hard look at our various life experiences and practices, and only when we unpack those can we create truly equitable workplaces.
Rhianna C. Rogers is the inaugural director of the Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy and a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Rogers is an expert on cultural and ethnic studies, intercultural competencies and diversity education, cultural mediation, and virtual exchange programmatic development and implementation.