"Do Things Really Have to Change!?" Why DEI (Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion) Education Matters
Picture this; you’re 10 years old and your mom decides to surprise you and take you to the toy store you have been begging her about for the past two months. This is a toy store like no other! This toy store has each toy in every size, shade, shape and color. The toys never run out, people are always smiling, and you always find what you’re looking for. When you arrive, the sales associate takes you all around. She explains what toys do what, and how they do what they do! She even lets you test drive the bike you’ve been dreaming about since your 9th birthday! Things get so good, you feel like you’re in heaven! The sales associate gives you all the strategies and techniques on how to maintain these fabulous toys, and you’re feeling prepared to handle this great task. A task you’ve been dreaming of for as long as you can remember! Right when you’re about to check out, you’re hit with a bombshell. Your mom says you can’t take these new toys home because it’s not enough space to accommodate the new toys as well as the old toys that are already there. How does that make you feel!?
If you’re anything like me, hearing this story has you perplexed and slightly annoyed. Why take me to this dreamland? Allow me to get a glimpse of what my life could be like? Teach me how to maintain my new way of life? And then snatch it all away from me!? This is what it feels like for many people who sit through hours of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion sessions and then return to intuitions and workplaces that are just the same as they left them. During my time as a Teach For America Detroit Corps member I was selected to participate in the Educate to Liberate Teaching Fellowship, which was a fellowship that trained teachers to approach education through the lens of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. This fellowship revealed my passion for DEI work and advocacy for marginalized communities. The disparities seen in the schools and communities I served, coupled with knowledge gained through my experience, inspired the creation of the Design For Change J.E.D.I. Educator training.
Why is Discussing Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Important?
Inequity is one of the biggest issues plaguing American society today. In addition to the struggle with civil rights, battle with domestic terrorism, and unequal healthcare, the education woes in today’s society are having detrimental effects on our communities, school system, and most importantly, our children. The opportunity gap refers to the fact that arbitrary circumstances in which people are born—such as their race, ethnicity, ZIP code, and socioeconomic status—determine their opportunities in life, rather than all people having the chance to achieve to the best of their potential. There are so many factors contributing to the opportunity gap that it is difficult to pinpoint one culprit in this seemingly never-ending cycle of injustice. A major component that seems to be missing is an understanding of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. A colleague frequently reminds me that J.E.D.I. work, in its simplest form, is the basic consideration of all human beings. I couldn't agree more.
When we discuss Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, I think it’s safe to say everyone has the right to experience these qualities of life. However, when we think about the history of our country, since its inception, these concepts have only existed in fairytales for many of us. In America, this blemished history has impacted our norms, our perceptions, and our quality of life. People of color, especially Black people, have never quite felt at home, despite literally building this country on our backs with our blood, sweat, and tears. For many people of color, the idea of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion is just a dream deferred. There’s a popular saying within the Black community that says, “You have to work twice as hard, just to get half as far.” When we really take the time to interrogate the moral fabric of this country, we can see the truth that lies within this statement. From being enslaved, to the Jim Crow era, to the fight for Civil Rights, to the creation of red lining, to the War on Drugs, to the Prison Industrial Complex and police brutality, many Black people have never escaped the feeling of captivity.
Presently, we’ve seen how our love affair with injustice has flipped our country upside down and left us naked and afraid. COVID-19 and the response to its impact has highlighted almost every flaw in every sector of our “great” democracy. If we conduct a root-cause analysis, it would become clear that every problem marginalized communities will face during this time is rooted in injustice. With schools closing we are scrambling trying to find an alternative. The quickest response would be distance learning. Now let’s think about what students have access to the resources needed for distance learning and which students don’t? Early in the pandemic, employees that were once considered unskilled laborers were seen as the heroes of our time. These workers were essential and out on the frontlines daily. Yet and still, the minimum wage they received is nowhere close to a living wage. Imagine going to work for a non-living wage that could, in all actuality, result in your death? Dr. Fauci highlighted the fact that African Americans are more susceptible to COVID-19, not due to biological reasons, but to the prevalence of underlying conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and asthma. As a result of redlining, which areas have access to grocery stores that supply fresh fruit and vegetables? When we think about the cost of fresh food, who makes enough money to afford quality foods in addition to other necessities such as electricity, heat, and water? When we think about the air quality and water quality of certain neighborhoods, which neighborhoods are most likely to consist of poor infrastructure? All of these questions will lead you to one point; Injustice.
If Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion were as interwoven into the fabric of our country as racism, misogyny, and patriarchy are, then we would not find ourselves in predicaments like these. As the saying goes, “you are what you eat”, and since the inception of this country the marginalized have been devoured with racism and white supremacy as the main ingredients. Despite extra barriers, people of color have been able to transcend the pit of injustice and accomplish many great things that not only helped advance themselves, but their entire community. When Black people see individuals like Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Tyler Perry, it’s like we see our reflection, letting us know what is possible. When others see these individuals, its easy to assume we are now living in a post-racial society. We all know that’s not true, or we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now. The belief that everything is alright and racism isn’t prevalent anymore, actually aids in the continuation of white supremacist culture.
Why Should We Advocate for Change Right Now?
Most people can agree that DEI is necessary, but some may be questioning why things need to change if they've been this way for so long? There are many arguments that advocate for change. If you lead with your heart, the moral case asserts that each person has value to contribute, and that we must address barriers and historical factors that have led to unfair conditions for marginalized populations. If financial gain motivates you, the economic case is based on the idea that organizations and countries that tap into diverse talent pools are stronger and more efficient. Interestingly, economists see discrimination as economic inefficiency. The Center For American Progress finds that workplace discrimination against employees based on race, gender or sexual orientation costs businesses an estimated $64 billion annually. If that doesn’t make someone want to change some policies then I don’t know what will (haha). The market case suggests that organizations will better serve their customers if they reflect the diversity of their market base. A dramatic demographic shift is under way in the U.S., which will be majority non-white around 2043 according to the Census Bureau. For those of us driven by results, diverse teams lead to better outputs. Scott Page, author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies, uses mathematical modeling and case studies to show how diversity leads to increased productivity. His research found that diverse groups of problem solvers outperform the groups of those that are not as diverse. So regardless of whether you lead with your heart, or lead with your wallet, I think you can now see why DEI is imperative in today’s society.
Angela Davis once stated that “Diversity without structural transformation simply brings those who were previously excluded into a system as racist and misogynist as it was before.” I think that is a great summary of where a bulk of our society is when it comes to DEI. To explore this, I surveyed 25 individuals regarding their DEI training experience. These individuals spanned the spectrum of race, sexual orientation, and social class. Each participant has participated in DEI training in a multitude of roles, including facilitator, session design, administrator, and participant.
Despite being a part of organizations that saw it valuable enough to hold some form of DEI training or workshop, only 20% of participants were a part of organizations that actually made policy changes to become more equitable and inclusive.
All participants noted that policy changes are necessary for DEI training to be successful, with some participants providing additional insight.
The idea of accountability was a common theme and is one that has been lacking in our society. This was echoed by a participant saying “Many organizations don’t have accountability metrics for DEI, and policy shifts are very complicated in large organizations.” The comment that made a light bulb go off in my head was a participant saying “Yes, AND many people/admin/orgs see the training as the action, so developing next steps as part of training is key to keep the pressure on to make policy changes.” It wasn’t until I read this comment that I realized many admin seeing the training as the actual action needed could be the reason for not attempting to change policy. Despite the tumultuous history of my people in this country, I still believe that almost all people want to do right, and would do right, if they knew how to do right. Recognizing the importance of highlighting the fact that the training is just a catalyst to the policy changes that may be needed is a pivotal lesson to learn in this work.
Ways to Support Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Your Organization and in the World
Emphasizing the need for DEI training is the first step. Creating and enforcing policy changes to promote and advance justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion is the utopia. Before I go, I want to leave you with some key ideas to help get us to that dream toy store that is like no other!
Learn about your own history and explore the histories of communities different from your own in order to develop local and global awareness. It is impossible to help people who you don’t understand or appreciate. History of a people will provide great context for what they need and deserve.
Think about your perspectives on controversial issues – identify your own biases and address them by suspending judgment until you gather more information. Knowing where you stand on topics that may be taboo will allow you to be more introspective in becoming more inclusive.
Remember, grace should be given, not earned. We all have heard of the golden rule “treat others how you want to be treated,” but even beyond that we need to learn to give each other the grace that we would want given to us. This grace could manifest in making space for those often marginalized, or even a simple hello.
Lastly, “if you gon’ do something, do it with intention”. There is no point in having meaningless DEI training or talking the DEI talk, without walking the DEI walk. Most people prefer the wolf they can see coming rather than the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Remember, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Hopefully I’ll see you at the toy store one day. I’ll be in the aisle with the beautiful, bald, baby dolls!
“Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Definition: Equity.” The Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, http://kprcontentlibrary.kprdsb.ca:8080/docushare/dsweb/Get/Document-5830/Definition%20Equity%20&%20Inclusion_leadership%20domain.pdf.
Kapila, Monisha. “Why Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Matter.” Independent Sector, 6 Oct. 2016, https://independentsector.org/resource/why-diversity-equity-and-inclusion-matter/.
Mooney, Theresa, et al. “Why We Say ‘Opportunity Gap’ Instead of ‘Achievement Gap.’” Teach For America, 11 May 2018, https://www.teachforamerica.org/one-day/top-issues/why-we-say-opportunity-gap-instead-of-achievement-gap.
Smith, Ruth Serven. “In Charlottesville Talk, Angela Davis Reflects on the Impact and Intersectionality of Political Movements.” The Daily Progress, 28 Mar. 2018, https://dailyprogress.com/news/local/in-charlottesville-talk-angela-davis-reflects-on-the-impact-and-intersectionality-of-political-movements/article_8ab54a16-3239-11e8-9c42-03570a2b7240.html/.
Sun, Amy. “Equality Is Not Enough: What the Classroom Has Taught Me about Justice.” Everyday Feminism, 25 Sept. 2014, https://everydayfeminism.com/2014/09/equality-is-not-enough/