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Solutions for Defeating Performative DEI

With the expansion of DEI efforts and commitments from both for profit and non-profit organizations and corporations, we have seen a hodgepodge of superficial, underwhelming, and performative attempts to improve (or appear to improve) diversity, equity, and inclusion.

So much of what people do around the acronym DEI is window-dressing.

The intent of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts are to “extend opportunities” but they often end up dominated by the narrative that they need a “program” or a “strategy”. Dumpster fire “DEI committees” spring up that do the exact opposite of their intention by delegating these efforts to exhausted, burned out employees, volunteers and allies who get discouraged by the lack of organizational support and investment. When stakeholders don't feel their efforts will result in tangible outcomes they give up, and corporations and organizations get well deserved backlash for their performative non-efforts.

Another issue: Research in a number of areas suggests that diversity and inclusion initiatives inadvertently signal that women and people of color need help to succeed. While a 2021 McKinsey & Company study suggests that efforts have been at least somewhat successful in increasing female representation, we must recognize that efforts focused primarily on increasing female representation do very little to reduce, and may even feed gender stereotypes.

When trying to make sense of why this might be true, individuals tend to underestimate the prevalence of gender and racial stereotypes and the obstacles they create. Doing so leads them to assume that women and people of color need help because they are less competent than their male peers (and, therefore, unlikely to succeed on their own merit), rather than because negative stereotypes put those demographics at a systematic disadvantage.

In the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, we often think we are doing better. In many ways, we are way ahead of corporations and other for-profit structures. But we have a smaller pool to draw from and many of our very best don’t get the recognition, money and resources they need to accomplish their primary objectives, let alone innovate in ways that allow them to truly soar. That can set the tone for a seriously toxic work experience.

And then there’s the outward-facing hypocrisy: Companies who state they encourage DEI while making corporate decisions that accomplish the opposite. We saw a great example of this with the corporate giant Nike, who publicly hypes DEI but who also notably dropped their sponsorship of Colin Kaeperneck after he refused to kneel during the National Anthem. Most recently, Walmart, Netflix, and Wells Fargo have all faced criticism from consumers and employees for failed or performative DEI.

So what actually works? The first step in answering this question is to determine what DEI is meant to actually accomplish:

A diverse, equitable and inclusive economy allows everyone to participate in the growth and development of families, communities, corporate and institutional structures.

It follows through on a commitment to fostering and accelerating leadership opportunities that lead to more opportunities, and growth for the individual. Corporations and institutions benefit when the community is fully engaged in their activities and efforts. Individuals are more likely to participate in programs and policies that are organically organized and implemented by community members who have a say in how things work.

What does this mean in practice?

DEI should not be performative, but organic and woven into the fabric of your organization or corporation. It can start with a critical evaluation of hiring and training practices. Is your organization listening? Or just checking off boxes on a spreadsheet? Here are some really simple ways to consider when evaluating your organization’s DEI policy effect:

University of Michigan Chief Diversity Officer Robert Sellers often emphasized the importance of considering all three topics – diversity, equity and inclusion – which he likened to various aspects of attending a party:

  • Diversity is where everyone is invited to the party

  • Inclusion means that everyone gets to contribute to the playlist

  • Equity means that everyone has the opportunity to dance/experience the music

If everyone is invited to the party and yet no one is responding to the invitation, that's a good sign that your DEI program isn’t working and probably won’t ever work. A party without a playlist of music or laughter or storytelling and the sounds of this kind of silence can be deafening. And it's just not a party if there is no one there.

Andy Posner, Founder & CEO of Capital Good Fund, a non-profit, certified Community Development Financial Institution that takes a holistic approach to fighting poverty. writes, “One of the most importants ways to deal with racial and gender inequality is to have women and minorities in positions of power – not token roles, not “diversity hires,” but roles with real authority–and to have a legal framework that provides powerful protections against discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and more.” His wife experienced this in her work in the biotech industry. After endless meetings and training about DEI, she finds herself exhausted by the topic. To her, it seemed as if management was going to great lengths to treat her like an exotic and delicate flower; other times, she wonders if it’s just about PR or avoiding a lawsuit. One night she said to him,

“You know, instead of talking about this stuff, why don’t they just hire more women and people of color in leadership positions?”

Former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith delivered this message to those in Silicon Valley at a Tuesday morning Axios event: you need to address diversity in your workforces by saying “We know that diversity can sometimes be more uncomfortable because things are less familiar, but it gets the best results.”

Non-profit spaces have a unique opportunity to demonstrate the real power of organic diversity, inclusion and equity, if they can weather the economic ups-and-downs of the nonprofit industrial complex thanks to the the late arrival to Human Rights and Labor Rights Social Justice Movement that included funders, their donors, and grant application processes and reporting requirements that grassroots organizations often had trouble accessing.

In 2022, many sex worker led and harm reduction organizations had to cut down core programs, take a step back and reevaluate their path forward. They also collectively recognized that the dynamics of the workplace within nonprofit, mutual aid and service organizations is staffing and that re-expanding would allow opportunities for higher DEI. Of course it's a gamble, because so much of a nonprofit’s salary allocation is hand-to-mouth. Donors don’t like to subsidize what they determine to be "overhead".

But in an economic bust of a year, there was also opportunity. We got to watch our movement get stronger because we got to see the impact of those organic DEI efforts combined with the expansion of the pool of people we draw from. New allies were drawn to the movement to decriminalize, destigmatize and defang rabid anti trafficking efforts because we came bearing facts and proved to be hardy. Non-profit leadership within sex worker rights, human rights, mass incarceration, LGBTQIA+ rights, harm reduction and in many cases, freedom of speech were transformed into colorful, knowledgeable and impactful voices bringing their lived experience to the forefront of conversations.

If you are committed to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion within your own infrastructure, here are four solid things you can consider:

For the love of all things holy, make sure your people have the tools to do the job. Computers, smart devices with service, the right software, reliable internet connections and “workspaces” are all critical to a successful work environment. It may seem obvious, but the proliferation of remote work since 2020 has highlighted serious inequities in access to basic tools that make opportunities equally available. There is no world where you should not be asking “What do you need to make this work doable?” This is an investment…not an expense. And don’t be afraid to check back in to make sure everybody knows how to use the tools you provide. Slack is useless unless people know the basics of in-thread communication, which channels do folks need access to, and what channels do they NOT need to bother with.

If you want true diversity in your staffing you must have flexibility. Diversity isn’t just about making sure there’s a set of varying racial representatives. We want parents, caregivers, people in different time zones, people with side hustles, previously incarcerated folks, etc, because all have the ability to broaden the way we think about the work we do. That means organizations have to be structured to accommodate the lives of the people who do the work, not the other way around, as is a traditional tenet of American Capitalism.

To quote the great Jacqueline Woodson: “Diversity is about all of us and about having to figure out how to walk through this world together”.

We learned during Covid that almost everything could be accomplished with people working remotely and this organically expands your pool of talent. With the multiple forms of communication modalities, there is literally no excuse to not respond - even if it is to say “I can’t respond to this right now but lets set a time to brainstorm…” or “Can I get back to you by the end of the week?” Find one or two communication preferences and then implement it into the fabric of your organization and you can ask your board, staff and volunteers how they prefer to communicate with the team and then use those until you find one that everybody likes and will use. It might take you several tries but it's totally worth it. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

All of our email in-boxes of “a jungle for which we lack the proper machete…But the simple act of acknowledgement is something we should all prioritize because it's important and it has greatly impacted the ability to network and collaborate on a wide variety of projects and see them all the way through to implementation.

You can have people set their own meeting schedules with other team members to build out their portion of the agenda to ask for clarity, request additional information or resource needs and report back progress in real time. People do NOT need YOU to schedule their one on ones…and - shocker - you don’t have to have team meetings at the same time every week. You can have a “last minute” strategic planning session over texting, Slack and chats and ask someone to “hop on a call” for clarity. At SWOP Behind Bars, we encourage direct communication through a wide variety of modalities that our staff can easily access and we respond ASAP.

We recently discovered a unique opportunity to attend an out-of-network training event that was planned, developed and implemented by community members that is critical to engaging mental health professionals and we were able to sign our staff up within 15 minutes. It was both simple and effective. The conversation started with a link to registration and a text that said “I’d like to go to this thing”. Since we trust our staff to make decisions about what will help them achieve their organizational objectives, the part that took the longest was how to get everyone else on the staff registered.

Virginia Satir, often called the “mother of family therapy,” summed it up best.

“Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible - the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.”

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