Big words — but what do they mean?
Setting a common understanding — my guiding principles for DEI work
As with any other field, there are different schools of thoughts on how to achieve the goals of increased diversity, equity and inclusion. How we do this work matters. As with everything else, I don’t believe that the ends always justify the means. The means themselves — the way we achieve our goals — are critical. The way we work is what speaks about the values we hold.
In my work, I use three integrated and inter-related guiding principles to guide 100% of mywork. These principles build on the best and emerging practices and the latest innovations within the field of DE&I. In addition, I know that doing DEI work in social impact is different than doing work in tech or finance — our staff is motivated by different values and needs; and we interact with the world in different ways. As such, my principles also reflect the mission-driven nature of international development work and the values-driven ethos of international development professionals.
They also explain how I’ve personally evolved from doing diversity, equity and inclusion work to doing decolonizing, equity and impact work. This is how I work:
Decolonization. Increasingly in development work, we are adding in political and economic analysis in order to create transformative change. The last missing ingredient is historical analysis. As know from our own experience in the United States, simply ending slavery or the Jim Crow era did not erase the lasting impacts of history. Likewise, the legacy of colonization, imperialism and other historical and societal forces that drive privilege in each location are as deeply entrenched. I use “decolonization” as a catch-all phrase to help us break down these multi- and inter-disciplinary forces that create the current status quo. The process of decolonization also acknowledges and helps us to analyze the impact of homeostasis. In other words, this is the lens I use to acknowledge and understand that there are conscious and unconscious forces at play that are committed to maintaining the status quo. What this helps us do is recognize how much intentional work has to go into creating change — good intentions and increased knowledge isn’t enough to change the staus quo. Decolonization is the process through which we do the intentional, conscious work to understand and this dismantle the current status quo.
Evolution to Liberation. In the DEI space, we often talk about the difference between equality and equity using this compelling box graphic (see graphic below) that helped us understand that if three people are given equal resources (i.e. equality) that does not mean that everyone will have the same level of access. This graphic helps us to understand the difference between equality and equity in the work that we do.
As the DEI industry evolved, we saw a critical issue in this first graphic. It suggested that the person in yellow requires more support because they are shorter or in some deficient. So, we updated the graphic to illustrate the reality that some people/groups require additional support because they are starting from a lower starting point. This is a critical distinction — because it states that it is societal or systemic forces, not individual forces that are propelling us toward thinking about equity instead of equality.
But, like every field — the DEI space continues to evolve as we learn more about how the brain work through cognitive science, and as society and our understanding of the societal norms we have again updated both the graphic and the accompanying principles in our work.
The next box in this common graphic depicts a justice-focused approach. In this box, the viewers are taking down the fence — i.e. the barriers to participation. The broader understanding here is that in the long-run, it’s better (and more cost-effective) to remove the need for equitable support systems.
The final box depicts the liberation-focused approach that I use in my DE&I work today. This approach goes one step further from the justice-focused approach. Liberation DE&I approaches are not simply about the barriers that we’re taking down, but about the systems that we are intentionally building to replace what we changed.
This liberation-framework is about sustainability. It again acknowledges that the system will attempt to maintain the status quo — so if we do not intentionally replace a system with something else, the same forces will come back and we will have to start back at Box 1.
This approach requires taking a top-down and bottom-up approach that not only encourages and facilitates an individual and team’s journey through the DEI process, but is about putting in place the systems — including policies and processes and practices — that we need to create something better in its place.
What does this mean? One simple example in women’s or gender work. The matter isn’t simply about propping boxes under women’s feet and calling it a day. It’s about removing patriarchal and misogynistic systemic blocks — and then replacing them with intersectional, feminist-infused, decolonized systems to create something better. This also has to be done through an intersectional lens that looks at feminism and gender transformative work that is holistic and takes into account race/ethnicity, socio-economic privilege, political power, and other critical factors of identity that all compound to create systems of privilege and power.
That is why I use liberation frameworks in my DE&I work — it allows me to work at deeper levels, to address multiple blocks at once, and to work at not only dismantling something we don’t like, and building up something that we do like.
Impact. Much of the research that supports DEI work discusses the benefits of DEI work through two lenses: that it makes employees happier and makes employees more productive (which in turn makes companies more profitable.) That is all true.
Additionally, in the social impact space we are mission-driven — our end goal is not our happiness or profitability, but the change that we can drive in the world. As a result, my work is focused on maximizing impact in the field. Yes, this process usually leads to happier and more productive teams in our offices. But, for us — these intermediate results are stepping-stones to the ultimate destination: increased impact in the field.
In some cases, however, it does mean that some feathers will be ruffled as we disrupt the status quo. That is why the measure of our success is not through satisfaction and happiness alone, but by how much our work is benefiting from this journey that we are tackling.
As a result of these principles, I have shifted my work from doing diversity, equity and inclusion work to doing decolonizing, equity and impact work.
Learn more about my work and the research I’m doing in this area here: www.fnmadvising.com.