DEI Strategy is Limited and Potentially Harmful: So Now What?

Maggie Potapchuk, MP Associates
6 min readNov 8, 2021




Photo by: Kevin John Fong

“… the language of freedom, nation, democracy, and even the state, in spite of and at times because of its racism, have not been ideologically stable but a battleground. From the radical abolitionist and eloquent freedom orator Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, anti-racist crusaders have worked to simultaneously deploy and expose the duplicity of America’s founding creed and documents. And while it is important to unearth the rock upon which this nation was built, it is important to also remember that racism is alive and well in modified form. The upheaval of the mid-twentieth-century Black freedom movement resulted in reforms in the racial order but not its eradication. To truly uproot racism would require a reordering of the society in rather fundamental ways. …”

— Barbara Ransby, “Racism’s Roots and Branches,” DISSENT. Summer 2021.

Barbara Ransby, author of Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century, clearly states that the future of racial justice work requires disruptors, as it always has. “To truly uproot racism would require a reordering of society.” What does that mean? What could it look like? For the many non-profits and foundations who recently began or deepened their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) change work since the 2020 racial justice uprisings, it is important to be grounded in this statement and to grapple with these urgent questions:

*Will your DEI organizational change process lead to transformative change?

*Will it contribute to eradicating systemic racism and white supremacy?

These are big questions. You may have gulped or been energized or shook your head or even dismissed the question altogether. First, it’s important to interrogate your DEI strategy (more about this later) and come to your own conclusion about whether it will uproot racism. Second, many times organizational change processes are just focused internally. Think about the role and responsibility your organization has to use its voice, power, and privilege in the community in which you reside, in the professional associations you belong to, and in your relationships with peer organizations. We know that structural racism is cumulative, reinforcing, entrenched and is, by its nature, dehumanizing, destructive, wounding, barbaric, and vicious. Therefore, an organization’s accountability is to question whether implementing a DEI strategy will ferociously and tenaciously uproot systemic racism in your organization and to ensure that your responsibility and commitment extends beyond your organization.

The premise of this article is that I don’t believe DEI strategy will uproot racism; however, when implemented well, with a systemic analysis and a commitment to building power, DEI work can contribute to laying groundwork and building internal will to work toward operationalizing racial justice. In Part Two, I share my experience of the limitations of DEI and provide several questions to support you in interrogating your organization’s strategy so you can contribute work toward co-creating a racially just organization.

The Society of Human Resource Management’s Guide to Developing a Strategic Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan provides this definition of DEI strategy:

“Workplace diversity is the collective mixture of differences and similarities that include individual and organizational characteristics, values, beliefs, experiences, backgrounds, preferences and behaviors. While diversity creates the potential for greater innovation and productivity, inclusion is what enables organizations to realize the business benefits of this potential. Equity refers to fair treatment in access, opportunity, and advancement for individuals. Work in this area includes identifying and working to eliminate barriers to fair treatment for disadvantaged groups”[1]

Please see PART TWO to learn more about interrogating your strategy or being explicit if you are using DEI strategy focused on equity.

PART ONE: Why Does DEI Strategy Not Lead to Racial Justice?[2]

Recently, there has been more in the mainstream media about systemic racism and even a spotlight on its impact, including pieces during the COVID 19 pandemic about racial inequities in the health care system, and discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement now reaching a global audience. More people (including whites) have been engaged in the movement. There are also more critiques of non-profits and foundations who continue to embrace the status quo or who have not followed through on their public commitment to racial justice.[3] In response to the national and international calls for action, more organizations have been investing in (starting or doubling down on) DEI work. Still, state-sanctioned violence and the vast racial disparities experienced by Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color are ever-present. It is important to be accountable for the hesitancy to begin or to deepen DEI work. This is not a time to be toe-dipping, or developing deliverables that fit a three-year timeline, or wondering if there is enough time to do DEI work in your organization.

>It is the time to have a strategy that will dismantle structural racism and white supremacy culture.[4]

>It is time to implement a strategy that is focused on shifting power as well as building power of those most impacted by systemic racism.

>It is the time for bold uncompromising changes in organizational structures (policies, practices, and culture) that truly reflect how racial justice can be actualized every day.

I am not trying to minimize the enthusiasm, commitments made, or the work that many organizations are investing in as they have jumped on the DEI bandwagon. I wanted to share my perspective and experience and encourage organizations to interrogate whether there is any unintended impact of using the DEI strategy, if it has caused or potentially is causing harm, and whether they believe it is effective in contributing to achieving racial justice.

The words diversity, inclusion, and equity each have a purpose, yet many times they are used interchangeably, watering down the intent and the impact or saying all three letters while the strategy being implemented only reflects diversity or inclusion. In my experience, it is important to be precise about each of their contributions for change. Each of the DEI strategies can contribute to laying the groundwork for transformational change if implemented well (see chart in Part Two). Though continued interrogation is necessary: follow the intent, the strategy, and the projected outcome.

When you interrogate your organization’s DEI strategy ask yourself:

>Is your organization being explicit in talking about race racism, oppression, and power and are the terms being used to describe the actual intent behind the change process — and reflect the stated outcomes?

>Is your DEI strategy encouraging risk-taking, and working steadily to disrupt white supremacy culture and structural racism, as well as focusing on shifting power?

>Is your organization focused on identifying your organization’s responsibility and contribution to a just and liberated society or is it limited to a set of DEI deliverables?

>Is your organization implementing your DEI strategy with integrity and accountability with your staff and the community in which you work?

Whether you’ve been working for a while or your organization is just starting and developing a strategy, begin with the question of what is grounding you or your organization in this change work. Is it a reaction to a critique? Is it following your peers? Is it the revelation of the impact on inequitable policies? Or did enough people speak up to warrant the launch of a DEI change process? Be true in speaking about why you launched your change process, so that the change is grounded in transparency and integrity. Whatever the impetus, the most critical actions in moving forward with your strategy are building the power of and engaging with accountability to those most impacted by structural racism — Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color, while centering their voices and leadership.

I have witnessed that if a DEI strategy is not addressing structural racism and white supremacy culture as well as shifting power, it doesn’t lead to aligning policies, practices, culture with the value of racial justice. If done well, DEI can contribute to change, but it isn’t enough to create the transformation needed on its own. That said, there are paths forward!



1-Guide to Developing a Strategic Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan, Society for Human Resource Management. Accessed 10/21.

2-Please refer to’s Glossary to learn more about the terms being used in this article.

3-Devich Cyril, Malkia, Kan, Lyle Matthew, Maulbeck, Ben Francisco, and Villarosa, Lori. Mismatched: Philanthropy’s Response to the Call for Racial Justice. Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity. 2021.

4-To learn more about the concept and the characteristics of white supremacy culture, explore Tema Okun’s website:



Maggie Potapchuk, MP Associates

Maggie Potapchuk is president of MP Associates and co-founder of Learn more about her work at