Part Two: IT TAKES TIME TO SHIFT DEI STRATEGY: SO NOW WHAT?
… of the article, DEI Strategy is Limited and Potentially Harmful: So Now What?
>>>>>>READ Part One: WHY DOES DEI STRATEGY NOT LEAD TO RACIAL JUSTICE? Full Text of Article.
You may be frustrated after reading Part One, as you begin or continue to interrogate the DEI strategy you’re using and wonder if it will shift power, if your terms align with your stated outcomes, and if it will lead to becoming a racially just organization. You may be frustrated because you have been on a long path already that has been messy, possibly harmful, and has made limited progress. Therefore, if you also come to the conclusion that the DEI strategy will not lead you to your vision of racial justice, it’s not like you can immediately flip a switch and adopt a racial justice strategy. It takes deliberate, sustained work and building internal organizational will.
Here are few offerings from my experience to help you continue and deepen your work by interrogating your strategy, asking some hard questions, considering how to make your case, and continuing to engage others to work collectively for racial justice and liberation. They will also help you deepen your organizational change work beyond just focusing on DEI to one that helps your organization become a truly racially just and liberatory one.
Operationalizing racial justice means reimagining and co-creating a just and liberated world and includes: understanding the history of racism and the system of white supremacy and addressing past harms, working in right relationship and accountability in an ecosystem (an issue, sector, or community ecosystem) for collective change, implementing interventions that use an intersectional analysis and that impact multiple systems, centering Blackness and building community, cultural, economic, and political power of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC), and applying the practice of love along with disruption and resistance to the status quo.1
INTERROGATE THE STRATEGY AND BE ACCOUNTABLE
“Every single time we try to give birth to a new nation, the umbilical cord of white supremacy is wrapped around its neck. We have to be truthful and be really responsible midwives so that we can give birth finally to a new country that is a genuinely multiracial democracy. Our history says we’re not going to do very well, but I have faith, because wherever human beings are, again, we have a chance.”
— Eddie Glaude, author of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and
Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.
July 28, 2020.
In a conversation with a potential client whose request for proposals (RFP) was focused on integrating DEI practices within the organization, I asked whether they are explicit in talking about and working on outcomes for racial equity and justice. The response was, “We focus mostly on equity, and less on diversity and inclusion.” As we continued to discuss how their work was delineated, the person realized that the emphasis was actually not on equity and became defensive. The person made an assumption from my initial questions, that there was bad/good binary insinuation. Instead, my questions were intended to support the organization in getting to clarity and alignment between terms and strategy. I have found that it’s fundamentally important to be accountable to what you say and how you describe your strategy to the people most impacted by institutional racism and white supremacy culture. When implementing DEI strategy in an organization, it’s critical to take risks, to share truths, and to believe the organization will change based on the words you are using and the strategy you are implementing. This is a responsibility we can’t take lightly in implementing a change process and making this investment of resources, time, support, and personal work.
I have witnessed, been a part of, and heard about how the DEI framework can reinforce white supremacy culture, racial inequities, and serve as cover for organizations that keep the status quo in relation to how power operates. Examples include:
>Focusing on number counting, and not on creating policies and practices that are equitable and directly address structural racism.
> Bringing Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) to the table to make decisions in the spirit of inclusivity and communicating that their voices will ‘count,’ while a power analysis has not been used to design the decision-making process, and not everyone has equitable access to institutional power in order to shape policies, practices, and culture.
> Focusing on quantifiable deliverables, and less on being responsive and adaptive to the issues shared and truths told, especially by staff of Color, through an organizational assessment process.
> Investing time learning about the history of oppression, and not including an assessment of the racist impact of our own organization’s policies and practices (history and current) on the communities we work with/in.
The term DEI is used loosely by many organizations and is implemented in vastly different ways. Some DEI strategies may contribute to identifying inequitable practices and policies. Some may build people’s awareness and knowledge of different concepts and interrupt implicit bias. Recruitment and hiring processes may be modified, and more thoughtfulness provided in supporting new staff by discussing the culture of the organization. For some organizations, the message is “look at all of our DEI progress,” yet, these transactional activities are not sufficient, nor will they uproot racism. They do not reflect the shift necessary to align an organization with a stated value of racial justice.
For other organizations — mostly predominately white organizations, the label DEI is sometimes used as a placeholder for deeper structural work being done by internal organizers of change. Those organizers (often People of Color and frequently those with limited institutional power to effect change) are doing the work until senior leadership and the Board catch up, increase their understanding of racism, and make a personal investment in a change process focused on systemic issues. This is a constant tension within the change process. I have seen it play out in organizations as transactional, comfortable, majority-centered actions are being implemented, while the waiting begins … and continues … for a leadership commitment and investment. In the meantime, harm continues, inequitable policies remain in place, and, unfortunately, many of the advocates for change then leave. The process then repeats itself, which is a frustrating, agonizing, maddening process widely recurring in the non-profit and philanthropic sector and … let me repeat… the harm continues. While some folks try to figure out why progress is limited, others beef up the limited progress and use it as excuse for not investing more or taking more risks.
Some may have read the bestselling book by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race, in which she talks about personal work and uses the metaphor of the moving walkway in airports.
Dr. Tatum explains,
“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt… Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around… But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt, unless they are actively anti racist, they will find themselves carried along with the others.”
I recommend using a slightly modified version of Dr. Tatum’s metaphor when interrogating how your organization’s DEI strategy has been implemented. Here are a few examples I have witnessed from different organizations:
The examples in the “moving with” and “moving still” columns provide more clarity about the earlier statement regarding the limitations of DEI Strategy. These columns show examples of how the status quo is reinforced, and minimal change happens using what is being called a DEI strategy. The impact of transactional, minimal, and ‘cover’ actions (actions that on the surface can sound like progress but have no substantive institutional change) is often harm, loss of credibility and questions about the organization’s commitment. Implement DEI in this way can also lead to an assumption of progress, which might ramp down the organization’s investment of time and resources.
On the other hand, the examples in the “moving against” column, highlight how DEI strategy can contribute in laying the foundation for transformational change, as mentioned earlier. These examples address white supremacy culture and structural racism and, most importantly, focus on centering Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color within the organization and on shifting power. DEI strategy still has its limitations, but implementing it in this way, through introducing and using terms such as white supremacy culture, systemic racism, through providing education to understand these concepts, through fully engaging to build internal will and through being accountable to the community and the ecosystem the organization sits in, can help build a platform for transformational change. By doing the latter, it also does not only use an ‘individual’ organizational approach. The practices described in this last column provide substantive groundwork in working toward eradicating racism and the system of white supremacy.
Be Clear About the Risks Your Organization Is Willing to Take and Whether You Are Building Power
When interrogating your strategy, think about the level of risk senior leadership, the staff, and the board are willing to take in actualizing the organization’s value of racial justice. When I, as a white cis woman, talk about risks, I am clear that taking risks carries a significantly lower level of consequences and considerably more ease for me than for my colleagues of Color. What about your organization? How much risk is it willing to take?
The notion of risk gets thrown around a lot. Think about a time when your organization used or considered using its power and privilege to make a stand and/or use its voice and standing in the community for justice or fairness.
> What and who was involved? What happened afterwards? If there were conversations about doing so and a decision was made not to, why not?
> What questions, and/or concerns had to be addressed to increase the level of risk your organization would take?
>How was internal will built and how was the case made for the decision to take the risk?
> What supports were necessary to amplify the organization’s values?
When interrogating your DEI strategy, another simple but complex question is, “Will it shift power in the organization?” In a predominately white organization, just hiring People of Color will not shift power. Nor will creating space to hear more from a racially diverse staff about their perspective on an issue. The system of white supremacy is still present, and the organization still needs to address how white supremacy may be manifesting in its policies, practices, and culture. While having a racially diverse staff will provide different perspectives and experiences and help you understand the impact of what’s happening in the system, it comes at great cost to staff members of Color whose identities have not been centered, and who experience distinct and more intense consequences from current culture, policies, and practices. Keep this front and center as decisions are made about the change process. A sentiment that has been shared many times over in organizational assessment processes is:
“In our organization, “people of color not only bear the brunt of harm from racism at the organization, but they also bear the brunt of harm from the racial equity process, of white people’s learning curves, of the slow pace of change, of mis-steps large and small all along the way.”
BE EXPLICIT WITH YOUR WORDS
“…When we say “race” as opposed to “racism,” we reify the idea that race is somehow a feature of the natural world and racism the predictable result of it. Despite the body of scholarship that has accumulated to show that this formulation is backwards, that racism precedes race, Americans still haven’t quite gotten the point. And so, we find ourselves speaking of “racial segregation,” “the racial chasm,” “racial divide,” “racial profiling,” or “racial diversity” — as though each of these ideas is grounded in something beyond our own making. The impact of this is not insignificant. If “race” is the work of genes or the gods, or both, then we can forgive ourselves for never having unworked the problem.”
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, Foreword in The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison
Being explicit doesn’t only improve communication, it unpacks what is underneath choices about the terms you’re using. Many times, it unearths the challenges present in an organizational system or the limitations organizations have in talking about racism or using particular terms. What is being said? What is not being said? I was recently interviewed for an article about race caucusing for a large membership organization. In my discussion with the writer, I talked about naming one of the characteristics of white supremacy culture (perfectionism) in a joint caucus meeting. When I received my quotes for the article back to review, the term “white supremacy culture” had been omitted. I asked why and was told that the organization had decided that they wanted to attract a wider audience and found this term triggering. For whom, I wondered. I assumed mostly white folks. How did they come to that conclusion for a whole membership? What is the ‘triggered’ response that seems too far out? Rather than just avoiding the term, they could have used it as an opportunity to engage with people and learn more about their reaction to the term.
Here are some questions you can use to unpack which terms your organization decides to use and not use:
Is there a concern about a reaction to specific terms? If so, is your organization reinforcing white supremacy culture by setting boundaries on acceptable emotions? Are you centering individuals’ comfort — not just that of the person or people being ‘triggered’ but also the person who does not want to engage — to avoid a perceived conflict? It is important not to disregard people who have an emotional reaction to a term. Work with others and role-play different scenarios on ways to respond and support their learning. Most importantly, center those who are using these terms and want to work for change. Too many times we marginalize those who want to move forward and keep repeating to them that they should “just wait…”
Is there a concern about not knowing what to say when someone challenges a term? If so, is your organization reinforcing the perfectionism characteristic of white supremacy culture with the idea we must ‘get it right’ in explaining and making the case with no mistakes or receiving an ‘emotional’ response? What would be the consequences if you didn’t have the answer that will lessen an ‘emotional’ response? Isn’t it imperative to take the risk and figure it out? Is ‘not failing’ being reinforced as important in your culture? And more importantly, if your priority is to create a racially equitable workplace, it will be necessary to lean into taking the risks associated with possibly having disagreements or challenging conversations. It is almost impossible to do this work without having a challenging conversation and continued practices leads to confidence and skill building and can lessen potentially anxiety producing moments.
Is there a concern about the term itself — that it just feels radical or that you are unsure of how to use it? If you are unfamiliar with the term — there is a plethora of information, webinars, podcasts, and organizations for you to dig in deep and learn the terms, concepts, and history. It takes time, yet that cannot be a barrier or an excuse. Focus on how you can move this personal work to be a priority on your schedule. If you believe that it is too radical (like white supremacy culture), reach out to other organizations who are using the term. Learn about their individual and collective process to have the term be part of how they talk about their racial justice work. Understandably, there may be more to consider for public messages. Learn from groups who have made the case using racial justice framing and messaging.
Part of an organization’s work is expanding the personal risk tolerance and the organization’s cultural acceptance and support for a spectrum of emotions and reactions while building people’s conceptual knowledge. It’s critical to learn how to have these conversations, how to talk about different terms (for example, by giving examples and sharing stories), and how to prepare for responses that question using particular terms. By being explicit with terms and your intention, you are increasing your own power, taking responsibility, and being accountable in doing racial equity and justice work.
Over the past year or so, we have repeatedly read/heard the term “white supremacy” in mainstream media, not only referring to the increasing intensity of militant hate groups across the country but also in reference to understanding systemic racism. In that context, for organizations that are using DEI strategy, are you talking about white supremacy and systemic racism in your organizational change process? How are you talking about it? What is the impact when organizations are not explicit with these terms due to fear of backlash, even though they are being heard regularly? If your values include racial justice, why aren’t you naming it? What are you implying by using DEI, and what missed opportunities are occurring by using this language? Who is being harmed by the limitations of the DEI strategy?
Sometimes we (myself included) start conversations by engaging people where we are with our own thinking and worldview — using what might seem to others as social justice jargon. The approach for others (and my own earlier approach) is to meet people at their comfort level, staying away from explicit terms, and then spoon-feeding information based on tolerance and/or facilitating cognitive dissonance activities/discussions to raise their comfort level and expand their worldview. Another approach is to connect with people’s values first by asking the question, “What would an organization look like and feel like if it practiced rigorous humanity?” Then, we can just beam delighted attention and listen to all the possibilities they share, connect with similar values, build relationships, and begin engaging to work together on transforming the organization.
Co-Create Your Racial Justice Vision
“The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move toward freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.”
— Bell Hooks, Love as the Practice of Freedom
As you have been reading through this and thinking about introducing new terms or raising questions about how DEI strategy gets implemented, you may get ahead of yourself and envision how people may resist the efforts. Yet, it is hard to imagine people resisting the concepts of justice, access, and fairness. Forecasting resistance can end up being an excuse for not moving forward. If we are centering relationships and working on creating a community of practice, action, and accountability, this binary way of working with or resisting the change process will lessen. We can then focus on our responsibility to inquire and understand what is behind how a person is responding and engage with them, rather labeling someone and possibly writing them off.
In my work with organizational partners to operationalize racial justice, one of the most asked questions during initial meetings is, “What will be different?” I typically share case studies and what I have witnessed of other organization’s progress, though a top ten list of organizations who have operationalized racial justice in their policies, practices, and culture doesn’t exist (and likely never will). And there isn’t a linear change process. There are twists and turns, and lots of messiness as organizations work through their history and envision a just future. Your staff, management team and board need to envision and shape the future — individually and collectively. It’s important to reflect on how you will personally and collectively be responsible to each other and with your constituents/community on moving the work forward.
When I talk about envisioning, it is about dreaming. To prepare for this dreaming, do everything you can to set aside your hesitations and fears, your current narratives about change, and, for some whites, challenge your zero-sum worldview of racial justice (the idea that if one group experiences justice, another group will not).
WHAT IS YOUR VISION OF A RACIALLY JUST WORLD?
As you picture and delve into your vision of the world, be specific about how and what your organization can contribute. When you imagine a racially just and liberated world and your organization’s responsibility and contribution, what is the best strategy to get you there? Does a DEI strategy provide the substantive, courageous, and bold change necessary to transform your organization and shift power? And if not, what will? What are you going to do next to contribute to your vision of a racially just organization and a racially just world? Then what are you doing tomorrow?
It is our responsibility forever now — individually and collectively — to work every single day with passion, vigor, joy, and the deep belief that our vision for justice and liberation is and will be our reality — if not for us then for our children and future generations.
“So don’t walk away. The child needs you, too, don’t you see?
You also have to fight for her, now that you know she exists,
or walking away is meaningless.
Here, here is my hand. Take it. Please.
Now. Let’s get to work.”
— N. K. Jemison From, How Long ’Til Black Future Month?
This article has been fermenting in my head for a while, and my thinking and perspective have been informed by so many discussions with colleague and friends. I am also grateful to client partners who have been critical in thinking through the scaffolding of operationalizing racial justice and were generous, supportive, and leaned into the change process with grace and curiosity. I also want to appreciate and celebrate, Lila Cabbil, known to many as Mama Lila,
Avis Ransom, and Dianne Lyday. In conversations with each over the years, we delved into examining our practice, critiquing it, and sharing our ideas and hopes. Though the conversations are no longer, I hold those memories dearly. There are several individuals who encouraged the development of this article and also those who graciously offered to review and share their feedback and guidance. They asked hard questions and challenged me. My warm appreciation and gratitude to Diane Goodman, Raquel Gutierrez, Todd Hoskins, Simran Noor, Brigette Rouson, and Scott Winn. Thanks also to Linda Guinee who is a skillful editor and incredibly helpful in thinking through the flow and the logic. My appreciation to marta nunez for her beautiful design work.
For more than decade, Gita Gulati-Partee of OpenSource Leadership Strategies and I have partnered on organizational change projects and have had discussions about racial justice organizational change processes and DEI strategy. I am deeply grateful for these provocative discussions, her valuable feedback, and for being my partner in the REACH Cohort. My gratitude to the Borealis Philanthropy’s Racial Equity to Accelerate Change (REACH) Fund for their support. Over the past several years, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in different practitioner circles — including Within Our Lifetime National Network, Borealis Philanthropy’s REACH cohort, RoadMap Consulting, and Deep Equity Practitioners — and in each of them I was and am grateful for the opportunities to learn from and mutually share lessons with some amazing colleagues.
“I tend to think we must not ask whether it is possible for a human being or society to become just or moral; we must believe it is possible. Those who believe we are likely or destined to fail — because the Dreamers hold all the power and our liberation is up to them — can easily tell themselves they are “in the struggle” when they show up at a rally with a sign, or go on Twitter or Facebook to rant about the police, then do no more. But those who are in it to win it, and who believe in their own power and understand their responsibility to use it wisely, cannot so easily lie to themselves about the utility of random or halfhearted gestures. Greater precision of thought and action is required.”
— Michelle Alexander
Review: ‘Between the World and Me,’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The New York Times
 Maggie Potapchuk, “Operationalizing Racial Justice in Non-Profit Organizations” (MP Associates, 2020). This definition is based on and expanded from the one described in Rinku Sen and Lori Villarosa, “Grantmaking with a Racial Justice Lens: A Practical Guide” (Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, 2019).
 Examples of how white supremacy culture manifests in organizational development practice are highlighted in the article “Understanding and Disrupting White Supremacy at Work: An Action and Inquiry Guide for OD Practitioners,” Kimberly A. Walker. Organizational Development Review. Vol. 53, №3. 2021, pp. 41–47.
 Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Daniel Tatum, 1997. p.11.
 The labels of Dr. Tatum’s metaphor have been modified. See the following resource to learn more about how to address ableist language — Instead of these Ableist Terms, Use Inclusive Language at Work, by Monica Torres, Huffington Post.
 Read more about Individualism as a characteristic of white supremacy culture on Tema Okun’s website, Divorcing White Supremacy Culture to consider how your organizational change process may reflect some of these behaviors.
 Read more about Perfectionism and One Right Way as a characteristic of white supremacy culture on Tema Okun’s website, Divorcing White Supremacy Culture.
 There are plenty of lists of resources to explore on this page of www.racialequitytools.org
 Check out the resources on the Communication page of www.racialequitytools.org
 White Supremacy is the belief (ideology) that white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions. While most people associate white supremacy with extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis, white supremacy is ever present in our institutional and cultural assumptions that assign value, morality, goodness, and humanity to the white group while casting people and communities of color as worthless (worth less), immoral, bad, and inhuman and “undeserving.” Drawing from critical race theory, the term “white supremacy” also refers to a political or socio-economic system where white people enjoy structural advantage and rights that other racial and ethnic groups do not, both at a collective and an individual level. “What Is Racism?” − Dismantling Racism Works (dRworks) web workbook.
 On a side note, why are we using an acronym for organizational change work (e.g., JEDI [Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion], DEI, DEIB [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging])? Why don’t we just state that our vision is racial justice? Or state our vision of contributing to a just and liberated world? By using an acronym, are we hiding the essence of the work our organization is really doing/wants to do and then lessening our accountability to our vision? And by using an acronym, are we missing an opportunity to share and engage people in co-creating a vision of justice and liberation? Are we missing an opportunity to normalize this discussion? A few questions to ponder later…and a continuing discussion…
 Cognitive Dissonance as a Strategy in Social Justice Teaching, Paul Gorski. Multicultural Education. Fall 2009. p. 54–57.
 Please read more about resistance in Grantmaking with a Racial Justice Lens by Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity.
 To learn more, see “Racism as a Zero-Sum Game,” Michael Martin, NPR. 7/13/11.
 If you need some inspiration, here are a few books to explore: All of Octavia Butler’s books, How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemison, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, and Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi and many more…Check out Uncle Bobbie’s Bookstore.