Where “Diversity Training” Goes Wrong

Shayla R. Griffin, PhD, MSW
17 min readFeb 6, 2021

10 Essential Questions to Ask Before Engaging in Social Justice & DEI Work

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Over the past few years, there has been an explosion of DEI (Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion) work and “diversity training” in schools and organizations across the nation in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the broader social justice awakening in our country. Americans are learning that — unlike what many were taught — racism, sexism and other forms of oppression remain rampant in our society. It is now common for organizations to employ “Chief Diversity Officers” and pay consultants and trainers to help them become more anti-racist and socially just.

I should know! I am one of the co-founders of Justice Leaders Collaborative, an organization that provides social justice training and coaching to individuals, organizations, and schools. We get a lot of inquiries from people and groups wanting to show up for racial and social justice in more authentic and impactful ways. I am so excited by the growth of this field. However, I am also concerned that as people seek support in their equity and social justice efforts, they often struggle to discern what constitutes “quality” training. Just like any other industry, the approaches and quality of various workshops, organizations, and professionals doing “diversity work,” can vary greatly; and I would argue that there is DEI and social justice work being done that is downright harmful.

Below, I suggest ten essential questions individuals and organizations can ask to help plan and identify high-quality DEI and social justice training based on best practices in the field and my own practice and mistakes. To be clear, these questions are important to ask regardless of the social identities or backgrounds of the facilitators, consultants, or staff you are considering hiring. There is no racial identity, sexual orientation, or political affiliation that guarantees a person has the knowledge and skill to lead DEI work effectively. Exploring these questions before launching a new initiative will maximize the chance that it leads to positive change.

1. How will we get the “right” participants in the room?

One of the biggest predictors of how impactful DEI and social justice training is for participants is their willingness to be there and their personal commitment to learning and growth. Unfortunately, a lot of people falsely believe if you just mandate training you can convince the most reticent people to care about justice. In fact, some leaders think DEI training is “for” the people in their organization who are the most bigoted. It is not.

I often tell people that if the state of the world has not persuaded a person that some things about our society could use changing, there’s nothing we’re going to tell them in a 2 or 4 or 16-hour training to convince them. Instead, when people are forced to participate in a training they tend to either tune out or resist in ways that interrupt the experience for the people who do want to be there. In general we think the best work in this area starts with the willing. There’s more than enough work to do with the people who want to do it. Distracting ourselves with the folks who have made clear they have no intention of shifting is not a good use of energy nor is it an effective way to make change. Sometimes the most resistant people will have relationships and life experiences that light some fire in their souls for this work, at which point the door remains open!

In our experience, putting out an open invitation to participate, including a full description of what the training will entail, and ensuring staff can attend “on the clock,” generally results in adequate volunteers. Positive word of mouth and testimonials from this first group often make the next cohorts much easier to fill.

That said, there are times when mandatory work can’t be avoided. For example, there is some logic to making sure all of the leaders of a school or organization develop a common framework and language around racial and social justice. Similarly, there can be some benefit in making a commitment to equity and justice clear to everyone in an organization through “all staff” sessions. But if the goal is for individuals to change themselves and their practice — which it should be — willingness to do the deep work of unlearning many things we’ve been socialized to believe is a prerequisite. We must be very clear that training will not “fix” people — if there are leaders or staff who do not share the organization’s core values of equity and inclusion, forcing them to attend a “diversity training” is not a realistic change strategy.

2. How will you incorporate an intersectional approach to privilege and oppression?

Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw that describes how a person might experience discrimination as a result of multiple systems of oppression that “intersect.” For example, Black women and Black men both face racial discrimination, but Black women also experience sexism. White women and Latina women both face sexism, but Latina women also experience racism.

Many times when organizations are engaging in what they call “equity” or “DEI” work, what they really mean is anti-racism work, and more specifically most mean interrupting anti-Black racism. While this is important work, it often means that their approaches to DEI lack any broader framing of how racism is connected to other systems of oppression. At Justice Leaders Collaborative we believe it is not possible to create a world free of racism without attending to how racism is connected to classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism and all other -isms. For example, if an organization is committed to being anti-racist, it will require acknowledging that Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are also women, gay, low-income, and have disabilities. As Audre Lorde writes, “There’s no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.”

When facilitators leading racial justice work do not have an intersectional perspective, they can (perhaps unknowingly) perpetuate sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression. In our experience, racial equity work in schools seems particularly vulnerable to implementation in ways that are sexist, classist, ableist, heterosexist, and transphobic.

We have also found that it just isn’t effective to ignore the many “isms” people face. When racism is the exclusive focus of a training, it creates an environment in which people of color are always the face of oppression and people who are white are always the face of privilege, while people of color in the organization may be doing harm to others because of classism, ableism, sexism, heterosexism, or even racial prejudice against other groups of color.

For example, we have worked in places in which male leaders of color were promoting racial equity work while also sexually harassing white women on their staff. Allowing space for the reality that someone can be white and also experience sexism or be a person of color and also perpetuate classism, opens people up to personal transformation in new and important ways. Personally, I know that contending with my own class privilege and the responsibility I have to be anti-classist even as I fight for racial justice, helped me better understand the struggle of white participants to internalize the reality of racism and their responsibility for taking action against it.

While we believe any approach to social justice should have an intersectional perspective, this doesn’t mean an organization shouldn’t focus primarily on racial justice. In fact, we hope many of you do! However, this work must be framed in ways that build a broader understanding of the many injustices in our society. We like to say that we are “anti-all-the-isms.” It is our strong belief that you can’t work for justice while perpetuating injustice, and the only way to ensure you don’t perpetuate injustice is to be aware of the many ways it manifests.

3. How will you ensure that learning will not happen on the backs of people of color or other marginalized groups?

Good social justice work makes clear that it is not the job of people of color to teach white people about racism (nor is it the job of any marginalized group to teach any privileged group about their identity). Trainings that ask Black, Indigenous and other participants of color to share and testify to their pain, excavate and relive traumatic experiences, bare their souls, or tell white people about the daily microaggressions they experience, for the sole benefit of teaching white people and motivating them to change is immoral and unethical. In fact, it reinforces the same problematic white supremacist dynamics such trainings should be trying to interrupt. Moreover, it assumes that all people of color “need” out of racial justice training is to tell white people things, rather than to do their own learning, reflecting, and processing.

The only people of color (or LGBTQIA+ people or low-income people or women) whose emotional labor should be relied upon in a training design are those being paid as leaders and facilitators doing so of their own volition.

This means that good equity and social justice work uses affinity groupings — putting people of color together and white people together (or LGBTQIA+ people together, women together, etc.) when content will be especially emotionally triggering. Good trainers critically consider what people are being asked to share, who is being asked to share, why they are being asked to share, who is likely to experience the most harm, and who it is intended to benefit (hint: if the beneficiaries are the people who have the most privilege, you’re doing it wrong). We often say we feel like we have succeeded when the people of color, the LGBTQIA+ people, and members of other oppressed groups tell us they feel seen and heard, are learning and growing, and that they have not been exploited in the service of justice.

4. How will this training invite people to a brave learning and action space that isn’t rooted in shame?

Good DEI and social justice work should invite people to a brave learning space through the use of guidelines that encourage them to take risks, be vulnerable, acknowledge the difference between comfort and safety, and engage in complex critical thinking. While the task of unlearning and learning can prove uncomfortable and difficult, facilitators should be seeking to help participants reflect honestly and share bravely by modeling this themselves.

This means good training doesn’t use shame as a tool or technique. The goal of DEI and social justice work should always be change — change in worldview, change in behavior, change in practice, and change in our systems. While it is often the case that people experience guilt and shame about the lies they’ve been taught, what they did not previously know, and how they may have previously behaved, our role as facilitators is to help them process and move through guilt and shame so they can take action for justice. After all that’s why we’re in this — to make the world a better place. If the primary goal of a workshop or training is for privileged people to feel bad, or for facilitators to have a space to do their own emotional processing or take out their own (justified) anger (rather than focusing on helping participants in their journey), it will likely be a missed opportunity to help participants take action that would improve the lives of those who are marginalized.

5. How will you balance self-reflection/emotional work and content/new learning?

We think good social justice work has homework. Okay, maybe it doesn’t have to have literal homework, but it does need to build people’s knowledge and show them where they can go for continued learning — what they should read, watch, listen to, in order to learn more. Often people assume that diversity training should be people of color and white people sitting in a room together sharing their life experiences. While emotional and reflective work is important, it is not sufficient in giving people the skills they need to take action for justice. When we fail to provide additional learning about the history, sociology, and economics of racial and social injustice, trainings often develop a problematic dynamic in which people of color share their experiences of racism, many white participants don’t fully believe them, and there is a sort of “let’s agree to disagree” conclusion that leaves most people frustrated and stuck where they already were.

In our experience, quite often when people think they “disagree” about issues of racism, they actually lack knowledge. There is a rich body of equity and justice knowledge that people committed to racial and social justice should be learning. Productive conversations are rooted in developing some shared knowledge and language upon which to base emotional, reflective dialogue, rather than solely relying on the personal opinions and experiences of the participants who happen to be in a given room.

6. Will trainings be led by multiracial co-facilitation teams when the group is multiracial?

When it comes to social justice, the messenger matters as much as the message. As the research and experience out of the University of Michigan’s Program on Intergroup Relations has long found, the best trainings are co-facilitated by diverse teams that include a person who holds the “privileged” identity and a person who has the “oppressed” identity being explored. For dialogues focused on race, this means the best trainings have multiracial co-facilitation teams that are as diverse as possible along other identities as well.

In our own practice, we have found that some white people struggle to connect with facilitators of color, while others are able to process information better when it comes from those who have experienced racial oppression first-hand. We also find that people of color appreciate having a facilitator with shared identities. Diverse co-facilitation teams give participants the best chance of connecting with at least one facilitator, which can be the difference between getting stuck in defensiveness and being able to achieve personal transformation.

We also think it’s important for all participants to have models of “success” they can look to. While there is great benefit for many white people in hearing and learning from experts of color, they need models of how to do this work as white people. For example, no white educator will ever have the background, history, or life experiences to be able to build relationships with Black students in the ways Black educators can. They need models of how other white people have done similar work to imagine how to change their own practice. Similarly, it’s important that participants of color see themselves reflected in the people leading the work and know that there is someone on the team who “gets it” and has some shared life experiences. Facilitators of color can name the experiences of people of color, push and challenge in ways that participants might not be able to, and model humility in areas where they have privilege.

Finally, it’s important for facilitators to model cross-racial relationships. Seeing facilitators work together across race helps all participants have a vision of what this could look like in their own lives. Some of the most powerful feedback we have ever gotten is from Black participants who have shared our training was the first time they have ever seen a white person talking explicitly about being white and about racial justice. Experiences like this can clarify for all participants what it really means to be an ally and accomplice in the work of justice.

One caveat: When groups are doing affinity work, like our courses, “Doing Our Own Work: An Anti-Racist Seminar for White People,” “White People Working for Racial Justice,” and our course in development “People of Color Working for Racial Justice,” it can be appropriate for the facilitators to be aligned with the racial identity of the group.

7. What knowledge and skills do the facilitators bring to the table?

Good DEI and social justice work is led by people with deep knowledge and skill. For white people this means “caring about diversity” or “being liberal” are not adequate qualifications. White people need to do deep personal excavation and ongoing reflection, extensive learning, build relationships of accountability with knowledgeable and skilled people of color who vouch for them as accomplices, and demonstrate personal vulnerability about their own shortcomings and mistakes in order to be ready to facilitate this work.

This also means that being Black (or a person from another oppressed identity group) does not guarantee that you have the necessary knowledge and skill set. Let me put this bluntly. As a Black woman who has spent my career doing racial and social justice work, was raised by a Black family, attended an HBCU, lives in a majority Black community, and sends my multiracial children to majority Black schools, I know firsthand that being Black does not mean you are automatically qualified to educate others about racism, equity, or social justice. Just as there is a body of knowledge and skill around math, there is a body of knowledge and skill when it comes to facilitating equity and justice work. And unfortunately, some people seem to believe this knowledge and skill is passed down in Black people’s DNA. It isn’t. (Note: Black people’s DNA is not unique in any way. Race is not biologically real. This was a joke.)

I am elated that the explosion of DEI work has meant that many people of color, Black people in particular, now get paid to do work that we are passionate about and that is essential to our liberation — pay and work that have been long overdue. However, I see organizations often make the mistake of assuming Blackness alone is a qualification for leading diversity work. Sometimes this means unfairly asking the one Black person or other person of color on staff to lead the diversity initiative or be the head of the diversity committee, solely because of their race; at others, organizations fail to ask the kind of questions laid out in this document when hiring a consultant.

While most Black people have personal experiences with discrimination that lead to a richer and more reality-based understanding of racism, this doesn’t necessarily mean they deeply understand racism as a system, race as a social construct, or other systems of oppression (see #2). In our work we do an exercise called The Wall of History (adapted from Allies for Change) in which we highlight the history of racism and resistance to racism in the United States. In our experience, people of color are often just as shocked by what they learn as white participants.

Similarly, we’ve worked in many schools and with Black educators who are committed to “equity” but engage in all sorts of practices that uphold racism: telling students Africa is a country, sending home materials with images of only white children, saying publicly that Black families “just don’t care about education,” telling Black students if they just “pulled up their pants” and dressed more “professionally” they wouldn’t experience racism, supporting the presence of police officers in schools, leading plays for Thanksgiving in which Black students dress up as Native Americans, and more. Black people go to the same schools, watch the same television shows, and live in the same racist (classist, sexist, etc.) society as white people. Often we too have our own work to do. People leading racial justice work should be people who have done that work — even if they are Black.

8. How will the experiences of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color in the United States be included?

In addition to intersectionality, good DEI work is rooted in a theory of race as a historically rooted social construct with real consequences. Too often, anti-racism work is focused exclusively on the oppression Black people face, without attending to the histories and experiences of Indigenous Americans and other people of color.

The history of enslaved Africans and anti-Blackness in our country is one of the pillars of racism in America. The other is the enslavement and mass genocide of the Indigenous people of this continent. Often, we interact with people who have done a lot of “diversity training” but have never thought about Native Americans or Indigenous populations. They’ve never reckoned with the fact that Indigenous people are some of the poorest communities in the country, that they are the most likely to die from Covid-19, that they are marginalized and stereotyped in school curricula, that they are killed by police at higher rates than even Black people, that the land we live on was almost certainly stolen from these communities, that most of the people we call Latino/a/x are descended from Indigenous Americans, and that Indigenous people have been leaders in the climate justice movement and have articulated how environmental injustice is inextricably linked to racism, classism, and ableism.

In the past month alone, we have had multiple participants who identify as Latinx, Hispanic, and Asian tell us that, although they have long been committed to racial justice work, ours was the first training they had ever been to that even named how their communities are connected to histories of oppression and discrimination. Similarly we have participants who have done tons of race trainings but do not know the difference between race and ethnicity, do not understand the difference between Latina/o/x and Hispanic, and can’t really define “race” at all. In good DEI training, folks walk away understanding not just anti-Black racism, but also how racism impacts other communities of color in unique ways.

9. How does training fit within your theory of change?

Good DEI and social justice work is rooted in a theory of change about how adults learn, why trainings are structured in certain ways, what the process is of bringing people from ignorance to action, how institutions actually shift practice, and what it takes to sustain this work. Many people lead DEI and social justice work because they are passionate and genuinely want to make our world better. However, actually changing people and institutions requires more than passion and dedication. It also requires a theory of change about what we are doing, how we are doing it, and why. Sadly, too often we observe organizations approach this work like throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.

Moreover, in good DEI and social justice work, “training” is not a goal. The only outcome that matters is action. Sometimes organizations feel really proud when all of their staff or constituents have participated in a training, even though little else about their organization has changed. For us, this would constitute a failure (and I have failed many times in the past!). The purpose of DEI training is to provide participants with understanding and perspective that they should have gotten in their K-12, college, and graduate education that will enable them to do their jobs and live their lives in ways that are more equitable and just. Trainings should help participants build the confidence and community to sustain those changes and should be rooted in an adequate theory of action. We too frequently see organizations create “equity teams,” make a plan for equity, and then do the training, when, in fact, the training should be the first step. You cannot make decisions or plans for equity and justice without everyone at the table first developing a shared understanding of equity and justice. Training is a first step, not the last one, in this journey.

10. How will we build and sustain an ongoing community of social justice leaders?

Good DEI and social justice training builds community and makes clear that this is life-long work for passionate people. It’s not a “one and done.” When I first started doing this work, I did a lot of “one-time” trainings because that’s what schools and organizations tend to ask for. While we still sometimes do introductory sessions for specific organizations, we think of these as whetting their appetite rather than substantive work itself. Here’s the thing. If we’re being honest, asking people to commit their lives to equity and social justice is a bit like asking someone to convert to a new religion. It means changing your belief system, potentially distances you from the friends and family you have been in relationship with, and likely means you will need to build a new community with new traditions, norms, and expectations.

This is no small ask! And for it to succeed, it will take more than a one-time training. In fact, one-off trainings often just make things worse by opening up a “can of worms” in an organization without any plan to support people in processing what’s been introduced. Great social justice work happens over time, with ongoing support, and long-term commitment. And it does so in a way that allows participants to know that while they are being asked to reject some aspects of the lives they’ve been living, there is a new community committed to equity, inclusion, diversity and social justice eager and willing to embrace them.

Read Part II of this essay series: Underdeveloped Theories of How People Learn & Change

Read Part III of this essay series: Changing Schools and Organizations

Shayla Reese Griffin, PhD, MSW, is the co-founder of Justice Leaders Collaborative, author of Those Kids, Our Schools: Race and Reform in an American High School (Harvard Education Press, 2015), and co-author of Race Dialogues: A Facilitator’s Guide to Tackling the Elephant in the Classroom (Teachers College Press, 2019).

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