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Why Connecting Across Difference is so Essential to the Work of D.E.I.

While programs and trainings focused on diversity, equity and inclusion are far from new, they occupy a much bigger space in the public consciousness than ever before.

The long-overdue period of racial reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd brought with it much-needed support from segments of society that hadn't previously been engaged in the fight for racial justice, and the field of diversity, equity and inclusion training found itself in high demand. There's been an explosion of practitioners using new and existing frameworks to try to address the disparities in outcomes that have continued to plague many underserved groups.

This expansion has brought with it both a healthy skepticism over whether these programs are actually achieving what they set out to do, and a more fervent backlash from those who see them as needlessly divisive and even destructive.

And while prominent personalities on the conservative right, like Christopher Rufo and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have been the most critical of D.E.I. programs, going as far as signing into law bans on using them in publicly funded educational institutions, even seasoned trainers in the field have been critical of how some programs have been rolled out.

Lily Zheng, a prominent D.E.I. trainer and bestselling author, has been highly critical of what they've termed "the D.E.I.-Industrial Complex," for lacking consistent standards and accountability. In fact, Zheng has been critical of similar things as Rufo, such as mandatory trainings—which have often resulted in lower representation for marginalized groups—and hiring quotas. But rather than ban these programs, they've emphasized the need to focus on the systems that create inequities instead of the people who are often blamed for those outcomes.

It's also been increasingly recognized that asking certain people to have a less prominent place in the conversation due to their perceived privilege is the quickest way to create disengagement, especially from those who may be best positioned to spur change. With that in mind, many organizations are now shifting their focus from specific identities to fostering a larger sense of "belonging" for everyone in the organization.

This is very much aligned with the philosophy behind D.O.C., which is organized around the goal of helping people of all different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives understand one another more deeply, including recognizing how different our experience of the world can be. Those differences can indeed be tied to other people's perceptions of us, but there are myriad other factors that impact that experience, and labels can never substitute for real conversations.

This is reinforced in the audiobook What Happened to You?, a collaboration between Oprah Winfrey and Bruce D. Perry, a Northwestern professor who focuses on how trauma, especially in childhood, impacts the way we relate to the world.

"Cultural sensitivity training, which may help get at the intellectual elements of learning, needs to be coupled with real experiences and real relationships," says Perry. But he also emphasizes that building those relationships necessarily comes with conflict. "We're losing the ability to calmly consider someone else's opinion, reflect, and attempt to see things from their point of view." And to develop this ability, we have to have experiences of "rupture and repair," which actually strengthen our relationships over the long term, and build our own resilience.

On a personal note, I definitely recognize that our ability to engage in these types of challenging conversations, especially with safety and welfare potentially at stake, can vary widely from person to person, and even within the same person at different times. As I've engaged in depolarization work over the years, I've often thought about the unique role that I might play in these conversations.

Coming from a liberal background, I've seen social justice as a cause that is elemental to my identity. And I also recognize that as a straight, white man, it can be easier for me to engage with those who disagree with progressives about how to pursue these goals than it is for someone with very different experiences on account of their own identity—an idea generally called allyship.

But it can work in other directions as well, like with my ability to engage progressives about concerns over free speech. This might be easier for me than for a conservative who has experienced being shut down in their workplace over this issue.

For this reason, it remains important that the concept of identity not be jettisoned from D.E.I. work altogether. And there are structures like employee resource groups (ERGs) that help people of various identities support one another and discuss their common experiences. According to a survey from the Society of Human Resource Managers, these groups foster belonging within organizations, unlike things like mandatory training.

I recently had a chance to talk with some experienced D.E.I. practitioners for a fuller perspective on the state of the field. Gregory Gaines is a former corporate executive who trains and coaches business leaders to build better organizational cultures. While he doesn't tend to operate under the banner of D.E.I.—which can engender resistance from some leaders—he does embed its principles in his leadership work, since he finds the change that's needed is most accessible from the top down in an organization.

ERGs have been a staple within the large insurance companies that some of Gaines' clients help lead, but his view of them is less rosy having seen some of the pitfalls, especially when org leaders aren't fully engaged. One company mandated that executives sponsor an ERG, but some of the leaders delegated that work to others around them, which suggests a lack of commitment from leadership. It's certainly not hard to imagine this undercutting the sense of inclusivity the groups otherwise created.

Gaines hasn't paid much mind to the introduction of "belonging" (and sometimes "accessibility") as an additional word to describe the work. For him, it's really all about inclusion, because that's the only way he sees real change being possible.

LeRoy Thompson shares this perspective. He's the Managing Director of Thompson & Associates, and he's been working in the field of D.E.I. for around 40 years.

"Organizations have diversity out the wazoo," he told me, but it's concentrated at the bottom. The real work to address these disparities is helping people reconcile their perceptions about others with reality. While it tends to be the views of existing leaders, who skew whiter and more male, that can perpetuate racial and other disparities, these are misperceptions we're all subject to, not just white men. And he sees equity disparities as a society-wide problem, over which organizations have less leverage.

Thompson laments the current challenges within the field, noting how much time it takes to recover from missteps. In the 1990s he saw a shift toward "awareness seminars," but these were less effective because dialogue often didn't bring real change along with it. He sees a similar push to shift what D.E.I. is about in the current moment, driven by those who misunderstand—willfully or otherwise—its content, and mischaracterize things like antiracism and critical race theory.

There's no doubt that talking simply isn't enough. Leaders focused on ensuring that their organizations treat their employees, members and other stakeholders fairly absolutely must do the work of examining those organizations closely enough to get to root causes when they come up short, and taking decisive action to address those causes.

But talking is also a big part of this work. No one can drive change without getting the right people on board, and it's often those in power who are most resistant to change, for obvious and—quite importantly—understandable reasons. If we treat them as obstacles to be neutralized, or people whose voices aren't valuable, they'll check out or dig in.

Through her Theory of Enchantment trainings, Chloé Valdary urges people to treat one another like humans, not political abstractions, recognizing that people are best able to relate to each other through the power of stories. But it needs to include all of our stories; learning how to "love through conflict" requires that each one of us see ourselves within a narrative of growth.

Like Gaines and his leadership coaching, the work of D.O.C. isn't positioned specifically as D.E.I. But the work to build a healthy organizational culture that encourages the free exchange of ideas and experiences is highly complementary to the work of fostering diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, however you phrase it.

Building the capacity to engage with those we disagree with largely revolves around being open to the perspectives of others, and helping people understand the experiences of those who may seem very different from us is a core goal of D.E.I. that makes change possible in the first place.

The potential for ERGs goes beyond just offering mutual support for people with similar challenges, and it must if the people in those groups are to feel truly included in their wider organization. D.O.C.'s vision includes resource groups—and other types of communities of practice—that are oriented around dialogue and cultural exchange. These groups can sponsor events where people are exposed to the stories and worldviews of people very different from themselves, including members of other ERGs.

D.E.I. may be experiencing a difficult moment as organizations reckon with the record of effectiveness of the various programs that don the label. But in a society that continues to become more diverse, the work of connecting across differences becomes ever more important. And for the sake of the the health of our organizations and our society, it must not be neglected.


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