What Makes DEI Sustainable?


PHOTO ABOVE: Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California, October 2019. All Rights Reserved.

I was recently asked why I moved into the DEI Space and found the question quite challenging. After pondering and processing, I figured out what was so challenging for me. The question has an assumption built in – that DEI was a different space, implying that it wasn’t the one I was already in. Then the answer easily arrived – it was not that my focus had changed to a different space, it was that in excavating a healthy racial identity, my curiosity deepened into exploring myself and my ancestry which then broadened into equity. I’m still in the same space.

From my perspective, equity work is in the roots of an organization, of a leader, and in our society. It largely runs invisible – which is why it can be easy to forget, ignore, or bypass. No one really notices equity until it is made visible – spoken about, spoken into, or spoken from. And if it isn’t safe, people will hold back on their differences – which then makes equity invisible again as people cover up their differences, hide their perspectives, and pull back for safety. And predictably, we are back where we started.

The challenge in operating amongst the roots of an organization is understanding that equity work is an opportunity for each individual. While there can be corporate focus on equity work – a DEI group, a human resource leader, a communication expert – the invisibility of equity demands that we each do equity work in ourselves. This is the complexity of equity and why some initiatives aren’t sustainable. If the people aren’t engaged in the invisible work of equity in themselves, there is no traction or momentum to create and maintain, shift and change in the culture.

Equity work is also relational work – what we explore together in conversation and how we explore become the spaces where we discover the limitations in our own equity journey. Learning tools and techniques can be done individually across many subjects. However, learning how to create a culture of belonging is a reflection of how we can be in community – with each other, in conflict with each other, and in holding our differences as powerful and humbling. And often, what we discover is that there are areas of ourselves where we don’t belong. We can excavate our family histories and find there were times when they didn’t belong. And we can excavate our cultures and find our own truth, that we’ve been both an oppressor and the oppressed, no matter our history.

I used to think my journey to racial equity was about examining my own racialization and that, once discovered, I would be complete. Instead, it’s opened up new lenses to exploring myself, new ways of being in community with others, and cultivated more curiosity, empathy, and humility. These practices now live within me and have enabled me to connect more deeply and with greater empathy to the communities I serve. And that is sustainable.

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