DEI Work is More Than An Intellectual Exercise – Part I

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

As some organizations continue to strive for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), it’s crucial to recognize the limitations of traditional approaches that prioritize cognitive and intellectual knowledge. In my last blog post, I shared four myths I often witness about DEI efforts in the workplace. These myths primarily orbit around superficial initiatives and fragmented strategies, often yielding backlash and lackluster outcomes. While research highlights the effectiveness of a comprehensive and strategic approach when implementing DEI initiatives, another method worth exploring that may enhance our endeavors is somatics and embodiment philosophy and theory.  

Somatics pertains to the study of the body, while embodiment pertains to the lived experience within the body. Somatics and practices centered around embodiment offer a distinct vantage point that recognizes the profound impact of factors such as oppression, discrimination, privilege, power dynamics, and representation (or lack thereof) on individuals and groups within organizations and communities. Approaching DEI-related challenges solely through intellectual means and abstract ideas proves insufficient. The use of somatics and embodied practices in DEI work can nurture the intrinsic capabilities within individuals and organizations, enabling them to partake in deeper and more resonant transformative changes—both internally and externally.

What is a disembodied DEI approach, and how is it impacting our efforts?

Despite the growing emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, many efforts aren’t creating meaningful change. Besides the fact that change takes time, another reason is the prevalence of performative and disembodied approaches to DEI work. Examples of performative approaches include tokenistic hiring practices and superficial changes to organizational culture, diversity and inclusion training disconnected from strategic planning efforts, or hosting diversity events that only celebrate and honor differences once a year. While we’ve achieved modest gains in the workplace, there’s still more to address. For example,  women and people of color remain underrepresented in leadership positions and pay gaps persist across race and gender lines. Age bias during resume reviews continues to impact the hiring process negatively. People with disabilities have been severely impacted by unemployment since COVID, and those within the LGBTQ+ community continue to face microaggressions and compensation inequities. 

Injustice and inequities aren’t just harmful, but they’re also emotional and traumatic. Our approach to addressing these issues not only requires a trauma-informed approach but one that is also embodied and holistic. Disembodied approaches prioritize cognitive and intellectual knowledge, which can seem helpful but can also limit our ability to fully transform systemic and historical inequities that continue to manifest in our society and workplaces. Creating policies, protocols, and procedures to solve human and historical wounds will only get us to the surface of the issue. As Resmaa Menakem, author and psychotherapist, explains, the issues we’re addressing in equity and justice work don’t live in our thinking brains – they live and breathe in our bodies.

How can an embodied approach support DEI efforts? 

An embodied DEI process of creating change in the workplace would provide us with a more comprehensive and impactful understanding of complex issues. The roots of DEI work started with the civil rights movement, where thousands of people leveraged various tactics to end racial inequity and inequality. Those who led and were part of the civil rights movement were aware that fighting for their rights wasn’t just about a political issue but also about a cultural shift and deep healing that would be needed for us to view each other, particularly Black folks in the United States, as deserving of basic human rights and more. This is the internal war we’re still battling, and it’s important to have various mechanisms to get us closer to equity and justice, not just within our organizations but within ourselves. Some of the questions worth exploring are: 

  • What is it within us that feels “okay” with the status quo?
  • What parts of us are scared to create change? 
  • What parts of us feel conflicted about DEI work? 
  • Where is the disconnect within ourselves? Towards others? 

These questions, in addition to various other practices, can help us become more aware of our physical and emotional responses, as well as our subconscious narratives about DEI and social justice work. We would have to be curious about what it is that we’re genuinely wanting to embody and assess whether or not our vision, mission, and goals are in alignment with our actions and the way we show up at work. The immediate benefit of this would ultimately improve our overall trajectory, plan, communication, and team dynamics. Whether we’re gaining deeper self-awareness, developing empathy and compassion, or practicing ways to reduce resistance and increase resilience, incorporating somatics and embodied practices into our DEI efforts will complement current best practices and address the underlying beliefs, emotions, pain, trauma, guilt, and behaviors that shape our interactions, relationships, and decision-making. 

How do I know if somatic practices and embodiment will support my DEI efforts within an organization? 

Neuroscience research tells us that a significant amount of the information we take in is received through the body out of our conscious awareness.” Somatic and embodied practices allow us to integrate our bodies into our experience and support sustainable change and transformation. Most of the studies that have been done concerning somatics and embodiment revolve around leadership. Practices such as mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises, and movements have supported leaders in gaining a deeper awareness of themselves and others, staying in the present moment, and increasing their capacity to engage with conflict and complexity. 

Those of us leading DEI, formally or informally, must reassess the competencies required to create change within ourselves and our organizations beyond mind-based strategies. 

Integrating somatic practices into your DEI efforts also requires openness from practitioners and employees and an assessment of whether or not your organization values the benefits of somatic work. For example, would you or your team be interested in workshops that involve mindfulness exercises, breathing techniques, or other presencing activities that can help employees develop grounded decision-making skills or resilience and coping strategies? Or, would there be an interest in providing opportunities for employees to share their experiences and feelings in a supportive environment that can help build trust and mutual understanding among team members? Or maybe it’s co-developing guidelines and values that you practice during meetings or when planning for a DEI initiative or project. By incorporating one or more of these approaches, employees may be better equipped to navigate difficult conversations and situations related to DEI work without feeling overwhelmed or disengaged.

Finally, somatic therapy and techniques have assisted individuals with trauma or Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). This aid is crucial for those striving for fairness and engaging in difficult or emotionally charged discussions or responses. Various forms of oppression have a lasting impact and persist despite the implementation of DEI programs. 

In the next blog post, I’ll share specific examples and practices that we can begin embodying as we continue to lead and navigate our DEI efforts in the workplace. In the meantime, if you’re eager to expand your understanding of this subject, join us on September 19 for a free webinar on Integrating Embodiment and Somatics in your DEI work.