What Is Our “Why” as DEI Practitioners?

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

In the complex landscape of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work, practitioners are grappling with a spectrum of emotions, ranging from conflict and defeat to a renewed sense of purpose. As a DEI practitioner, I’ve navigated this emotional terrain and questioned the underlying motivation for my commitment to this cause from time to time.

For me, DEI is about inspiring a sense of belonging and working toward justice, particularly for those with historically marginalized identities. DEI is a commitment to creating opportunities that meet basic needs and foster the fulfillment of people’s desires, dreams, and aspirations. Despite this enduring “why,” I’ve had to reevaluate my perspective on change and the inherent challenges of DEI work. DEI is change-making work; change isn’t always easy or instant, especially if some don’t desire the exact change you or I desire. Change can also be arduous, unpredictable, and non-linear. 

For DEI practitioners who are choosing to continue doing this work despite the obvious challenges, it’ll be helpful for us to reflect on our understanding of DEI and change, recalibrate our expectations, clarify our motivations, and embrace sustainable approaches so that we can witness the vision we’re committed to.

Recalibrating expectations

When thinking of our role in this work, it’s important to consider the following:

  1. Acknowledging that not everyone shares the same DEI goals, if any, is essential. Resistance to change has always been part of our human experience, and understanding this is vital in navigating and dismantling the intricate web of systemic oppression that persists. This is less about an us vs. them mentality and more about the fact that we can’t force people into believing in and prioritizing DEI. While control and power have been used to force change in people and their behaviors, this approach would be antithetical to the principles related to representation, belonging, and justice.
  2. We can understand that something is good for us and still not prioritize it when it’s accessible (e.g., exercising, reducing social media consumption, adequate sleep, etc.). Regarding DEI, we’ve witnessed well-meaning companies shift their focus from DEI-related priorities to other business-related priorities for varying reasons. At this point, I’m no longer shocked when companies roll back or rid themselves of DEI initiatives that they only started a few years ago due to mainstream awareness and uprisings. I’m no longer surprised when the “main DEI person” swiftly quits after joining a company without a team, resources, or support.
  3. The United States was not colonized on the principles of justice for all. As a result, the people within institutions continue to practice and perpetuate various hierarchies of oppression in workplaces and beyond, whether we’re conscious of it or not. This is how oppression works. 
  4. Not all DEI practitioners have the same background, knowledge, expertise, or specialty for specific workplace issues. Being a DEI practitioner or having a DEI label doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be perfect or able to improve culture single-handedly. Sometimes, we’re the ones who can also cause harm. 

My goal here isn’t to be pessimistic about DEI’s future but honest and reflective about our challenges. For me, choosing to continue being a DEI practitioner means that we have to be transparent and honest with ourselves if we’re going to do this work. We must assess what’s before us and ask ourselves if our expectations align with the companies we’re working with and vice versa. 

Clarifying our motivations

I was rage-filled when I first started facilitating and organizing in the social justice space. I couldn’t understand how people “didn’t get it” or could just live their lives while others were suffering, dying, and experiencing bias, hate, and discrimination daily. Initially fueled by a desire to “save the world,” I soon recognized the unsustainability of such an idealistic approach. I quickly realized I would burn out before “burnout” became a buzzword. I also knew that, in the most cliche way, I wouldn’t be able to save anyone if I wasn’t taking care of myself. 

Moreover, I needed to understand where and why I thought I needed to save the world and where this ideology came from. I was familiar with the white savior complex but not the Black woman savior trope. The idea that I was always ready and capable came from both familial upbringings and internalized social ideologies about Black women in the United States. Black women have often been asked or expected to fix, take care of, and save people while not necessarily recognized or supported for their efforts. My “why” wasn’t just about helping people. My why was rooted in the fact that I thought I had an innate superpower to be a savior and, ultimately, a martyr.

Reflecting on personal motivations was a crucial step for me. Here are some questions that have been integral to my DEI journey: 

  • What personal values drive my commitment to DEI?
  • How do my personal experiences shape my approach to DEI?
  • What keeps me in my current role and why?
  • What kind of change do I desire to make (or be part of) in my role/ in the DEI space?  

Embracing internal sustainability

We often discuss external sustainability, which focuses on creating and maintaining sustainable DEI strategies or initiatives. However, as DEI practitioners, having an internal sustainable approach to DEI work is just as important, if not more. Internal sustainability starts with acknowledging the emotional and mental toll that DEI work can entail and actively engaging in practices that promote personal (non-toxic) resilience. As practitioners, we must recognize the importance of self-care, collective care, seeking support, and securing necessary resources to maintain our well-being if we choose to stay in this work.

We can navigate challenges more effectively when we have colleagues, mentors, and mental health professionals by our side. Furthermore, advocating for the resources needed regarding time and support ensures that we can sustain our energy and commitment to implement and champion lasting DEI strategies. The principle is clear: we must fortify ourselves by prioritizing internal sustainability to create and maintain enduring, impactful approaches in our work.