May 2023
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Works
A primer on DEI policy for organizations

In the winds of our continuing political maelstrom we sometimes hear noise about “diversity, equity and inclusion,” whether from reactionary politicians pontificating on the supposed evils of modernity and “wokeness,” or from minorities speaking up for themselves and future generations. Behind the noise is serious business, and many nonprofits and corporations are adopting DEI measures. You may be wondering what that’s about.

DEI is not a new concept, rather it’s a policy approach drawn from the radical idea that a true democracy requires representation for everyone. This concept is of course central to the principles of our Constitution, and can be expressed as “we’re all in this together.”

A tool for growth

The history of DEI practice goes back to the civil-rights campaigns of the 1960s and ‘70s to end Jim Crow laws in the south and encourage more diverse and inclusive workspaces for those historically pushed to the margins of society by segregation and systemic racism and genderism. Some of these policies, including affirmative action in hiring, were implemented in and sometimes forced on institutions that had historically discriminated against people of color and women. But many in the ethnic majority, not understanding systemic discrimination, felt these actions were generally forced, sparking fights about their validity and even their motivations.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 brought us another major step forward in prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, public accommodations, and other areas, increasing accessibility and inclusivity and benefiting employers as well by bringing a largely untapped workforce into productive workplaces.

Given both the successes and occasional missteps of these policies and their generally slow acceptance at the national level, more recently private investors, corporations and nonprofits are seeing the benefits of acting voluntarily to improve diversity at all levels of their organizations and institutions.

It makes perfect sense that DEI is taking off in the private sector first, because despite the outside criticism and practical challenges to effective action, capitalism is incredibly effective at reaching for untapped resources. Inclusion helps organizations take advantage of all a community has to offer, and this mechanism reflects what makes democracy so powerful: we can’t know everything, but if we have more people contributing, we can get closer. The more integrals you have, the closer you get to understanding the curve.

Initially DEI may seem impractical or suspect to some, but that’s generally because they are reacting to perspectives they’ve never encountered. Successful innovation in the real world demands these perspectives. A strong society needs openness to diversity, and groups that function only within small bubbles miss out on all the world has to offer. The purpose of DEI is to push back on our reactive inclination to form cliques of limited perspective, knowledge and experience.

Image by Tumisu via Pixabay

What is DEI, really?

DEI fosters diversity, equity and inclusion. We define diversity as the complete range of identities, backgrounds and experiences that individuals bring to a group or organization. These factors can include race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, ability, and many others. We avoid tribalism, and celebrate the differences among us.

Inclusion means actively building a culture or environment where everyone feels welcome and valued, that they can participate regardless of their background or identity. By seeking out and valuing these diverse perspectives and experiences, we address and alleviate misunderstanding and conflict.

Equity means ensuring that everyone has access to the resources and opportunities they need to succeed, regardless of background or identity, by recognizing and addressing unconscious, systemic barriers and disparities. This may involve implementing policies or practices aimed at promoting equal access and opportunity, as well as addressing historical or structural inequalities.

Diversity, equity and inclusion are separate values and goals, but all three are necessary to ensure that democracy actually works — diversity to ensure that all voices are present, equity so all voices are respected, and inclusion so all voices are welcome.

What does DEI mean for your organization?

Every organization needs a diverse range of people in the room contributing to decisions that affect others on a broader scale, ensuring that the people making policy fully represent the people they serve. DEI as we know it today arose in the private and nonprofit sectors, not the government, so it is not a legal requirement, rather it’s seen simply as smart organizational practice. Most private and public sources of grant funding and sponsorships now require that the applying organization specify a DEI policy or ordinance.

More to the point, however, DEI policy helps your organization find the best person for the job, no matter where they come from or who they are.

Why does this matter now?

We need DEI practices more than ever today. With divisive politics and rampant social suspicion we need to hear each other better. DEI is a tool kit to help us focus on the important things, strengthen our organizations and society, make us all more adaptable in the face of increasingly rapid change, and build sustainability.

When we engage in conversation and listening to others while we keep and express our own values, we are taking a true path to growth and knowledge about the human experience. Only by being present and engaged are we able to demonstrate our shared humanity and the value of what every individual has to offer for the greater good.

5enses Publisher John Duncan provides DEI consultation and training to corporations and nonprofits.

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