If you care about progress and, more specifically, our country embracing a multiracial democracy, you are probably worried and disillusioned right now, as things seem to be sliding backwards.
Here at TVA, we were cautiously hopeful after the “racial reckoning” in the summer of 2020, which led to a surge in organizations publicly committing to address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their culture, policies, and practices. Job postings on Indeed with DEI in the title almost doubled in the year following George Floyd’s murder.
Yet almost just as quickly, we saw a steep decline in DEI jobs, accompanied by lawsuits against DEI initiatives labeled as “discriminatory.” And while the Supreme Court’s decision to gut affirmative action only applies to school admissions, the architects of that legal argument are actively pushing to broaden the ruling to include the banning of DEI initiatives in the workplace. It would be easy to conclude that the moment of hope has passed.
But we urge you not to give in to discouragement. In fact, it’s more important now than ever to double down on your commitment to DEI.
First of all, the backlash is nothing new and is a sign that progress has occurred. From Reconstruction to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to Black Lives Matter, this country has a long history of resistance to efforts to enact social justice from those who would prefer to maintain the status quo. Often, that resistance is portrayed as coming solely from an extreme, overtly racist but vocal minority.
But we are far more concerned by a “softer” kind of resistance that happens much more quietly, more reasonably. For example, when organizations eliminate DEI positions and budgets because they are “too costly” or “divisive” and promise to implement them in some imaginary “better time” in the future when people are “more ready for change.”
Accompanying this resistance is the temptation to find comfort in the idea that progress will happen eventually—we need not act now, because it is preordained. After all, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is often quoted for saying that “the moral arc of the universe…bends toward justice.” But less quoted is his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, where he wrote at length about how the KKK was less of a threat to racial justice than the white moderate, who “lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’” Dr. King knew better than most that progress is not a given; it can and will be undone if we don’t do something to sustain it. And it comes at a cost.
The truth is, DEI work can be difficult. Uncomfortable. And yes, expensive. So why bother? Why go through all of that if you don’t have to? Well, even putting aside for the moment that it is simply the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do:
- The country is becoming more diverse. Recent census data reveals that the United States is more multicultural than ever before; 43% of the population were people of color in 2020, up from 34% in 2010. And according to the Association of National Advertisers, multicultural consumers are the fastest-growing segment in the United States.
- Consumers value diversity. There is a growing body of research that demonstrates why diversity is important for organizations, including its positive impact on innovation and consumer preferences. (See: How and Where Diversity Drives Financial Performance.)
- It’s easier to innovate with diversity, and innovation is tied to revenue. Research by Harvard Business Review found that diverse teams are better at developing innovative products and services. And a study by Boston Consulting Group found that diverse companies have 19% higher innovation revenues. (See: How Diverse Leadership Teams Boost Innovation.)
- Employees want to work for diverse organizations and tend to stay at them longer. According to Glassdoor, 76% of job seekers consider a diverse workforce an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers.
- And contrary to popular belief, diversity is profitable. A McKinsey report says companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity are 36% more likely to have above-average profitability.
When done well, DEI initiatives are not costly and performative gestures—they can and do work. We have personally seen them help BIPOC communities build intergenerational wealth, save socially disadvantaged homeowners from foreclosure, create opportunities for women- and minority-owned businesses, and engage entire communities for the first time in the construction projects that affect their neighborhoods.
What’s more, all these initiatives don’t just help the “have-nots” of society. They uplift families and communities and raise the quality of living for everyone. For example, according to a McKinsey report, closing the racial wealth gap could add $1 trillion to the US economy.
So, what can you do to make sure your organization’s DEI efforts don’t fall by the wayside?
- Keep making the case for DEI. Share this article with others. Point to real and relatable success stories. Tie DEI directly to your organization’s goals to turn a profit or fulfill its mission.
- Be realistic. Let go of the idea that the world is naturally moving toward being a better place and focus on making it better.
- Control the narrative. There is a story out there that DEI work “divides” people. On the contrary, hate and fear in all its forms (white supremacy, racism, homophobia, ableism, classism) divides people. While it is true that some DEI work is conducted in racial affinity groups to facilitate safe spaces for discussion, the practice is always part of a larger effort toward inclusivity. At TVA, our approach to DEI work is rooted in the Indigenous practice of Circle. “We put everyone in the same room,” says Marcela Diaz, TVA’s Equity and Social Justice Director. “When we worked with Seattle Municipal Courts, for example, judges and court reporters were able to talk to each other for the first time without that hierarchy and power imbalance looming over them.”
- Don’t ignore the backlash – but don’t give power to it. You will encounter resistance. People will say it’s too hard, expensive, time-consuming, and uncomfortable. Or that it’s not working or is just “checking a box,” or that your organization needs to take a more “neutral” approach. We suggest that you listen and acknowledge people’s concerns—and then stay the course.
Of course, DEI work, especially when done halfheartedly, can hurt people and organizations. We saw how Budweiser and Target recently lost money in their efforts to support the LGBTQ+ community. But we would argue that these failures had more to do with their bungled attempts to placate the resistance. Had they stayed the course rather than emboldened the backlash, they would still be on track to capture the younger, more diverse market that will soon comprise the mainstream.
But until that turning point, we acknowledge that DEI work (and its siblings, multicultural communications and marketing) is just going to suck sometimes. When you embrace it, that means opening yourself up to discomfort and even outright attacks. And you will get it wrong. Like any innovation, this work must also be allowed to fail and to learn from failures.
But it’s worth it. Together we can sustain DEI efforts and help them be successful so that the world gets better for everyone.
Need help staying the course with your DEI and social justice vision?
Contact The Vida Agency.
Norea Hoeft is Head Writer at The Vida Agency and editor of Unicorns on Fire! by renowned humorist and nonprofit agitator Vu Le. With over 20 years of experience in communications, she has a passion for collaborating with thought leaders in the field of racial equity.