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Valuing Difference and Diversity: Finding a new approach to DEI education.




In response to the increasing demographic diversity of both customers/patients/students and employees/staff/faculty, organizations of all kinds across the United States increasingly embraced diversity training programs, with a particular surge of interest following the death of George Floyd in 2020. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) quickly became a multi-billion-dollar industry that produced a workforce of DEI consultants, DEI officers, and DEI offices.


Opposition to DEI

Since then, however, a wave of opposition has arisen; the leaders of many organizations are reevaluating, reforming or removing their programs and policies related to DEI. We believe this pushback has two very different sources. The first is opposition from a conservative political movement that opposes any form of minority-conscious programming (race-based programs in particular), arguing that preferences of any kind amount to reverse discrimination and that historical patterns of oppression have been resolved, making continuing programs unnecessary. On June 29, 2023, in a 6-3 ruling, the U.S. The Supreme Court prohibited race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions programs. Several state legislatures have enacted bans on DEI programs in public institutions.


The second source of pushback, we believe, is a response to design problems in the DEI programs themselves. Though well-intentioned, most programs did not embrace well-established evidence-based principles of adult learning and behavior change. There was insufficient attention, and sometimes deliberate disregard for psychological safety. Ironically, programs intended to foster respect, acceptance and belonging left many people feeling stereotyped, misunderstood and judged. Many programs were perceived as presenting ideology without offering practical guidance regarding specific skills or action steps, hence they were deemed a waste of time (ineffective).

 

The Need for a New Approach

The need to improve inclusion has not abated; if anything, it has intensified as identity-based conflicts intensify across the United States and around the world. And research has demonstrated clear competitive advantages for companies whose employees experience a higher level of inclusion and belonging. 


We propose the need for a new generation of programs that are not rooted in conventional binary racial, gender or other identity constructs. Specifically, we propose that the next phase of the work be guided by the following principles:


1)     Approach inclusion and exclusion as universal human experiences. With a goal of fostering inclusion and belonging, all participants can find common purpose and relevance, and can find benefit in improving conversational skills to create psychological safety and a welcoming environment.

2)    Highlight the benefits of exploring the uniqueness of each person’s identities rather than making categorical assumptions based on identity stereotypes and widen the focus to consider all kinds of identity differences – race, gender, class, sexual orientation, rural/urban/suburban, and others.

3)      Offer communication skills for creating the psychological safety needed to explore individual identities with curiosity and respect. Provide participants with the chance to experience conversations about identity not as fraught and risky but rather as interesting, engaging and useful.

4)      Describe systems of oppression - the pattern of roles and power relations - that take similar forms as they arise around any kind of identity difference. -  and how they are perpetuated (often unwittingly) through the relational patterns of moment-to-moment everyday interactions. Awareness of these patterns makes it possible to change them.

5)      Show how systems of oppression/power relations are formed and perpetuated (often unwittingly) in the back and forth of everyday interactions. Because these relational patterns are created a new, moment by moment, they can be changed in any moment. Offer practical communication skills for observing, discussing and shifting these patterns while staying connected.


This new approach follows the principles of Raceless Anti-Racism developed by Dr. Sheena Mason in 2022. She offers a transformative perspective by challenging the foundational premises of racial categorizations. Rather than working within the established racial paradigms, raceless anti-racism seeks to dismantle these constructs, encouraging a shift towards understanding identities beyond the confines of race. This approach does not negate the lived realities and historical contexts of racialization but aims to create a space where identity is not pre-defined by racial categories. The innovation lies in its capacity to foster a deeper dialogue on identity, one that embraces the complexity and fluidity of human experiences. 


Practical Application and DEI Reform 

The approach described above offers a dynamic blueprint for transforming traditional DEI. By incorporating these principles into onboarding and training programs, and organizational policies, institutions can pave the way for an inclusive culture that fosters productivity. This involves revising existing materials to reflect an inclusive perspective, developing new training modules centered on fostering a culture that prioritizes psychological safety and inclusive language.

Through this holistic approach, DEI programs can become welcoming, inclusive and very practical. They can move beyond surface-level interventions, addressing the root causes of exclusion and inequality.


Conclusion

The necessity for DEI reform is clear, and the path forward lies in embracing innovative new approaches. The approach described above offers a dynamic blueprint for transforming DEI. By challenging traditional notions of race and adopting a comprehensive approach, we can cultivate environments that truly reflect the diversity of human experiences. This journey requires courage, openness, and a commitment to continuous learning and adaptation. As we venture into this new era of DEI, let us embrace the complexities of identity, fostering a world where every individual has the space to belong, contribute, and thrive.


Khalil Saddiq, 901 Consulting

James Bell, Institute for Healthcare Communication

Anthony Suchman, Institute for Healthcare Communication



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