Is DEI Work Here to Stay?

After renewed interest in creating equitable spaces post-2020, the DEI industry is at a crossroads both for trainers and trainees.

No comments

Between shifting politics and worker burnout, the professional diversity, equity, and inclusion space can be fraught. Three Mills alums weigh in.

By Sarah J. Stevenson, MFA ’04

When George Floyd was murdered in 2020, millions of people took to the streets to raise their voices in grief, in protest, and in mutual support. In the wake of the public outcry came a reckoning, and a renewed push to address the deeply ingrained systemic inequities that tend to keep all but the most privileged Americans from fully thriving. One way that manifested was organizations from private companies to public education institutions taking an unflinching look at how they too might be part of the problem—and part of the solution.

Though anti-racism and anti-bias education already had a foothold, 2020 gave these efforts new life and a more widespread name: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Also called DEIB (with the B standing for belonging) or IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity, and access), the intention is to ensure that organizations are welcoming to a variety of employees, that those workers’ unique experiences and contributions are valued, and that this takes place at all levels and every step of the way—not just at the occasional required diversity training.

Diversity itself is a complicated set of ideas that encompasses not only race and ethnicity, but also gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, age, abilities/disabilities, socioeconomic status, religion, language, and more, as well as how those identities intersect. Equity ensures that all of us—in all our complexities—benefit from just policies and fair access to opportunities.

In practice, this might take the form of workshops for executives and management, coaching for HR leaders, or staff trainings—the traditional approach—or it might entail providing space for employee groups to work toward their visions of equity in the workplace. It might mean working with leadership to implement specific strategies, such as flexible scheduling that considers the realities of employees’ lives—if they are parents, for example, or rely on public transportation to get to work.

A smiling Black woman with black and blue braids, wearing a yellow top with white polka dots and a black jacket, clear-framed eyeglasses, white fringed earrings, and a necklace of white and clear beads.
Kirstyne Lange ’12

DEI can also include more creative, tailored strategies. Kirstyne Lange ’12, a consultant who owns her own DEI business, has found that she’s often expanded clients’ awareness of what was possible for their organizations—for instance, advising engineering firms that they could increase workforce diversity by recruiting from engineering programs at historically Black colleges, or encouraging them to partner with local high schools with high numbers of students of color on STEM initiatives.

“For a number of companies that I work with, they had a hard time realizing that was a necessity, and they had a hard time implementing that into practice,” she says.

Simply put, though, diversity is good for organizations. Per the journal Research and Markets, inclusive and diverse workplaces are better able to lead change and innovation, earn 2.5 times more per employee, and are 35% more productive. But times and attitudes have changed. Is the growth in DEI initiatives sustainable in a political climate that is, in some places, increasingly hostile to any efforts at anti-racism or anti-bias work? Is the worthiness of the task enough to ensure that those workers in charge of DEI stay the course in the face of burnout and lack of institutional support? 

The numbers seem to indicate continuing enthusiasm: Inside Higher Ed reported a 60% increase in membership in the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education between 2020 and 2022. Over the three months that followed Floyd’s killing, the hiring of DEI experts reached an all-time high, with the largest public companies tripling their employment of chief diversity officers, according to an analysis cited by PBS NewsHour. US companies paid an estimated $3.4 billion on DEI efforts in 2020 alone. 

Nevertheless, high turnover rate and fluctuating interest are ongoing problems in the field. “I have a number of friends that work in DEI in tech who’ve gone from onboarding monumental global programs to unemployment,” Lange says. The initial urgency from a precipitating event may die down, but the desperate need for change is still there, leaving those who remain in DEI positions overextended and frustrated. 

In order for practitioners to stay relevant, they have to stay true to the work at its core—not fall into the industry trends.”

Kirstyne Lange

There can be other challenges, too: hostile workplace culture, inadequate funding, and insufficient support. They can even include racism and misogyny, which can— consciously or unconsciously—bias people against receiving training from, say, a Black woman. (And many DEI workers, as this article shows, are BIPOC themselves.) All these present obstacles to the core purpose of DEI: building trust and community within an organization and training employees to work across difference. 

For that level of community-building to succeed, “DEI has to be part of all the work we do,” says Chiany Dri ’22, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. In that way, she says, “It becomes part of everyone’s work and everyone’s set of expectations, and second nature for every department, as opposed to just one person who drives all of it alone. I don’t think that’s sustainable.” Sometimes, that means restructuring of core organizational systems from the ground up—a level of overhauling that companies and institutions can be reluctant to commit to, either financially or time-wise. 

A smiling Hispanic woman with shoulder-length black wavy hair, wearing a black floral top.
Chiany Dri ’22

But it’s that wholehearted dedication that ensures the success of DEI work; perfunctory attempts and stopgap solutions won’t effect lasting change, nor will treating the work as an afterthought or addon. When employees are forced to choose between attending a training or doing their jobs in the limited time they have, it’s going to be challenging to get them engaged. 

To generate that engagement, management needs to be just as committed to change as the individual employees under their supervision. And change is clearly necessary—more 65% of employees feel that their managers aren’t fostering an inclusive environment, according to Research and Markets

“What I think is important for this work to stay relevant moving forward is for all organizations to come to the table and really say, ‘We are committed to ensuring that all our employees belong. Full stop. Period. And we will do the work to unpack the systems that are creating harm,’” says Lange. “Everyone has a shared responsibility.” 

Not only that, training in diversity and inclusion has to be just as fundamental as any other type of training, such as teaching employees how to file expense reports or navigate the company’s finance system. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case, according to Anyania Muse ’08, MA ’14. 

“For some people, it’s just a cost-benefit analysis,” says Muse, who is the director of inclusion, diversity, equity, and access (IDEA) at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), as well as its interim chief operating officer. “‘How much do I want to pay out in settlements?’ versus ‘How much do I want to change the culture for people to actually come and thrive?’ That is a choice of the people at the top.” 

When that shift does happen successfully, it means that “people across gender and race and socioeconomics [have] the same ability to go into an organization, to have their voices heard as employees, and to do the work that they are expertly hired to do in the same ways as their privileged counterparts.” That, Muse adds, is a model for sustainability: “Your employees feel good about showing up to work, they feel good about the work they’re doing, and they trust their ability to come to a place and give value to it.” 

For me, this work is like planting a seed and waiting to harvest what comes from it, as opposed to wanting
quick results.”

Chiany Dri

She also points to the importance of consulting with people who have the lived experiences of a particular group in order to better address the issues faced by that group. At OSF, Muse employed experts from outside organizations such as the World Institute on Disability to help build out policies and practices around access and accessibility, and to find ways to engage a wider range of non-traditional audiences—from hiring ASL interpreters for the deaf and hard of hearing to arranging pre-performance tours of the sets and stages for audience members with low or no vision. 

“That’s an investment,” she says, but it’s one that can pay dividends. One hearing-impaired patron, after talking with Muse about the work she was doing at OSF, came back and wrote a $25,000 check to continue the organization’s DEI efforts.

Experiences like that can be validating for those doing the work to build a robust DEI framework. But it’s not easy—it is work, and it can be emotionally exhausting work at that. Persevering over the long haul demands a lot of intrinsic motivation. For Muse, Dri, and Lange, much of that motivation stems from their personal experiences and early exposure to social justice issues.

Muse—the daughter of former Mills professor Daphne Muse—grew up in a house of activists and started engaging in welfare policy and equity conversations while still an undergraduate at Mills. She began consulting on welfare-related issues with many organizations, including the Institute on Women’s Policy Research, the National Crittenton Foundation, and the Mills Women’s Institute. At Cal State East Bay, she ran an equity program for BIPOC transfer students called Sankofa Scholars. She went on to be the first African American woman hired for the County of Marin as its first-ever as director of equity. In a way, she was involved in DEI work from the very beginning—long before it had a name.

A smiling black woman with long Black hair wearing a cream-colored button-up top and a silver necklace.
Anyania Muse ’08, MA ’14

Lange also grew up in an activist family—her uncle was a Black Panther—and, like Muse, she was drawn to equity work through an interest in public policy. At Mills, she helped tutor local high school students as a member of the Black Women’s Collective, and advocated for more equitable, inclusive, and accessible practices in the NCAA as part of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.

After several years of working in a medical office, Lange returned to academia, helping support equitable student services in private, independent schools. But her work wasn’t without its challenges, even at her dream job at Vistamar School in Los Angeles, where more than half of the student body was students of color.

“Not all the adults were prepared to empower the students, the employees of color, and the parents of color to navigate the system of the school, and that was difficult to endure,” Lange says—an observation that echoes some of the challenges faced by DEI professionals in general. When she left Vistamar, she decided to go into business for herself, not wanting to feel beholden to organizations or institutions in order to make a difference.

Dri also spent time as a DEI consultant from 2018 to 2021 before landing in her current position at Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles. Prior to her work in DEI, she wrote curricula for anti-racism training programs, but it was one of her community-college courses—Racism in America—that first opened her eyes to the possibility of equity work as a career.

She hadn’t necessarily planned on going to college at all—she gave birth to her daughter at age 18—but after attending community college and then Mills, she discovered a passion for equity work. “I remember sitting in class and being, like, ‘Wow, this is all the language and concepts and theory that I know I’ve been experiencing, but didn’t have the language for,’” she says. “It was a really empowering moment for me.”

Sharing that sense of empowerment is one of the rewarding parts of the job, even if change isn’t always rapid. “Gears move slowly in a big organization,” Dri says. “For me, this work is like planting a seed and waiting to harvest what comes from it, as opposed to wanting quick results.”

Perhaps that’s because the work at its core is about connecting at a very human level, and building relationships across differences is a process that takes time—and sometimes means going out of your comfort zone. Dri once worked with a director whose resistance to concepts such as trans inclusivity and Black health disparities was immediately obvious.

For some people, it’s just a cost-benefit analysis. That is a choice of those at the top.”

Anyania Muse

“They were an active participant, they shared and all of that. But it was clear that it was really hard for them, like they didn’t want to be there.” Then, two weeks later, they returned to Dri’s office and acknowledged that they’d kept thinking about the DEI training and what they’d gained: “‘I learned about myself,’ they said. ‘I am a child of immigrants, and I never thought about how that impacted my life until a couple weeks after your training.’”

For Dri, it was an important moment, but it didn’t happen right away. “We sometimes forget that this is a process, the work is a process, and these ideas are a process for a lot of people,” she says.

The inability to guarantee results on demand is the nature of the job, but it can also be a challenge for those evaluating the work’s effectiveness and whether it’s worth paying for—especially as DEI becomes more politically charged. “So many industries are just not properly funded to do full-blown equity work,” Lange notes. And when there isn’t enough funding to devote to the task, it’s difficult to create lasting, measurable progress.

Still, Lange remains hopeful for the future of the industry. Though she foresees a dip in growth for DEI, she says, “I’m a critical optimist, and I do believe that there’s room for DEI to thrive.

“I think in order for practitioners to stay relevant, they have to stay true to the work at its core—not fall into the industry trends to get buy-in on another wave.”

Truly sustainable DEI work, then, operates beyond the fluctuating rise and fall of interest that follows the news cycle. DEI training has to be personal. It can’t magically erase people’s biases, but it can create a space where people feel safe sharing their stories and are willing to listen to others. Ideally, they can then take that experience of shared community out beyond the structured environment of the training, beyond their relationships with fellow employees, and out into the world—making it a more inclusive and equitable place to exist, bit by bit, person by person.