DEI isn’t cautious or shy. Nor is it furious or anxious.
It is not a state of working in which people are afraid to say the wrong thing.
It is not an elite group of hyper-conscious people that preach about the correct way to do things.
If that’s how DEI feels, it’s time for an overhaul.
Over the years, DEI has soared into the mainstream. It has evolved from pockets of grassroots committees to large-scale investments and opportunities in the DEI “field”: cutting-edge departments, roles, training, certificates, practice areas. We’re in the era of its corporatization, its surge. To be “diverse and inclusive” is a sign of progress and innovation, no longer of out-of-touch workshops. It’s generally accepted that businesses must be DEI friendly if they are to succeed in this “new” world.
Is this good? Are friendliness and business success our endgame? Inclusive workplaces are more profitable, better places to work, higher performing, yes. Gen Zs care deeply about DEI, and attracting the next generation of talent requires authentic DEI commitments and action.
But I worry if the understanding of DEI is already too corporate, too inhuman, too entrenched in results, as though we need DEI only because it is good for business. Or because it is mandated, legally required, trendy. And, like in the green and pinkwashing of giant brands, I mostly worry that DEI today is too focused on language and not on the material and sociopolitical gains and demands from which it originated: the civil rights movement, Idle No More and Truth and Reconciliation, Black Pride and Black labor movements and Black Lives Matter, the fight for 2SLGBTQIA+ rights and Pride, women’s rights, labor and disability rights, and many other points of origin. Avoid this vital history and we risk our DEI work becoming watered down. Worse: we use it as a political shield to gloss over organizational flaws and to flee from a deep analysis of the power dynamics that harm entire communities.
So let us reconnect.
Among many aims, I believe DEI is about joy. In a time diverse groups are told to shut up, roll over, stay in our place, joy is radical. Liberating it can be necessary for survival.
DEI may not feel immediately joyful – because building for the potential for individual and organizational joy may be painful work. It may involve an entire restructure of our workplaces, a reorganization of power. But I think about what world we are trying to build, and it holds the joy of seeing somebody who looks like you, your loved ones, historically excluded or eliminated from the conversation, now flourishing. Not because it is good for the bottom line. But because it is good work.
DEI is extra breathing space. A safety net. Places where people choose how they want to work and are given the means to deliver their best.
It is allied with those on the ground working to effect institutional change. It is not a project designed to make clients or executives impressed.
It is communal joy, bounded to justice and equity, as both our objective and our means to achieve that objective. Our DEI must implement practices of joy in order for us to show, not tell, the world what future we want – and are dying for.
It is inclusive language as an effect and a collaborator of social and systemic improvement – not as the final destination. What is an inclusive language workshop without material and labour security? We need, also, pay equity, robust benefits inclusive of different life experiences, thoughtful recruiting plans, compassionate policies. Both the language and the concrete gains are crucial for a world of social and material justice and equity. Those are our end goals.
Its communication is less reactive and more proactive.
Reactive: Error-focused, afraid of change, awaiting problems to fix and dismiss. Defensive and argumentative. Annual training that people dread going to. A culture of silence and inertia because people are terrified of making mistakes. Social media statements because “you have to.”
Proactive: Focused on education and empowerment. Starting and listening to conversation, opening lines of feedback. In a state of constant learning, strategic planning, iterative improvement. Inviting participation and ownership instead of excluding. What if your next “DEI training” was, instead, a celebration or an open conversation, emotionally connecting to the story of people’s cultures, identities, and life experiences? It is out-of-box thinking that connects directly with those whose lives and work we are trying to improve.
It is not shying away from mistakes. When we slip up, our DEI should not be about overstating the harm done; it should, instead, give people the benefit of the doubt, not seek to call out or cancel, but to trust intention: people need time to learn. A one-on-one conversation, the act of pulling aside, is mountains more valuable than public fury, angry emails, gossiping, shaming. It is a culture of work where people are accountable for their actions and are responsible for creating patterns of connection and education, not humiliation and lecturing.
It is an entire shift in philosophy: away from infighting and competition, towards the call to care about strangers and coworkers as we care about our own communities.
The benefits of DEI – higher performance, higher profit – are secondary to the unquantifiable joy. DEI holds the promise that our leaders will both accept and value our differences. It means they will see us as full, capable human beings worthy of dignity and respect.
It means I can invite my friends to work at this place. That my leaders are actively committed to giving me and my coworkers the framework and autonomy to achieve our potential. It is a culture of accountability and taking ownership, a workplace that allies itself with the most vulnerable inside and out. Even if that allyship is inconvenient, terrifying, costly.
Leaders and communicators must perceive DEI as more than a lucrative investment or a business opportunity. They must tell the story of joy – of building, installing, practicing, and working towards and for a joy that connects to all. Or else, what work is our DEI doing? What are we building towards? What are we doing here?