• Existing DEI initiatives only expose discriminatory attitudes, but do nothing to mitigate their effects on those who suffer from them.
• Such programmes are still rooted in white dominant culture.
• Belonging, Dignity and Justice are alternative values that centre the voices and experiences of marginalized people.
Over the past three decades, corporations, non-profits, foundations and universities have relied on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) industrial complex to create a workplace that is diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and gender. On its face, DEI attempts to address the most pressing longstanding issues in a workplace. Many believed by institutionalizing procedures that promote inclusion and equity, they could ensure fairness and equal opportunity, and avoid discrimination in the workplace.
Have you read?
Though well-intentioned, DEI has not delivered. This is not by happenstance, but rather by design. The DEI industrial complex came into existence as a preemptive defense to avoid litigation by members of protected classes, particularly under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For decades, the vast majority of Fortune 500 companies have implemented DEI trainings, or other initiatives for their employees. The fact remains that these efforts have had minimal impact on the reduction of bias and have not yielded much in the way of qualitative behaviour change or other desired changes in the workplace.
Are diversity initiatives just theatre?
Employers concerned about litigation tend to be more concerned with the optics of their DEI programmes than taking consequential actions to bring about change. Indeed, superficial DEI trainings and experiences have often proven to create more harm and trauma for the very group they are aimed to protect. For instance, a very popular DEI approach focuses on “implicit bias trainings” that aim to expose the subconsciously held attitudes of anti-Blackness and racism in a workplace, but offers little to overcome or mitigate the practical effects of these attitudes on those suffering from discriminatory attitudes and practices in the workplace.
Institutions have begun to rely on short-term training programmes to bring long-lasting effects. But DEI training may provide a convenient opportunity for employees participating in it to not take personal responsibility for their actions and instead look at the problem as a systemic issue beyond their control; some may also feel they have been targeted as perpetrators of discrimination, and disengage or diminish their support for DEI. The difficult work of changing beliefs and behaviours in an organization cannot be achieved with a series of trainings or hiring more “diverse” candidates.
Illusion of inclusion
If we take a closer look at Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as concepts, we see that the framing implicitly suggests there is a default standard or status quo that “others” can be incorporated: white heteronormative dominant culture. In other words, to be diverse is to be different than the white dominant culture. Pursuing equity is about having access to and being equal to this culture. Finally, to seek inclusion is to desire entrance to a workplace that uses white heteronormative values as the standard. This focus on the status quo, while purporting inclusion, is not only an illusion but an insidious tool for assimilation.
Needless to say, this current DEI approach is woefully insufficient in addressing the individual and institutional challenges in workplaces. To structurally address racism, ableism, sexism, dehumanization and anti-Blackness, we must equip people with the proper tools to dismantle, disrupt and demand more within organizations. To get to this healthy work environment, we need a completely different approach.
Belonging, Dignity and Justice
Decolonize Design offers organizations exactly this, one inspired by humanity’s most precious and universal values: Belonging, Dignity and Justice (BDJ).
We define these terms as:
- Belonging is one’s physical, emotional and psychological safety; the indescribable feeling of being welcome.
- Dignity is one of the most universal concepts to describe the sacred nature of each individual’s personhood.
- Justice is the repairing and restoring of individuals.
The BDJ process is an inherently relational one. It begins with an experiential learning session intended to inspire metanoia (an inner conversion), build trust, grow collective consciousness and create tension to move teams to action. Rather than a checklist or a series of transactional and performative changes, BDJ creates a climate and culture that allows everyone to reach their full potential and thrive.
Embed not perform
Like any strategic imperative, BDJ is a mission-critical way of doing business and building teams. However, unlike most strategic imperatives, the goals result in radically new ways of working with teams and serving audiences. The journey of BDJ begins with an organization taking stock of the status quo and ways in which the organization formally and informally participates in creating a climate of assimilation, anti-Blackness and dehumanization.
The key to BDJ is centring those people who are most on the margins, shifting the way we understand expertise. We must embrace the paradigm shift that occurs during the unlearning of dominant normative values.
“The decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.” – Iroquois philosophy
With leadership and commitment, this approach delivers results. We’ve leveraged this framework over the past few years in a variety of industries across sectors, from retail to manufacturing companies to household brands and music companies. Businesses that embrace these values are more sustainable and innovative, thanks to the culture BDJ creates. This cascading impact flows from relationships with employees to how companies connect with partners and suppliers to consumer loyalty to community impact.
Across our client partners, we’ve seen results and shifts in:
Internal operations Embedding BDJ has increased recruitment and retention of systemically marginalized peoples within companies. Staff within companies undergoing BDJ report dramatic increases in psychological safety, which translated to increased productivity and unique climate for innovation. Valuing lived experience, acknowledging past harms, addressing coded language and repairing those most impacted by systems of oppression allows companies to earn the trust of their workforce.
External relations Incorporating BDJ into your brand identity increases customer loyalty and connection as well as offering a competitive advantage. By creating a BDJ-centred environment, companies attract new partnerships and customer segments. Even more, the cities and communities that these companies do business in benefit from companies taking a stand against dehumanization and injustice as it impacts employees and public policy.
While results are significant as it relates to ROI and profits, we resist the impulse to evaluate the impact in these terms. Measuring value for being humane not only maintains the status quo, it runs the risk of becoming vanity metrics. Companies who work with us must be ready to create the right climate and culture; this means a desire to embed BDJ into your institutional identity, a willingness to lead your industry and the courage to take a stand. Ultimately, this work requires the leadership of visionary CEOs who are not only concerned with impact today, but of their legacy for generations to come.