Is Your DEI Work Structural or Superficial?

Surface level DEI Efforts vs. Systemic Transformations in Civic and Cultural Institutions.

Siena Beacham, Storytelling & Content CatalystApr 28, 2024 8:47 PM
Is Your DEI Work Structural or Superficial?
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It's becoming increasingly crucial for organizations to take meaningful steps towards aligning their core values with the interests of their stakeholders. However, are their efforts always genuine, or are they simply ticking the boxes? Let's unravel this complex issue and delve deep into whether Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) are integrated at the core of an organization's practices, or if they are just surface-level buzzwords.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are not quick-fix terms; they symbolize a commitment to creating a space where everyone feels valued, respected, and allowed to contribute their unique talents. This is where the difference between superficial vs. structural DEI requires better understanding. The Manifest's research states that 70% of job seekers prioritize companies committed to DEI. The study also reveals that diverse teams make better enterprise decisions up to 87% of the time.

Cultural and civic institutions with a mission-driven focus on DEI  initiatives and those who prioritize inclusion make employees feel respected, safe, and motivated to reach their full potential. As such, they innovate more quickly, giving them a competitive advantage over their peers. Imagine your organization thriving not just despite its diversity but also because of it.  Yet, how can you tell if your efforts are truly moving the needle or are merely performative?

What Does Superficial DEI Work Look Like?

Consider this scenario: Your organization announces a new initiative to promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). They host a series of workshops and training sessions, update their mission statement, and even hire a few more diverse employees. However, as time goes on, you start to notice that these changes are only skin-deep. The workshops become less frequent, the mission statement is just words on a website, and the diverse employees are often overlooked when it comes to promotions or decision-making opportunities. It becomes clear that the organization’s DEI efforts are only superficial and lack the structural changes necessary to make a real difference.

Superficial DEI work focuses on appearances rather than lasting change. They manifest as one-time events or performative gestures rather than substantive actions that address underlying biases or inequalities. These initiatives often incline toward tokenism that offers fleeting nods to diversity without effecting meaningful change.

Such an approach can actually harm employees by raising false hopes and creating a sense of mere symbolic representation. To determine if your endeavors are superficial vs. structural DEI, evaluate effectiveness by examining organizational policies, practices, and power dynamics. Are your diversity efforts just box-ticking exercises, or do they permeate the institution's DNA? Some red flags to look out for include:

A Focus on One-off Events

Diversity workshops are valuable, but true change requires ongoing commitment. For example, a non-profit may hold a one-day unconscious bias training. Nonetheless, the impact will be limited without follow-up workshops, mentoring programs, and accountability measures.  Lack of sustained efforts to address unconscious bias and its effects on everyday work practices can cause employees to revert to discriminating behaviors.

Lack of Leadership Buy-in

Statements of support from leadership are a start, but without active championing of DEI through concrete actions, efforts will falter. This could include setting distinct DEI goals, allocating resources, and holding leaders accountable for progress. With no leadership involvement in dismantling barriers, DEI initiatives are unlikely to succeed.

Data Isn’t Informing Decisions

Without a clear snapshot of your team's diverse makeup, it's like flying blind in the world of DEI. Sure, you may declare your commitment to diversity, but without the hard numbers, how can you truly gauge your triumphs or pinpoint the roadblocks? Tracking your workforce demographics is not a quick exercise—it's the compass guiding your DEI journey. By harnessing the power of data, you can chart the course of your progress, celebrate your victories, and tackle challenges head-on. Remember, knowledge is power, and in the realm of DEI, data is one of the keys to unlocking that power.

Misleading Improvements

Superficial DEI work can create an illusion of progress. Yes, you might see a sprinkle of diversity in your hires, but is this a true victory? Or are we simply skimming the surface without tackling the real issues beneath? Think about it - you have a more diverse team, but do these individuals feel empowered to unleash their full potential?

True inclusion isn't a numbers game. It's about fostering an environment where everyone feels at home in their own skin. It's about breaking down systemic barriers and weaving inclusion into the very fabric of your culture. So, ask yourself this: are your DEI efforts just a facade, or are you making a genuine difference? Remember, the journey to a truly equitable workplace starts with distinguishing between superficial vs. structural DEI efforts.

What Does Structural DEI Work Look Like?

In stark contrast, structural DEI work surpasses performative gestures since equity and inclusion are fully ingrained into an organizational framework. It's all about dismantling the systems perpetuating inequity by supporting a space where every voice matters. This involves deliberate efforts in revising recruitment practices, implementing transparent systems, and promoting a culture of belonging where everyone feels valued. For this to work, organization leaders must:

Create Committees, Forums, and Mentorship Programs

The creation of groups where staff from historically excluded backgrounds can share their viewpoints and experiences. Integrate feedback from marginalized voices into decision-making processes, ensuring a more inclusive approach to problem-solving and strategy. Also, amplify untapped potential by listening to these voices to tap into a wealth of talent and lived experiences often overlooked in traditional structures. This builds trust and transparency within the organization, leading to a more authentic and representative setting. Different standpoints further spark creativity and challenge assumptions, which propel the institute toward innovative solutions and lasting growth.

Review Existing Policies

All people, groups, and even organizations harbor unconscious or hidden biases. Pretending they don't exist is not just unproductive, it's frankly ludicrous. The only way to effectively address these biases is to unearth them, face them, admit to their existence, examine them, and then work diligently to break them down. Denial and avoidance never lead to progress; only through acknowledgment and action can we foster true change.

You can begin this work by conducting an exhaustive review of existing policies and practices to find subtle proclivities that might disadvantage certain demographics. Once you identify areas where policies inadvertently create obstructions, revise them to ensure equitable opportunities for all staff members. Institutions that eliminate hidden biases create a fairer, more just workplace environment where teams thrive. However, it doesn't stop there. Regularly reevaluate policies to ensure they remain inclusive as the organization and its workforce evolve. This demonstrates a commitment to equity and sends a powerful message to staff about the institution's values.

Track Progress

Turn the spotlight on your DEI journey by gathering and dissecting data on your team's demographics, representation, and inclusion metrics. Unearth the hidden truths, spotlight the triumphs, and target the challenges with precision. By measuring the ripple effect of your DEI initiatives, you can effectively identify the gold mines and the landmines in your strategy. Remember, in the dynamic world of DEI, data serves as your key resource, steering your strategic decision-making and ensuring your efforts make a significant impact. And when you lift the veil on data collection and analysis, you're building a fortress of trust in your DEI process.

Keep Going Despite Discomfort

Structural DEI is a continuous process, not a one-time fix. It requires discomfort and a willingness to confront entrenched patterns and biases that may be ingrained in the institution's culture. For example, a superficially DEI-focused organization might boast a diverse team but consistently overlook qualified women for leadership positions. It may showcase a vibrant employee resource group without truly empowering them to address microaggressions or suggest changes to organizational policies.

This pattern suggests a prejudice that a one-time diversity workshop won't fix. Meaningful change could involve leadership undergoing training to recognize unconscious bias and applying specific policies that ensure fairness. Ongoing efforts like revising hiring practices to remove bias for underrepresented groups can also help dismantle superficial DEI.

These changes may be uncomfortable, as they challenge the status quo, but they are necessary for inclusion, where everyone can thrive. The rewards are significant: a more vibrant, innovative organization that truly reflects the community it serves. This is where a DEI committee provides strategic direction, oversees initiatives, and holds management responsible.

The What, Why, and How of DEI Committees or Change Making Teams

In a world that's rapidly shifting, with demographics changing and societal awareness growing, DEI committees stand as a beacon of change within an organization. These committees are not an afterthought – they're a powerhouse of employees, a vibrant mosaic of backgrounds and experiences, that come together with a single, resonating purpose: to champion a truly inclusive workplace. They're the superheroes without capes, working tirelessly to ensure fairness and belonging for every staff member, irrespective of their identity or background.

The stakes are high. Ignoring DEI initiatives is like a ticking time bomb, jeopardizing institutional relevance and inviting severe repercussions. Societal expectations are clear - they demand action, not just words, toward diversity and inclusion.

The DEI committee is made up of dedicated agents of change that steer the ship, guiding institutions toward a horizon where diversity, equity, and inclusion are not just ideals, but reality. They're the driving force behind organizational performance and societal impact. Building such a committee is like assembling a dream team. The first step is to identify potential members from diverse backgrounds and positions within the organization, ensuring a blend of perspectives that enriches the committee.

Recruitment is not a passive process; it's an active pursuit. It's not just about waiting for self-nominations but about proactively seeking out those individuals who are passionate about transforming superficial DEI efforts into structural DEI changes. Once this core group is formed, it's time to secure organizational buy-in. This is when leadership steps up, publicly endorsing the committee, assigning resources, and taking a stand for a more inclusive workplace culture.

The committee’s role doesn't stop here. They set measurable goals, aligning them with the institution's DEI strategy. Open communication channels, akin to the lifeblood of this group, need to be established. The committee needs a game plan to regularly share progress and challenges with the wider institution. This transparency isn't just about keeping everyone in the loop; it cultivates trust and prepares the team to navigate the inevitable challenges along the journey to a more inclusive workplace.

DEI committees are not just teams; they're catalysts of change, transforming the very fabric of an organization. They're the unsung heroes creating a brighter, more inclusive future for every staff member. The question is - are you ready to join the journey?

Why Most Organizations Shy Away From True Structural DEI Work

The reluctance to embark on structural DEI transformations vs. superficial efforts stems from both external and internal pressures. Capitalist standards often prioritize short-term metrics like reputation management over long-term systemic change. Fear of disrupting the status quo also paralyzes progress and usually leads to resistance or defensiveness. For example, entrenched power structures may resist changes that challenge their authority or privilege, worrying about losing control or influence.

Besides, individuals accustomed to benefiting from existing systems may perceive efforts to address historical biases as a threat to their position or identity. This apprehension can lead to a hesitation to engage in "uncomfortable" conversations or to acknowledge the need for change, thus hindering progress toward true equity and inclusion.

To overcome this obstacle, institutions must cultivate a culture of psychological safety where teams are at liberty to challenge the status quo without fear of reprisal. Leaders should champion DEI efforts by acknowledging and confronting historical biases and enabling transparent dialogue. Shying away from structural transformation only perpetuates systemic inequalities that hinder organizational growth and innovation.

The solution is to focus on external community relations. Through collaborative partnerships and emphatic efforts to address potential harm or exclusion, institutions become more representative of the communities they serve. Here's how to go about it.

Structural DEI for Community-Based Institutions

DEI initiatives in community-based organizations must prioritize external engagement in their representation and co-creation of spaces that are OF, BY and FOR ALL participants, visitors, and collaborators. Institutions that engage external stakeholders should ensure their programs and services reflect community needs and values. Some initiatives that community-based institutions may consider solidifying their commitment include:

Co-Creation of Programming

Community centers can invite the public to proactively participate in the development of programming. It may include hosting community forums, focus groups, and feedback sessions to gather input and ideas directly from those they serve. Involving local residents in decision-making processes helps institutions ensure their programs are relevant and reflective of community interests and priorities.

Rally Around Community Advisory Boards

Imagine a powerhouse team of diverse community members, serving as your organization's guiding light. That's your Community Advisory Board. This dynamic group forms a vibrant bridge between your institution and the community, ensuring your programming resonates with the people you serve. They also play detective, uncovering potential access barriers and suggesting innovative ways to overcome them.

Power Through Partnerships

Your institution can be a cultural engine by joining forces with local neighborhood organizations, grassroots groups, and cultural leaders. These partnerships are crucial for facilitating collaboration on programming, outreach initiatives, and community events. It's a win-win situation, as you and your community partners bring each other's strengths to the table, serving the community more effectively and promoting collective well-being.

Champion Community-Led Enterprises

Nothing screams empowerment more than letting community members take the driving seat on certain projects. It's like unlocking a treasure trove of creativity and innovation. Your institution can be the catalyst, providing resources, support, and space for these community-led initiatives. The result? Projects that truly reflect community voices and experiences.

Cultivate Safe and Inclusive Havens

Let's be clear, community-based institutions must be safe, inclusive havens for everyone. And yes, it means tackling unintentional prejudice or cultural insensitivities head-on. It's not a one-time fix, but a commitment to creating inclusive policies, training programs, and accountability mechanisms. This ensures issues of intolerance, discrimination, and harassment are dealt with swiftly and effectively. And yes, community agreements or codes of conduct are crucial too. They set the tone for behavior, promoting respectful interaction among all participants. So, let's create spaces where everyone feels they truly belong.

Final Thoughts

Institutions hold a substantial responsibility to mirror the diversity of the communities they serve. It is imperative to shift from superficial to structural Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts, as this transformation can propel these institutions to become powerhouses of inclusive excellence, enriching everyone involved. The age of tokenism is over. The present calls for a bold step towards undertaking the in-depth, challenging, yet profoundly rewarding work that true DEI demands.

It's Time For Action

It's only through collective commitment and unwavering dedication that organizations can genuinely become OF/BY/FOR ALL. If you're looking to drive genuine cultural and systemic change in your organization, consider joining our global Change Network.

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