Are Some Events Used As Cover to ‘Dump’ D&I?
All social justice movements start with a strong message. Often delivered by a messenger with the ability to leverage platforms and get their message heard. And these then grow and influence mainstream thinking, including adoption in the corporate world over time.
But as these face resistance (and fatigue), do public challenges and flaws found in social justice leaders give organizations a good excuse to shrug their shoulders and step back from investment?
We explore two examples for Diversity & Inclusion:
1. Should a message lose power when the messenger is found to be flawed?
All social justice movements start with a strong message delivered by a messenger with the ability to leverage platforms and get their message heard. In the last two years several DEI and social justice movements have taken blows - to the figures and organizations at their centers.
And for some, this has led to a challenge to the credibility of these progressive and inclusive concepts as a whole.
So, what do you do with a good message with a flawed messenger? And how does this impact your work as a DEI professional?Does it invalidate the message? Do you discard everything you’ve learned - possibly question all the ways you may have grown?
As humans - as a society - we have always dealt with this conundrum of the message and the messenger. Whether with religion, philosophy, or the many iconic figures throughout history.
Today is nothing new.
The first was the scandal surrounding the BLM (Black Lives Matter) organization’s founders and several local leaders. There were multiple accounts of financial fraud, investigations into spending, and critiques of where the raised funds went and the work being (or not being) done.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors stepped down from her role as executive director in 2019 amid the news frenzy involving accusations of financial fraud (or mishandling) and leadership issues. The Cullors incident created the largest waves, but unfortunately, there were many other accusations and headlines to follow. The aftershocks reverberated throughout the United States as well as Europe, landing in Bristol, with British Black Lives Matter activist Xahra Saleem being sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for fraud.
Additionally, the person many would say is a founder and creator of the larger social justice movement, Ibram X. Kendi, has come under the spotlight of scrutiny as well. Dr. Kendi is probably most famous for his books How to Be an Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning. Much of his research and writings laid the groundwork for DEI and added to the greater conversations of justice, inclusion, and equality by creating language and ideas. Fortunately, Dr Kendi’s controversy isn’t so salacious. He has recently been heavily criticized for his management and the results of his work at the Center for Anti-Racist Research at Boston University.
All of these scandals and news accusations are directed at individuals. But opponents of DEI and social justice work have taken this as a hollow opportunity to invalidate everything they stood (stand) for, the work they’ve done, and the progress that has been made.
So much so that we’ve seen many organizations who once took stances in favor of diversity and inclusion have since distanced themselves completely, abandoning their DEI initiatives and programs.
Was this invalidation warranted?
The founders of BLM are people like you and me and can be flawed, make mistakes, or be dubious, just like anyone else. But does that mean that Black lives don’t matter anymore? Does that mean that Trayvon Martin’s death, which sparked the hashtag and subsequent movement, is no longer important? With X. Kendi facing backlash over layoffs and management, does this mean that antiracism is a false premise? That diversity, equity, inclusion, closing disparities, treating people fairly and with human decency, and working to become better, more tolerant, inclusive, and empathetic people and organizations are no longer important?
Does it mean that we discontinue our work?
Again, absolutely not.
2. Does a public setback in one arena give organizations the excuse to use ‘potential risk’ as a reason not to continue investment?
Equally, as well as challenges in social justice movements, the recent Supreme Court decision (Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard) struck down affirmative action programs in college admissions.
It has left many organizations scratching their heads as to how to respond. What is the role of affirmative action in the corporate setting? And is investing in D&I now a more risky strategy?
For some opposing D&I interventions, the ruling is a great opportunity to re-energize their battle against diversity and inclusion initiatives, in particular around hiring targets and support for minority candidates.
The answer is nuanced. Some of the drop-off in roles and investment are due to fatigue following knee-jerk pledges post George Floyd. But for those leaders who don’t see D&I as important, these other factors that ‘dull the edge’ of the D&I debate are also a helpful shield to hide behind.
Why invest in D&I if social justice leaders are compromised, or legal actions complicate the issue?
The answer is that D&I is about the future. And creating workspaces that are more open to the diverse perspectives and expectations of future employees coming through the system. At its heart, D&I has always been about creating the culture and paving the way for the inclusion of others into the future.
And if organizations disinvest from this crucial long-term focus on attracting and retaining ‘different’ talent, they will find themselves behind the pack as each next set of workforces flows in.
So if you are tempted to scan the horizon and de-prioritize D&I just be clear about why – and recognize that if an organization is truly focused on being inclusive, the work doesn’t stop.
Article co-authored by Jamal Robinson and Patrick Voss