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The History [and Future] of DEI


We choose to work with educators because we know how wide their scope of impact can be in this world, the personified pebble that causes the ripples of change.

It’s no surprise to us, then, that the modern-day DEI movement–or what was once termed “civil rights education,”–got its start in the sixties. Though its seeds were sprouting in think tanks around the country, it notably thrived on college campuses, fertile ground for big ideas and big changes. As the LSA Center for Social Solutions at the University of Michigan reports, one in five student protests in the 60s demanded racial justice on campus.

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Source: University of Michigan Center for Social Solutions

Movement was happening off-campus, too. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made businesses pay attention, making racial, gender, or religious discrimination in hiring, firing and compensating businesses with more than fifteen workers.

(We don’t know why it was okay for businesses with fewer than fifteen, but that’s for another time.)

With the new rules in place, people began filing complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If the complaints were found to be valid, a particular part of the consequence would serve to ignite what is now considered the DEI industry: mandatory anti-discriminatory training.

FastCompany reports that soon after, business owners noted how expensive the fines and mandatory trainings could be, not to mention the awful PR. To get ahead, they began soliciting these trainings on their own as preventative measures and continued education.

Though the effectiveness of the EEOC would stall a bit in the deregulation-happy Reagan era, the deed had been done: the industry we now know today as DEI was born.

How Far We’ve Come

Some say a lot has changed since the protests of the sixties, but . . . has it really? Sure, Title VII was eventually supplemented to include consequences for discriminating based on disability, age, pregnancy, and sexual orientation. Language was added around sexual harassment. These are positive changes, surely.

But, as our founder Nancy Dome wrote in Let’s Talk About Race and Other Hard Things, “There are two ways to look at how we communicate today: you could say we’ve come a long way … which we have. You can also say we have a long way to go…which we do. Both can be true at once.”

That is the case here. Both are very true.

Recent data show that approximately 67% of organizations today use diversity training. This is a large, important industry–so large, in fact, that in total, the United States spends an estimated $8 billion annually on DEI training. Yes, a billion with a “b.”

With all that money being spent, why do 50% of diverse employees still say they experience bias in their day-to-day work environments? (We think this number is conservatively self-reported, by the way.) In the much bigger picture, if DEI is truly “working” on the scale to which it intended, why have we had a cause, again and again, to fill the streets, protesting violent and discriminatory act after violent discriminatory act?

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Opportunities for Improvement in DEI Today

As you likely know, intention and impact are two very different things. While the core intention behind DEI was certainly a worthwhile one, in our 9 years of doing this work, we’ve noted at times that its impact isn’t as effective as it could be. Part of facing a challenge is understanding it fully.

Here’s what we see:

● A lack of buy-in and follow-through. Some leaders, whether they’re conscious of it or not, see DEI as the “checking of a box.” If there are enough resources put to DEI, these leaders are the most likely to not buy into and/or not follow through with suggested DEI strategies. They may feel like they’ve sat through these initiatives before and can simply wait it out. They “walk the walk but don’t talk the talk.”

● A lack of efficacy. Women and employees of color tend to be extra vulnerable if they speak out under the guise of a “safe” post-DEI training environment, only to be punished if the initiative wasn’t internalized by everyone in the group.

● A lack of willingness to work through discomfort. Just because someone is participating in a DEI initiative doesn’t mean they have personally opted in. It’s common for some participants to approach DEI work as if something external is being fixed without the internal comprehension that they are part of what needs fixing. This disconnect slows progress and at times blocks it entirely.

At the end of the day, the biggest problem with DEI might be one that’s bigger than DEI. As you have seen, when we talk in this space, we often speak in “initiatives.” But no number of initiatives will provide the systemic change necessary to scaffold those conversations and what will come out of them.

The only thing that will do that is–you guessed it–bringing even more voices into these conversations.

The Way Forward

We believe, not surprisingly, that the antidote to the problems inherent in today’s version of DEI lies in learning to communicate with one another. Though the pain points above are certainly challenges, the positive is that they are predictable challenges. If we understand a). that they exist and b). why they exist, we have the foundational knowledge to choose a better path.

Which is why we exist: to do just that. Our DEI-adjacent path is grounded in our application of the RIR Protocol™ (Recognize, Interrupt, and Repair). A component of Compassionate Dialogue®, RIR is a simple 3-step framework proven to help tough conversations go beyond conflict and invite understanding, empathy, and connection.

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This method roots the work in a commitment to the outcome, leading to a more proactive rather than reactive dynamic. Our approach combines a deep understanding of the structural and systemic issues at play while focusing on humanizing even (and especially) the most highly charged interactions. This leads to an actual commitment to staying in the work, despite its challenging nature, and facilitates real progress.

For those of us who share that desire for progress–which we acknowledge was certainly the nucleus of DEI in its beginning–we must be willing to interrogate the status quo and choose the actionable way forward if we want to see real change in our schools, our organizations, our communities, and our world.

Every day, we’re bridging the divide between learning it and living it. Join us.


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