We’re two years after a global racial awakening where many of us proclaimed our belief in social inclusion and racial equity. Yet some folx may be frustrated by the lack of actual change, where the needle didn’t really move beyond performative statements or surface level actions. Change makers may be exhausted from the mental, emotional, and physical labor they’ve put into movement building. And some may be wondering where all those dedicated voices went, as if the urgency for social justice is somehow gone. A period of reflection and recentering seems in order, along with a reminder that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) ‘work’ requires actual work.

What is ‘the work’ when it comes to DEI?

It’s about change, doing things differently; and culture shift begins with us. But we sometimes resist change. So this requires a holistic approach to unlearning social patterns and relearning more inclusive thoughts and equitable behaviors. It requires rethinking our current systems and institutions that are built upon inequitable policies and unbalanced power structures. This work must be intentional on both a personal and professional level.

Personally, we can educate ourselves by learning the historical context of what some are calling a second civil rights movement (the first of which spanned decades, by the way). We can develop a foundational understanding of key terms; the various diversity dimensions, inclusion and its relationship to belonging, and the difference between equality and equity. We can use a framework that centers the most marginalized in our community. We can look through a trauma-informed lens that acknowledges intergenerational trauma from oppression. We can build the stamina to talk about uncomfortable things. We can let go of perfectionism and fear. We can prepare to mess up and learn how to meaningfully repair it when we do.

Even in solidarity, we will unintentionally cause harm as we unlearn all the ‘isms’. In our daily lives, we can name and ‘call in’ harmful behaviors when we see them. It doesn’t get easier — we just get better at it. And when we ourselves get called in, let’s not be tempted to just tap out of this work for good. Free resources abound to help us do better. We can make dedicated time to learn and grow just like we would for our health, our hobbies, or our binge watching… Netflix’s Amend series is free on YouTube and a good place to start. But don’t get stuck in reading and processing; get in the game. Volunteer serving vulnerable communities, be with folx who are different from you, humbly engage with other cultures, show up at civic meetings, model inclusivity into your own spaces and events. We can make intentional choices daily about where we spend our money, how we show up in mixed spaces, and who we do business with.

Professionally, we can set a new standard of inclusive leadership in a people first economy. The business case for DEI has been evidence based for decades. Some of our favorite brands are leading the way; check them out at CEOaction.com. Inequities and exclusions in our workplaces won’t go away if we’re too scared of what board members, high paying customers, rock star employees, or wealthy donors will say about declaring an organizational commitment to DEI. It must be tied directly to the organizational mission, vision, goals, and core values. It’s not ‘one more thing’ on our plate; it IS the plate. We can use organizational strengths, current assets, and dedicated resources to integrate DEI rather than tacking it on as an afterthought. Every policy, practice, procedure, and process can use a lens that asks: ‘Is this thing we’re doing advancing DEI or not?’

DEI work is daily and ongoing in our organizations, just like our finance or marketing processes. People must see it as an essential part of their job description, seeing the connection to themselves and their daily work. Organizations must use their institutional power and their platform to support healthy workplace behaviors and cultures of psychological safety. This means dismantling toxic hierarchies and using more relational strategies like power sharing and shared decision making; think power with, not power over. We can make intentional choices about not hiring until the pipeline of candidates is diverse, using progressive stack in meetings to center historically unheard voices, not tokenizing underrepresented board members, and taking it seriously when people speak truth to power and tell us that bigotry, microaggressions, and exclusion are happening in our teams.

How can we have effective changes with DEI?

We can start by setting ourselves up for success. At a personal and organizational level, we must be prepared to look in the mirror — to hold tension and healthy conflict. We all have a role to play, we all have biases, and none of us is exempt from the ‘isms’ regardless of our identity. This work is non-linear and complex. There is no cookie cutter model; it will be unique to the situation. Organizations can develop a change management practice (like ADKAR) and individuals can look deep into their immunity to change (Kegan and Lahey, 2009). We can prepare for resistance and lean into it. We can define what success looks like and make tangible changes.

But in order to know what to change, we need to assess our current state. Where are we starting from? What do we want to do differently? For example, have leaders of Color because representation matters, gender neutral bathrooms, documentation that doesn’t require deadnaming, and paid time off for culturally relevant holidays. With good data and defined outcomes, working the action plan requires an executive sponsor and change agents. We also need accountability partners personally, professionally, and in the communities we serve (think ‘nothing about us, without us’). Implementing an action plan can’t rely on a single DEI officer, just the HR department, or a committee dedicating an hour a week. Walking the talk is a daily practice of removing barriers and setting up systems of support. Tell people why we are making changes, start small, build over time, communicate progress often, and celebrate wins!

How do we make DEI work long term?

Think marathon not sprint. This is a lifelong individual journey and a long-term organizational commitment. And after the last 24 months, we’re all tired. Mental health professionals have said that collectively, as a society, we are not okay. Audre Lorde’s concept of radical self-care and community care is essential to maintaining our wellbeing in DEI work. And we can’t do this work alone; we must do this work together in community, in ‘right relationship’, and in capacity building. Like other aspects of our life or business, the work needs a dedicated team, adequate resources, an implementation plan, a realistic timeline, specific goals and outcomes, a process to measure progress, and a regular cycle of evaluation with feedback from those most impacted to tell us if we actually accomplished what we thought we did. How we do the work must be prioritized as much as what we do.

Movements are not without their struggles even among the well intentioned. adrienne maree brown reminds us that it is essential to humanize what society tries to dehumanize by focusing on our worth and interconnectedness, not by canceling each other. We must continually ground ourselves in our personal ‘why’ for this work. This is purpose-driven, principle-centered work that is bumpy, messy, nonlinear, frustrating, and so very worth it to create a world of equity, inclusion, and justice for the next seven generations. To do that, Resmaa Menakem reminds us that this work requires a constant centering of healing and joy to sustain it long term. Healing ourselves, our community, and our nation is how we get free together. Let’s continue putting in the work for our collective liberation.

Lynn is a consultant specializing in Organizational Development and DEI https://www.geminicorps.com/about