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DEIB in America: Past, Present, and Future

Navy background. Magenta accent circles. White outline of United States map. Insight Global logo. Letters spell out DEIB.

In Spring 2023, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) team at Insight Global invited higher education DEI professionals and academics to spend a day together at Insight Global’s corporate headquarters in Atlanta.

Part of the day’s agenda included an open discussion on the current state of DEI initiatives in the United States, specifically looking at what has changed since 2020.

Korryn Williamson, Director of DEIB at Insight Global, invited me to observe this discussion. This is what I learned.

Note: This conversation was specifically on DEI, so I use this terminology below. However, since this conversation took place, Insight Global has updated its language and services to reflect Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB). I address this change at the end.

How 2020 Changed the Conversation About DEI

Widespread understanding of DEI has changed greatly not just in the last 70 years, but even in the last four years.

For many Americans, their awareness of DEI in education starts with the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education to desegregate schools, and their understanding of DEI in the workplace starts with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees and job applicants from employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

Just as perspectives and the legal context around DEI evolve, so does the widespread cultural understanding of DEI issues. In fact, as previously discussed in an Insight Global blog post on equity in the workplace, the term “diversity, equity, and inclusion” didn’t become popular until 2020.

Multiple events of 2020 forever changed the conversation about DEI.

The Deaths of George Floyd and Other Unarmed Black Individuals

“On the evening of May 25, 2020, white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kills George Floyd, a Black man, by kneeling on his neck for almost 10 minutes.”

While Floyd’s death was not the first incident in 2020 of white individuals killing unarmed Black individuals, his death spurred national—even global—protests. This widespread racial reckoning also brought new attention to previous incidents, like the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in February and the shooting of Breonna Taylor in March of the same year.

This was an emotional time for many Americans, especially since we were already collectively experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, the resulting conversations and actions about DEI came from an emotional place, and they centered on racial diversity.

The Widespread Emotional Response

In the 2010s, the high-profile deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, among other Black Americans, led to widespread national protests and the start of the Black Lives Matter movement.

However, none of these incidents captured the attention of a global audience quite like the death of Floyd, which was filmed by multiple bystanders. These videos quickly circulated online, allowing anyone with internet access to witness Floyd’s final moments.

People all around the world had a visceral, emotional response to Floyd’s death. Suddenly, people of all ages, races, and nationalities were joining long-time activists in their protests against racism. People who had never before prioritized diversity, equity, or inclusion wanted to see change.

America’s collective emotional response to Floyd’s death led to new DEI conversations and initiatives, including in corporate spaces.

While these quick DEI actions were an understandable reaction, it’s important for DEI educators to take a step back from emotional responses. Effective DEI strategies aren’t driven solely by anger or passion.

While many individuals will often feel emotionally connected to DEI initiatives, organizations should look at how to implement DEI policies based on the organization’s values and goals.

Unfortunately, a deliberate, data-backed approach to DEI wasn’t the widespread response to the events of 2020.

Companies and organizations who were desperate for immediate change didn’t always take the necessary time and care to hire reputable DEI practitioners. Some opportunistic practitioners took advantage of the turmoil, selling solutions that didn’t address root problems.

Today, in 2023, the United States is experiencing some backlash to anything connected to DEI. This is for many reasons, but hastily enacted, haphazardly executed “DEI” programs in 2020 are a contributing factor.

DEI Challenges in 2024

DEI is making headlines—and not in a good way.

A popular fast food chain is facing boycotts because their DEI program (which has been in place since at least 2020) recently went viral.

One state has already withdrawn all public funding for DEI programs in higher education. Another state has completely banned DEI offices and initiatives at public higher education institutions.

But headlines are only part of the story. When you sit down and talk with people, you can learn more about why DEI is experiencing the current backlash.

Pushback to the Response in 2020

After the events of 2020, many companies wanted to do the right thing regarding DEI, but they didn’t necessarily know what “right” meant. Some of them hired DEI consultants who sold a quick fix.

DEI training isn’t subject to any specific standards or formal oversight. DEI educators don’t need to hold particular licenses or pass rigorous exams before engaging in this work. While this lack of barriers invites practitioners of all backgrounds to teach from their lived experiences, it also allows inexperienced or even divisive practitioners to tarnish the reputation of DEI.

Which is exactly what has happened.

“DEI Training Doesn’t Work” is a headline many have seen shared across the internet and cable news outlets. The actual research is more complex, but individual studies do indicate that generic, one-off DEI trainings don’t work. Unfortunately, those are often the solutions offered to companies trying to do the right thing—quickly. Many workers and managers experienced ineffective DEI training in 2020, and now they’re frustrated at the overall industry.

Overemphasis on Race

After the shootings of Arbery, Taylor, and Floyd (all Black Americans), it’s understandable that DEI conversations centered around race. However, too many public conversations and corporate trainings branded as DEI have been limited to just race, which lacks the broader understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

As noted in previous writings, race is just one dimension of diversity among many. All people have their own diverse backgrounds and their own unique needs. Intersectionality acknowledges that even when two or more people share one dimension of diversity, their experiences will be affected by their differences. So even within a group of all Black Americans, every person has their own unique lived experience.

If people receive DEI training that only focuses on race, they might feel misunderstood or even erased—and this can even be true for people from underrepresented races. These feelings can lead to a negative association with all things DEI.

So how can DEI practitioners move forward, given the missteps of the last few years?

5 Tips for More Effective DEI Education and Training

The group discussion wasn’t limited to just the history of DEI or current challenges. Everyone in the room also contributed solutions and suggested best practices. Collectively, their advice supported five ideas for better DEI education and training.

Teach Dimensions of Diversity

Diversity is not limited to just race and gender, but so many DEI conversations focus on those two characteristics. When DEI practitioners work with a group, they need to explain the many dimensions of diversity.

It’s also important for all of us working in DEI spaces to be specific with our language. Diverse is not a synonym for “Black,” or “female,” or “gay.”

For example, Insight Global has publicly set a goal of having 30 percent of new hires in 2025 come from underrepresented groups—and part of that goal is a definition of “underrepresented groups.”

When people grasp that diversity includes varied traits like veteran status, parental status, work experience, religious views, and more, they often start to realize just how expansive and complex diversity can be.

Infographic defining diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging while also sharing different dimensions of diversity.

What’s great about teaching the different dimensions of diversity is that it’s an easy starting point to meet people where they are.

Meet People Where They Are

Adults don’t learn the same way children do, but one of the flaws in DEI education is not adapting teaching styles for adult learners. When adults learn, we aren’t blank slates. We bring our own experiences, backgrounds, and preconceived notions with us. When teaching adults, educators and experts need to keep this in mind.

By connecting new information with what someone already knows, you create understanding. In the aftermath of 2020, DEI trainers often failed to create understanding.

In addition, DEI practitioners need to find a common language with students or clients. You can’t assume that everyone has the same understanding of DEI vocabulary. How can you connect DEI to someone’s culture or organization?

Learn how to pivot with what you’re saying, and how you’re saying it. This will help you find a way for learners to pick up what you’re teaching.

Set Realistic Expectations for Results

Meeting people where they are is important, especially in individual conversations or small groups. However, when making a case for DEI in the workplace or in any type of organization, it’s also important to set realistic expectations with decision-makers. Not everyone understands that a true commitment to DEI requires long-term effort.

Bria Villasante, DEI Strategist at Insight Global, explained this challenge simply, “People want answers. Quickly.”

But as a DEI practitioner, it’s your responsibility to push back against that expectation.

Remember, earlier promises of quick and easy DEI solutions are part of why DEI is experiencing challenges today. While it’s often tougher to get buy-in from leaders when they want to see an immediate return on investment (ROI), it’s still so important not to oversell expected results from DEI initiatives.

You might need to explain the business case for DEI initiatives so leadership can understand one major incentive for getting started with DEI. Then you can also offer a reasonable timeline for efforts and results by explaining the multi-step process of creating and implementing a DEI strategy.

A quick look at one recommended process:

  • Analyze DEI starting point
  • Define DEI goals
  • Choose DEI leaders
  • Assess minimum resources needed for success
  • Determine how to measure success

By setting realistic expectations for results, DEI practitioners can improve the reputation of DEI training.

Another way to improve the reputation is by inviting more people into DEI spaces and conversations.

Don’t Gatekeep DEI Work

Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. All of these need to be present in DEI spaces. DEI professionals need to practice what they preach.

Unfortunately, DEI professionals have not always centered inclusion in their work. Intersectional identities and diverse experiences should not be ignored or excluded just because someone isn’t perceived as “diverse” enough

This type of DEI gatekeeping has led to the aforementioned problem: an overemphasis on race.

But this isn’t the only facet of gatekeeping in the DEI space.

Some DEI practitioners have unrealistic demands for agreement. It’s like there’s an invisible checklist, and if you don’t tick off all the boxes, then you can’t teach DEI.

Most people aren’t ready to unilaterally agree on everything. They care about the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but they don’t necessarily share the same viewpoint on every hard question, especially when it comes to practical applications of DEI.

When gatekeeping occurs, the DEI field misses out not only on expanding the conversation with other diverse experts, but also on expanding the DEI sphere of influence. People who don’t feel “diverse enough” stay quiet, even though their voices would be a valuable contribution. If they feel empowered to engage with DEI work, then they can advocate for DEI initiatives in their school, church, or workplace.

No one is an expert in everything. How can you include other diverse people, with experiences and knowledge different than your own, in DEI conversations? What can you learn from other people?

Which leads to the final tip for better DEI education and training from our panel: never stop learning.

Embrace Lifelong Learning

Unfortunately, there can be unfair high expectations for DEI professionals, which can lead to them fearing to admit they don’t know all the answers. But when you lead from humility and you commit to lifelong learning, you can become a better DEI leader.

Learning is already a value in higher education. Professors teach students both why they should become lifelong learners, and how to become one.

Multiple industries require their professionals to obtain annual continuing education credits as part of maintaining their licenses. In fields like healthcare, law, accounting, and engineering, professionals already recognize they don’t know everything—especially because the world keeps changing, and their expertise needs to keep up. DEI practitioners can take the same approach to ongoing training, education, and learning.

That’s why Insight Global’s DEI team hosted this conversation with higher education DEI professionals and academics. Everyone in that room wanted to grow in knowledge and understanding.

Personally, I was both honored and humbled to have the opportunity to learn alongside so many thoughtful and well-versed DEI practitioners.

Belonging: The Next Evolution of DEI

Just as the common terminology previously evolved from “diversity and inclusion” to “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” the next evolution is to add “belonging” to the mix.

Belonging relates to all of the advice above.

When employees recognize their own dimensions of diversity, and they feel like they can be their full authentic selves at work, that’s belonging.

When someone feels invited to a DEI conversation—and personally connected to the topic—that’s belonging.

Belonging is also a desired outcome from DEI strategies, even though it’s tougher to measure.

Genuine inclusion of new people in DEI spaces can create belonging.

Williamson and the rest of her team at Insight Global recognize the importance of belonging. They now offer updated DEIB training and talent solutions.

Hope for the Future of DEIB

DEIB is not easy work, but it’s work worth doing.

Some of the work is internal, and that’s okay. There’s not always an action. Some moments are about reflection. It’s important to take time to process what’s going on before you act. This pause can lead to lasting, positive change.

Whether you are just now learning about DEIB, or you’ve been working in the field for decades, there’s always an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to teach.

If you’re ready to build the future of DEIB together, Insight Global wants to hear from you. Fill out the form below, and a DEIB team member will reach out.