5 Powerful Practices of Highly Effective DEI Officers
From my COVID-safe home office space on a warm and sunny May afternoon, I was joined on a Zoom call by a well-respected superintendent, her deputy superintendent, and the district’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The purpose of our meeting was to review their previous year’s equity strategy and discuss how to best plan for the next school year. To bring me up-to-speed, the deputy superintendent and director of DEI prepared a brief PowerPoint outlining all the trainings, activities, and student initiatives they had undertaken in the past year under the umbrella of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The slides were ornate, with pictures of students smiling at school-sponsored events, big-name diversity consultants giving workshops to rooms full of teachers, and clippings from the local newspaper where the mayor is photographed with the superintendent and director of DEI congratulating them on revamping their curriculum to be more inclusive. Throughout the presentation, the superintendent chimed in periodically to expound on just how great each initiative was and how proud she was of her senior staff for taking such interest in DEI.
After the 20-minute PowerPoint presentation was complete, the superintendent paused and asked, “So, Dr. Benson, what do you think?” I first thanked them for such a well-curated synopsis of their DEI journey. I then also congratulated the leadership team on putting in hours and hours of work pulling together so many different events and initiatives. But, instead of immediately offering my opinion on their many efforts, I asked a simple question, the question I ask every district I partner with, “With all of the time, money, and energy dedicated to this work, what evidence do you have that students benefitted from your initiatives?” Having worked with school leaders all over the country in large and small school districts, I am aware that this is a loaded question, but I insist on asking it anyway in the fleeting hope one day it will be answered with a robust set of student outcomes. Nonetheless, as it goes, my question was met with big eyes, crickets, and stuttering speculations of what they hoped would happen for students, but no realized, measurable, or tangible benefits.
One day, I am confident these experiences will be few and far between. However, as of 2022, measurable student impact is most often an afterthought in K-12, post-secondary, and education-based organizations’ DEI work. Well-meaning leaders pour immense time, money, and energy into intensive DEI programming with little or nothing to show with relation to student outcomes besides hopes-and-dreams.
With a bit of effort and revamping of the role of DEI officers, student impact has the capacity to increase 10-fold. And, when the end-of-year report-out on DEI initiatives comes around, along with slide-after slide of time, money, and energy spent on programming, there could be just as many, if not more, slides detailing and celebrating the tangible and measurable positive impacts on students, especially students of color from historically marginalized communities.
Below, I detail five of the most powerful practices of highly effective DEI officers that can turn the tide in a K-12 school district, post-secondary institutions, or education-based organization.
1) Start with the end in mind
Organizations often hire DEI officers as a reaction or response to an event or incident. In the latter half of 2020, and indeed in the years since, many organizations have hired DEI officers in response to the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, as a direct result of the national reconciliation around racism in America, and the need for their organization to attend to simmering racial issues internally or within their scope of work. Other popular reasons for hiring DEI officers have been in response to a particular highly-publicized incident of racism, racially toxic working environments, lack of diversity on staff, or, specifically for the K-12 and higher education settings, persistently lagging outcomes of students of color.
Regardless of the reasons for hiring a DEI officer, highly effective officers keep front-and-center that they were brought in for a reason, albeit likely a surface reason, but a reason, nonetheless. As a DEI specialist, highly effective officers peel back the surface layers of the organization until they land on a root cause to be addressed, attended to, and resolved. If the hire was for lack of diversity within an organization, the surface response is often simply, “hire more brown people.” However, the deeper issue is likely structural racism in the hiring and promotion process, a racially hostile work environment, and toxic White supremacy culture. Therefore, in this case, a highly effective DEI officer doesn’t just subscribe to increasing brown faces within the organization, they spend their time, money, and energy assessing these tentacles of racism within the organization and developing a long-term plan to remedy each one based around measurable goals (i.e. — absolute clarity and equity in hiring and promotion, improving employee responses on biannual racial climate surveys, jettisoning established practices that oppress and marginalize people of color within the organization, etc.).
2) Seeing the organization as a classroom
Being the inaugural or sole DEI officer in an organization is extremely taxing work, psychologically and emotionally. Even though organizations create these roles, very often the individuals involved in the development and deployment of the role have very low levels of racial literacy coupled with high levels of racial anxiety, and often do not understand the depth of the organizational problems they are bringing in the new position to solve. This confluence of factors during the formation of the position description of a DEI officer often leave the hired expert boxed into duties and expectations that are far removed from solving actual issues.
Nonetheless, highly effective DEI officers quickly assess their environment, develop a clear and precise plan of action, then begins the education process necessary to reposition themselves and their role so that they have the power and influence to change things that really matter. The internal mantra of the highly effective DEI officer is, “I have expertise that will benefit others, I need to gauge where others are to engage them in learning. There are no resisters, just learners. Some learners are farther along than others. But it is my responsibility to meet everyone where they are to get us on the same page.” Highly effective DEI officers lead with empathy, see others as learners, and understand a large part of creating organizational change is via educating others.
3) Accept the emotions that come along with the work
Many individuals, especially White people, tend to feel far more comfortable intellectualizing racism, rather than looking inward and identifying how certain learned beliefs have led to enacted racism in the personal and professional setting. As an intellectual exercise via forming book groups, attending a one-off talk or workshop, or viewing a film or documentary, individuals are afforded the opportunity to be passive learners, divorced from being implicated in the racism they are studying — The problem is out there, not in here. As a passive learner, feelings of guilt, shame, and anger (predominant feelings experienced by White people when being confronted about their complicity in structures of racism) may bubble up but can be squelched by disassociating with the learned content; “They are not talking about me, because I am a good non-racist. They are talking about those bad racists over there.”
Highly effective DEI officers forgo passive learning opportunities, instead incorporating workshops, discussions, and professional development opportunities that incorporate active learning focused on linking learnings about internalized racism to individual changes in practice that improve the educational experience of students of color from historically marginalized communities. A natural part of active learning about internalized racism is triggering of a range of emotions, sadness, guilt, shame, anger, denial, apathy, etc. Highly effective DEI officers create learning conditions that forefront the expectation of discomfort with the understanding that these feelings will arise during the learning experience. Moreover, highly effective DEI officers strive to create conditions for learners to experience discomfort because a necessary part of developing racial stamina is the ability to sit in racial discomfort for longer and longer stretches of time.
4) Forgoing ineffective, normative practices
The age-old playbook of book clubs, guest speakers, task forces, and working groups to address embedded racism more often than not function to preserve structural racism rather than eliminate it. This is because these forms of passive learning and symbolic working groups tend to be reactive coverall methods to address a specific problem. “Got a problem with lagging student achievement in K-12? Let’s read a book on Cultural Responsive Pedagogy.” “Struggling with retention of students of color in higher education? Is Tony Jack available?” The reality of time-limited events and working groups is that at some point they come to an end and ultimately so does the work. K-12 schools, institutions of higher education, and education-based organizations are experts in spending time, money, and energy on DEI events, but woefully inadequate at sustaining the work beyond time-limited events.
Highly effective DEI officers resist all forms of one-off, disconnected events. They know that even the most well-meaning and well-intentioned time-limited events will most likely end up as performative anti-racism — all bark but no bite. Shortsighted events that are mainly talk-at-people-and-hope-for-the-best, rely on hopes and dreams rather than accountability. These events expect that since individuals know-better-they-will-do-better and leave participants feeling vindicated that they have “done equity” with little to no impact on changing their practices or measurable outcomes. Highly effective DEI officers know that these passive, one-off, disconnected events are passé. Therefore, they forgo ineffective age-old practices and instead develop a learning arc that leads to changes in behaviors that produce measurable impact on students.
5) Spending time on things that make a difference
DEI officers are often pulled in many different directions, specifically because, once hired, other leaders in the organization shirk their responsibilities for ensuring they are deepening their learning and shift everything equity to the new hire. “We need more diversity on our hiring committees — call the DEI officer. A racist event happened within our school or organization — the DEI officer will take care of it. A teacher or professor said something racist — the DEI officer will address it.” These jack-of-all-trades DEI officer roles leave the new hire stretched too thin to spend focused time making actual change.
Highly effective DEI officers keep their focus, singularly, on making measurable improvements for students, specifically marginalized students of color. To carve out a role that allows the bulk of their time to be spent on things that matter, highly effective DEI officers manage-up, partner across departments to educate others on how to properly handle their DEI scope of work and engage their direct reports in a community of learning that values mutual ownership and results-oriented actions. If left to their own devices, highly effective DEI officers know that the tail will wag the dog, meaning organizational leaders often do not have the wherewithal to use the position effectively. Therefore, it is the job of the highly effective DEI officer to set the agenda, mobilize coalitions of invested individuals in the learning process, and set measurable goals that can be monitored, achieved, and celebrated.
By no means is it easy for a DEI officer to enter an organization embodying all five of these powerful practices, because very often the disequilibrium caused by highly competent, confident, powerful, countercultural DEI officers, especially if the officer is a person of color, will more than likely overwhelm organizational leadership. Highly competent DEI officers understand they need to survey their environment and develop a strategic plan to reconfigure their prescribed role into one that has the power and influence to make deep and meaningful change. However, over time, by striving to embody these five powerful practices DEI officers can exponentially accelerate an organizations equity journey.