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Updated: December 11, 2023 Outside the Box

Countering the DEI backlash

A woman stands in front of a white background Bonnie J. Walker, a Worcester resident, is principal diversity & inclusion officer at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington.
To read Bonnie J. Walker's other Outside the Box columns, follow the links at the bottom of the article.
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After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, there was a national and global reckoning around racism. When I first wrote about it, I asked the question: What will we do going forward, and how will we keep the flame going to fight divisiveness and racism? We saw tremendous growth in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in many organizations across a variety of industries. As the new year approaches, many organizational leaders continue to embrace these efforts, but more recently, and certainly since the U.S. Supreme Court ban on affirmative action at colleges and universities, there has been a downward shift in support. There is much more at stake than diversity recruitment. At a minimum, any changes we see in student body composition at institutions of higher education will affect hiring pipelines.

Furthermore, the ruling has already been interpreted as an invitation for DEI critics to challenge the validity, legality, and necessity of DEI efforts. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis enacted legislation to block state colleges from having DEI programs at all, and this mindset has infiltrated organizations outside of higher education. The attorneys general of 13 Republican-led states sent a letter to the CEOs of Fortune 100 companies warning that labels of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” are “unlawful and wrong, per SCOTUS.” More than 30 state or local bills target DEI at schools.

The dominoes against DEI will continue to fall through individuals, organizations, and legislation because fear is the driving force against DEI. Right now, majority group individuals may feel their status threatened.

The Pentagon, our nation's most prominent national security defense entity, is being berated for its submission of a $114-million dollar for diversity, equity, inclusion, and access activities for fiscal 2024. Would this dollar amount even make headlines if it were not tagged for DEI initiatives? The backlash is critics believe in a war-time scenario, DEIA initiatives have no correlation to aiding the military in tactical or strategic battlefield advantage. This thinking is incorrect; a diverse and inclusive team of strategists and soldiers working together are our nation's greatest advantage. If you don't understand that DEI supports everyone and secures our democracy, then you don't understand DEI.

Today more than ever, the role of the chief diversity and inclusion officer, who sets DEI budgets, metrics, and works to embed strategy and investments linking organizational and financial outcomes, is critical. The CDIO oversees:

• Resources and accountability – DEI integration in onboarding, professional development, and performance management

• Sustainable infrastructures – Cross-functional councils, organizational DEI goals, and inclusive and transparent promotion processes

• Empowering employees – Employee resource groups, providing feedback opportunities, dedicated budgets

• Cultures that attract, recruit, and retain talent

• Productive challenge – Feedback, elevating all voices, listening to conflicting opinions, and challenging the status quo

Organizational leaders must resist the pressure to backpedal on DEI commitments. Instead, enhance DEI in a way that complies with the law, aligns with your organizational values, and benefits your business. Clarify organizational values around DEI, clearly communicate them, and ensure people management processes are aligned. DEI is the light and love in your organization. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bonnie J. Walker, a Worcester resident, is principal diversity & inclusion officer at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington.

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