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What to Expect When Launching Your DEI Work: Prepare for Difficult Conversations

By Cynthia Silva Parker | Aug. 16, 2021 DEI

While the responsibility of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work may seem straightforward to some, others will have questions, concerns, and a variety of emotional reactions. Here are a few of the challenges you might experience with staff, board members, school personnel, students, community partners, or other stakeholders as you embark on your DEI journey:

  • They may not understand what equity, diversity, and inclusion mean or why they are important to address in your work.
  • They may not see and may actively resist the notion that racism, sexism, and other “-isms” operate at a structural level. They may be wedded to the notion that the only issue (if there is an issue at all) is conscious bias and prejudice. As a result, they may challenge or even dismiss not only the formal definitions, but the lived experience and stories of other stakeholders.
  • They may understand the concepts in theory, but believe that there are no pressing problems or issues related to equity, diversity, or inclusion that need to be addressed. (“We’re doing good work. We couldn’t possibly be acting out racism, sexism, homophobia, or ableism here!”)
  • People whose identities carry privilege in this society (e.g., men, White people, heterosexual people) may feel personally blamed, shamed, or attacked by the mere mention of structural advantages (privilege) and disadvantages (oppression), even in the absence of an actual attack. They may express emotions vibrantly (e.g., crying, yelling, etc.) in ways that shut down a conversation or make others feel unsafe and unheard.
  • They may over-generalize from their own experience, failing to acknowledge viewpoints and experiences other than their own.
  • They may say all the “right” words without ever committing to take action.
  • They may use words that offend (e.g., “minority”) or use arguments laced in stereotypes (e.g., “We aren’t going to hire based on a person’s race. We just want the ‘most qualified person’ for this job.”). 
  • They may make assumptions based on stereotypes and then build action plans as if the stereotypes are true (e.g.,“Parents aren’t interested in being involved with their child’s education, so let’s work around parents as we plan to support students.”).

As you work with your stakeholders to create programs and practices focused on equity and social justice, you will want to create dialogues and planning sessions where they can voice their concerns, apply their insights, and build toward agreement on actions. These conversations may be difficult, but are crucial to creating buy-in and support and ultimately igniting change. 

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