Belonging: Assessing the 'B' in DEIB Work

For some organizations, especially those new to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) work, there can be an urgency to “arrive.” DEIB statement? Check. Employee resource or affinity groups? Check. Recruiting for diversity? Check. Training on microaggressions and implicit bias? Check. Establish relationships with local, sustainable BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ businesses? Double check.

While each of these elements is critical to a successful DEIB program, without a culture that also addresses individual needs, there’s a high risk that the time, energy, and effort spent on initiatives may dissolve into performative DEIB work. Like the concept of “trickle-down economics,” trickle-down equity may never reach members of the minoritized groups who could most benefit.

The Value of Belonging at Work,” a 2019 Harvard Business Review article, revealed that 40% of employees feel physically or mentally isolated at work, which results in lower organizational commitment and engagement (which leads to lower productivity, higher turnover, and the subsequent costs of hiring and training). According to the report, a sense of belonging is the top factor in determining engagement: High workplace belonging amounts to a 56% increase in job performance, 50% drop in turnover risk, and 75% reduction in sick days.

So, how does belonging typically play out? The “B” in DEIB can be an effective litmus test for organizational accountability. If it doesn’t ring true, if people don’t believe they or their contributions matter, if they aren’t truly seen, heard, and respected, DEIB initiatives will likely feel performative. 

Performative or Transformative? 

Many organizations espouse the arrival of a superstar DEIB practitioner only to watch them leave 12 or 18 months later. What circumstances led to their departure, and what are the impacts on the practitioners and the organizations they leave behind?

Many DEIB practitioners are subjected to a level of criticism and gaslighting (or Racelighting, as Dr. J. Luke Wood describes) not levied on other administrators. Statements such as, “We don’t have the budget to install all-gender bathrooms,” and “You can take Yom Kippur…or Eid…or Diwali…or Lunar New Year off, but you’ll be charged a vacation day,” belie efforts to create a more equitable and inclusive environment and may expose the organization’s DEIB aspirations for what they are: performative. 

While there may be fiscal reasons why “We can’t change the organization just for you,” the undertones tell a different story, more akin to “You’re not important enough to make the change or dedicate the necessary resources.”

So, how do you know where your organization stands?

Here are six indications your organization’s DEIB efforts may be performative
  1. There is only one (or a part-time) official DEIB person compensated for the work.
  2. Efforts exist to recruit for diversity but not for retaining or sustaining. 
  3. The budget for DEIB work, initiatives, and programming is unclear or nonexistent.
  4. Time for DEIB-focused training is too limited and/or considered optional.
  5. There is resistance to hosting DEIB climate surveys, dashboards, or equity audits.
  6. HR is not involved in DEIB professional development or initiatives but mainly enforces rules and provides benefits. 
Here are six indications your organization’s DEIB efforts may be transformative
  1. There is a DEIB team representing a broad array of constituents. 
  2. There are clear and communicated plans around retaining and sustaining BIPOC employees. 
  3. There is a clear and robust DEIB budget that includes annual events as well as for training guest speakers and/or consultants.
  4. DEIB training is prioritized and scheduled well in advance, focusing on the needs specific to the organization. 
  5. DEIB feedback is collected regularly using multiple platforms and then used to effect change in the institution.
  6. HR actively participates in DEIB training and initiatives (as a potential influencer in belonging).

Critical Questions 

Organizations need to be willing to embrace discomfort over time and expect that the transformative process can be messy and nonlinear. Members of the C-suite and other senior administrators need to engage in the work personally and model what stumbling forward with vulnerability and humility can look like for others.

Important questions a DEIB task force with broad representation can ask to help assess where your school is on your DEIB journey may include:
  • What are the overriding systems that determine who has power in your organization? 
  • What is the lived versus stated culture? 
  • What systems exist that support or disrupt systemic racism? 
  • What is the experience of the numerical minorities? 
  • Is there organization-wide accountability for learning and progress?
  • Where is your organization investing money and time?
In addition to asking these questions internally, it’s important to take the pulse of your community. Climate surveys can help answer these important questions and provide powerful insights into the staff and student experience. It is only with the integration of the qualitative stories from individuals that we get the full, technicolor picture. Questions to help assess where you want to focus in the survey include: 
  • What will your organization focus on specifically? What are you measuring? 
  • How and what do you plan to do with the results? 
  • How can you make the process transparent? 
  • Are there ongoing efforts to circle back and resurvey constituents?
While organizations may feel it’s not prudent to “change everything” for an individual, individuals are the heart and hands of every organization. Finding ways to change the world of an individual not only helps them but can pave the way for attracting new employees and increasing chances for greater diversity. As it is, not all efforts, labor, and resources put toward DEIB work will have direct, positive results. But while the B for Belonging often appears last in line when citing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging, it ultimately may have the last say in assessing real change.

The original version of this article appeared on California Teacher Development Collaborative website
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Kali Baird

Kali Baird is the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion and director of teaching and learning at San Domenico School in San Anselmo, California. She also serves as vice board chair of the People of Color in Independent Schools’ Northern California chapter.

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Josephine Saunders

Josephine Saunders is the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at San Francisco Day School and serves on the advisory board at Breakthrough San Francisco. 

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Anthony Witte

Anthony Witte is the founder of Witte’s End Diversity Consulting. He has 20 years of experience as an educator, from teaching to director of diversity, equity, and inclusion.