Slowing Momentum: What Does Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Really Include?

The summer of 2020 was called a “racial reckoning” by many in the media, when the world—and many independent schools—vowed to do better in their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work. Some schools committed anew to anti-racism and made sweeping curricular changes to include more Black authors. Some schools made intentional efforts to recruit and retain faculty of color. Many schools talked about a culture of accountability and action to address systemic racism within their institutions.
But now we find ourselves at a point of exhaustion, frustrated because our schools’ efforts haven’t done enough to create foundational change. Why? There are truly passionate people in this work, and we want to believe that our schools value diversity, equity, and inclusion. Could it be that we’ve taken on too much? In many schools, the acronym DEI expanded, adding J and B to include justice and belonging. But as more letters have been added in a noble effort to be more inclusive, however, it feels like there are more distractions. “DEI” has become a catch-all for issues, except for the one it was intended to combat: identifying systems of power in the pursuit of racial justice.
Despite the call for a racial reckoning after George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent Black@ movement on social media, schools continue to perceive racial harm as individual acts as opposed to collective systems that perpetuate racism. So, what have our schools really reckoned with? What has foundationally changed at our institutions? What is different now than it was in 2020?

A Growing Movement

I was a DEI practitioner long before DEI was a trending hashtag. At that time, in independent schools, the work was in its infancy; conversations were about helping school communities understand the value of diversity and building the capacity for conversations on identity. DEI as a framework grew out of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ‘60s in an effort to combat systemic racism within the corporate workplace, higher education, and eventually, independent schools. Over time, DEI has expanded to include identities other than race and moved from tolerance to multicultural awareness and recognition. And now, currently, there’s an iteration that includes cursory examination of policies and practices to enhance school culture.
“We talk about race too much” has been a common criticism of DEI, and those leading the work—71% of whom were female and 51% of whom were Black in 2017—bore the brunt of criticism. Stakeholders in independent school communities were often ill-prepared to have conversations about race or to unpack systemic racism. Most important, many in our communities lacked the tools to speak honestly about institutional failures that affected dozens of Black students in our care.
Shortly after the reckoning, there was a shift in momentum; however, in my opinion, it wasn’t for the right reasons. Many schools wanted to immediately show they were making progress so that they could appease alumni and other stakeholders who were asking serious questions about the institutional failures. In some cases, the efforts were simply to do damage control, as schools wanted to curb the onslaught of stories of racial harm. Schools churned out programming, developed anti-racism plans, and changed reading lists to include more authors of color, with the burden again placed on the same people—most often Black educators—to do the work, now with even more intense scrutiny to deliver it all while attempting to process the cumulative effects of the racial traumas of 2020.
Many schools added justice and belonging to DEI as a way to make up for lost time. This momentum was both performative and shielded the white leaders who failed to see the urgency of this work. Real progress on accountability and the clear articulation of institutional repair has yet to be realized.

Expanding the Scope

I understand the need for schools to deepen the work, and the addition of letters to DEI has been seen by many as a step in the right direction. But without operationalizing and buttressing DEI, the letters remain jargon on school websites and promotional materials instead of cultivating an environment where our most vulnerable feel seen, valued, and heard. DEI must return to its original roots of abolition and justice, or it will continue to be co-opted, diluted, and commodified for personal or institutional gain.
While the needle may have moved somewhat over the past 30 months, DEI directors continue to face some of the same uphill battles that they faced before: budget constraints and a lack of resources and institutional support. Many have been met with “the timing isn’t right” for this conversation, or “we focus too much on race.” Many of our schools have felt that they have done enough for this conversation or have hung their hats on a symbolic measure of progress such as hiring a Black leader or increasing enrollment of Black, Indigenous, and students of color. However, the impacts of racism still exist within our school communities.
Justice and belonging have the potential to be the conduits to get us there, but there has to be a real investment of actions, resources, and labor focused on racial justice, not just the mitigation of racial issues. Roger Bridges, assistant head of school for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at Windward School (CA), shared with me an aspirational perspective for schools to consider: “I truly believe more of our independent school community members see themselves as part of the work and in a way that they did not see a little over two and half years ago. There is an expressed interest in ensuring that our independent school communities are environments where equity and belonging can serve as the starting place for all strategic decision-making and institutional change initiatives. I hope we are never again satisfied with the status quo or being told that DEI is 'everyone’s job' without demanding to see the receipts."    
Yes, the receipts are needed, as they can serve as an important acknowledgement of the work that still needs to be done, as well as a living document declaring a debt to the work that has already been done before more letters can be added.
Our schools have yet to fulfill their greatest potential, which is revolutionizing education, creating spaces where all students can thrive, not in spite of, but because of who they are. If we keep looking at students as mere statistics or quotas to fill, we continue to reinforce a deficit narrative and view of DEI.
So, as schools ponder what to call their work (DEI, JEDI, DEIJB, etc.), I urge you to avoid the illusion of inclusion and commit to the core issues before adding more letters.
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Ralinda Watts

Ralinda Watts is a DEIJ consultant, author, speaker, and practitioner. She is the high school division director at The Waverly School (CA) as well as the founder of the Los Angeles Diversity Directors’ Consortium.