This week, I reported on the rise of equity, inclusion and diversity professionals across the country. (Full disclosure: Having been recently named equity editor at Growing Community Media, I fall into this grouping).
According to an analysis by Glassdoor, the employment website, these DEI hires shot up by 55% after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. That’s after the rate of DEI hiring had slowed by 60% after the onset of the pandemic.
Of course, as with all things popular, the hiring trend invites suspicion. First, it’s important to point out that this is nothing new.
Diversity hiring, particularly in Corporate America and higher learning, has peaked and ebbed at least since the Civil Rights Movement.
Precious Porras, Dominican University’s chief diversity officer, explained that positions like minority affairs officers were created at colleges around the country in the 1960s. But the positions rarely came with any kind of real authority to enact systemic anti-racist and equitable change within institutions.
Many years and a few generations of equity personnel later, the same stubborn problem remains, Porras said. While some equity directors hired nowadays sit at leadership tables and are empowered to influence policy, many, like their forerunners from the 1960s, are still toothless.
I asked Porras to share with me some of the signs that an equity hire is more token than transformational.
“I would be looking at what is the position description? What is it asking you to do? Is it anti-racism you’re working on? Is it coded language like civil engagement and global citizenship?” she said. “Or is it very vague, generic language that doesn’t specifically name anything and doesn’t give you an opportunity to say, ‘This job is a process, it’s a lot of give and take.’”
Porras said she was drawn to Dominican University, because of the institution’s explicit commitment to becoming a “social justice, anti-racist organization … I was like, ‘This is speaking to me.’”
Jennifer Rowe, the new director of equity and belonging at Lyons Township High School (LTHS), said another critical aspect of equity work is listening to stakeholders and learning about the local history of a community.
Rowe, who works in a district whose student population is 70 percent white, has a very unique task. How does she bring people along who may be suspicious of her intentions or may not know much about equity?
“I always think the best thing is when people can speak with you and hear what the work is,” she told me. “We always want to racialize equity work and that’s not where it should live and die. It connects into everything.”
Equity, she said, isn’t “something added to the plate, it is the plate. It’s the lens through which we look at all things.”
That perspective has stuck with me. I’m realizing there’s a need to differentiate between equity, as a general concept, and racial equity, more specifically — despite the fact that the two terms are often used interchangeably.
And reading Lawrence T. Brown’s new book, “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America,” the key factors driving the differentiation may be place and history.
Directing equity in a space like LTHS is not the same as directing equity in a space like Oak Park and River Forest High School. The spatial and historical dynamics differ.
Directing equity in Brookfield or LaGrange isn’t the same as directing equity in Chicago’s Austin community. With respect to Black communities, Brown writes, equity has a very specific prescription.
“Racial equity is required to restore Black neighborhoods, underdeveloped by deliberate public and private policies, practices, systems, and budgets. An authentic racial equity strategy will foster healing from past harms and support collective self-determination for the future.”
Brown lays out five steps institutions must follow to implement “a robust racial equity strategy” at the Black neighborhood level (what he terms “spatial equity”):
“Obtain a deep understanding of historical trauma inflicted on Black neighborhoods.
“Identify and stop all forms of ongoing historical trauma affecting Black neighborhoods.
“Make decision making participatory and deeply democratic for existing residents in redlined communities.
“Ensure a meaningful community ownership and wealth-generating stake in all projects, programs, developments, and interventions using collective economics.
“Make corrective and equitable budget allocations and funding choices to repair the damage caused by ongoing historical trauma on redlined neighborhoods.”
I’ll venture to argue that, while this formula may not directly apply to white spaces, important parts of it extend to spaces everywhere.
Achieving equity in all forms requires identifying historical trauma inflicted on the marginalized — whether, for instance, we’re talking about a school district’s LGBTQ population or its low-income students.
A deep consideration and respect for why these inequities were brought about ought to guide the equity work.
Participatory and democratic decision-making, adequate and equitable budgeting and community ownership — those are also requisite components of any equity work in any space.
And, as Porras and Rowe both pointed out, the people helping to lead these efforts anywhere must be empowered to do the work. But, as Rowe emphasized, people have to understand that equity isn’t just a Black and Brown thing, or something reserved for Black and Brown people.
The concept shouldn’t be alien or exotic, particularly for people who hold the most power and privilege in any given institutional context. They’re the ones who should be shouldering the heaviest burden when it comes to doing equity work.
But convincing people who have power of their responsibility to society and their role in various inequitable histories — related to gender, race, sex, wealth, etc. —may be the biggest hurdle facing equity professionals.
For instance, this is Porras describing her time working in a predominantly white institution before arriving at Dominican.
“I dealt with these challenges daily, it felt like,” she said. “For one, it’s convincing your colleagues that this work is necessary and important. When I went in, it was like getting to, ‘Yes, this is a problem and this is real’ … was a starting point.”
What I was hearing from Porras, and what the long history of DEI hiring suggests, is that it seems like a lot of equity work is just fighting to get to a place where the work can actually begin.