Precious Porras, Dominican University's new chief diversity officer, stands for a photo on Monday, July 26, 2021, at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Over the last two years, there’s been a considerable spike in the demand for jobs like chief diversity officer, diversity and inclusion manager, and vice president of diversity and inclusion, according to executive search firm Morgan Samuels Company.

Leadership positions in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have “largely shifted from being a function of the HR department to being a strategic leader reporting directly into the CEO,” Morgan Samuels officials explained.

According to a 2021 analysis by Glassdoor, the employment website, job postings for DEI roles in the United States rose by 30% in 2019. Following a drop at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, such postings rose sharply in the months following the George Floyd murder in May 2020.

But has the understanding among regular people about what DEI professionals actually do risen with the profession’s growth? I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m certain that most people probably don’t know what DEI professionals do, because as a DEI professional myself, I sometimes have a hard time figuring that out.

That’s why I’ve compiled this (hopefully) helpful FAQ for you, based on my talks with DEI leaders in the Oak Park and River Forest area, which happens to be a bastion for them.

So, why the DEI craze and why now?

Precious Porras, the chief diversity officer for Dominican University in River Forest, told me that the most recent uptick in DEI hiring was prompted by the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the protests that happened in the wake of his death.

Before then, the growing Black Lives Matter movement over the last six or seven years tilled the soil for today’s fertile DEI landscape. But the DEI concept is not necessarily new.

Equity administrators have been rather common in institutions of higher learning for a while now, Porras said. This recent wave of hires is commensurate with a cycle that’s been happening since at least the Civil Rights Movement. Whether or not they’re effective, though, is another story, she said.

“After the 1960s, you see the creation of minority affairs positions, where that person is in leadership, but generally is almost always a director of Black Studies or Minority Affairs or Urban Affairs,” she explained. “They’re managing student demand, but nobody is addressing structural issues of higher education.”

The 1970s and 1980s brought equity within the academic realm, with the creation of women and racial centers, she said.

Porras said this new wave of equity hiring, which extends below the university, large nonprofit and corporation level down to local school districts and libraries, may be the point at which institutions realize that equity work is really structural, as opposed to individualistic.

How prevalent are DEI positions in the Oak Park and River Forest area?

Oak Park and River Forest might be considered early adopters of the current DEI leadership phenomena. District 97, District 200, Fenwick High School, Dominican and the Oak Park Public Library all have DEI executives on board.

Oak Park District 97 hired Carrie Kamm to be its senior director of equity in 2017 — a full three years before Floyd’s murder. Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 hired LeVar J. Ammons to be its inaugural director of equity and student success in 2019.

Meanwhile, the village of Oak Park is currently looking to hire a chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer.

And while DEI leadership positions are prevalent in town, they’re also susceptible to turnover. For instance, Ammons left after a few years in the position and his successor, Patrick Hardy, left after about a year. The position is currently open. Fenwick’s inaugural DEI director, Raymond Moland, recently left his position to take a principal position in nearby Bellwood School District 88.

What exactly do DEI leaders do?

The range of responsibilities that fall on DEI professionals vary based on the institution they serve. Virtually all of the DEI professionals in the Oak Park area serve in executive leadership positions and report directly to the heads of those institutions (i.e., the superintendent, the executive director, etc.).

And, bottom line, most of them are responsible for making sure that all students, regardless of race, ethnicity and background, feel welcome and included within that institutional space.

More than anything, DEI professionals care deeply about culture, making sure that everyone within a given institutional culture feels welcomed and included and empowered.

Sometimes this means monitoring data-driven goals, such as ensuring that Black boys in D97 or D200 or at Fenwick aren’t subject to disproportionate and culturally biased disciplinary treatment, or that a certain number of library employees are undergoing DEI training.

But other times, the work is far more subjective. Here’s the guiding question. As a non-cisgendered white male, as a person of color, as a disabled person, as a poor person — do I feel welcome in this institutional space? If I don’t, then that institution’s DEI leader needs to know why and they need to be empowered to do something about the situation.

How do you know if DEI initiatives are working?

During an interview earlier this year, Reesheda Graham Washington, the founder of RGW Consulting and a DEI leader in Oak Park, praised the Oak Park Public Library for being one of the few institutions that seem to be getting things right in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Washington said part of what’s made the OPPL a model for other institutions in the area of equity is their “genuine commitment to listening to the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] community when developing their goals and expressed felt needs.”

She said the library’s inclusion of community members on the Anti-Racism Advisory Team, its hiring of Stephen Jackson, the library’s inaugural equity and anti-racism director, “as someone to carry the work” of making the anti-racism plan real, and its consistent, comprehensive training provided for all employees have helped the institution develop a strong memory muscle for diversity, equity and inclusion.

More generally, 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, again, as Porras pointed out, the people helping to lead these efforts anywhere must be empowered to do the work.


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