This article, which formed the basis for a presentation at the AIELOC (Association of International Educators and Leaders of Colour) online conference 2021, discusses my experience of working on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives where there was evidence of lack of awareness and inauthentic and tokenistic practice to achieve certain targets and tick box exercises. My journey is one of discovery to disruption, to learning and exiting one educational organization’s version of cultural relations and DEI work. The article aims to highlight the importance of organizational integrity, reflection and learning, as well as the damage caused by inauthentic or tokenistic work. It is also about self-care and self-preservation.
Points to consider:
- Could a DEI team, as representatives of the wider organization, be part of the problem?
- Do we need to see racist acts to figure out that racism must be at play if there are no people of color represented at senior levels?
- When is the best option to remove oneself from unhealthy environments?
- How do we journey through and learn from the process, in order to inform future practice?
To start, I became a member of an educational organization's DEI team and discovered a fractured, non-communicative, barely functioning group, receiving very little guidance. I found the lack of initiative and direction of the DEI team infuriating and was keen to move things forward. In my frustration, I quickly found other ways to impact DEI initiatives through external volunteering opportunities, sometimes connected to the wider organization. I joined local and expatriate women’s groups, ran International Women’s Day events, and was involved in a Global Race and Culture Working group. I networked internationally and it was this extending of my circle which was very enlightening and liberating for me.
After quite some time of learning and leading initiatives, I became lead for the DEI team. How I came to take over the role was quite unclear as it appeared to me that these kinds of roles were not very visible, or at least not to everyone. It is important to note that this happened at a time of organizational restructuring and mass change, and I wondered if that was why I was able to take the role at that time. Nonetheless, excited, I threw myself into my new shiny (unpaid!) role in an area that I felt passionately about.
I researched and thought carefully about how I would establish a representative team and one that would work on the areas of DEI that mattered most to the staff. My team was going to be representative, functional, and effective! I read about how to have inclusive meetings and communication, as I felt this style had been severely lacking in this working environment. I had become used to hearing the same old dominant voices and seeing the same old faces...those faces that were all so similar to one another. The old boys’ club, predominantly white, with women who were also members, and looked and behaved the same in my opinion. Despite the challenges, we had some successful, if with less attendance than hoped, events and initiatives.
At the same time, the idea of a microcosm became apparent to me when discussing issues, even within the DEI team. We just did not seem to have the same understanding or experience of things. Could the DEI team, as representative of the wider organization, be part of the problem?
In terms of the organizational DEI work, I found clearly inauthentic and tokenistic practices and box ticking exercises. Some examples were completing outdated DEI "training" with large amounts of stereotyping and answering obvious multiple-choice questions and answers, and no real personal engagement with the larger organization, greater community, or developments in the wider field of DEI. The objective seemed to be just to complete the training, and not to change or challenge attitudes in a real way. However, it was also the inauthentic accreditation of work that was an issue, and I even found my work accredited to someone else in senior management.
After delivering a presentation on racism in the UK and the lack of people of color at senior leadership in the organization, a manager approached me to say they had never noticed any racism and that was why they were so proud to work there. It was alarming that evidence can be so clearly under one’s nose but claim to be unseen. Do we need to see racist acts to figure out that racism must be at play if there are no people of color at senior leadership levels?
My DEI lead role ended fairly abruptly, six months later when the restructuring exercise was in full swing. There was no mention of this role’s value, or of my continuing it. This, along with other considerations, was a strong deciding factor for me and I opted to leave. A learning point for me here was obviously that the DEI work had not been valued, as it was not factored into a new job offer. At this point, I decided that leaving was the best option for my own well-being and as this work was important to me.
Clearly, DEI teams can be microcosms of unhealthy culture and practice of the wider organization. Indicators, highlighted in this article, of this kind of unhealthy microcosm include inauthentic and tokenistic work, lack of appreciation for efforts in DEI work, accrediting work incorrectly, outdated training, and DEI efforts always being voluntary and at the expense of employees own time and energy to name a few. Through this experience, I learned a great example of how not to do DEI work. So, how do we journey through and learn from the process in order to inform future practice?
My advice is to listen, look for concrete actions taken, and take the experience as learning. I learned you should reach out to a wider network. Stretch your microcosm bubble, perhaps you can burst it! I expanded my network through my volunteering experiences, and this helped me to understand that there is a bigger world out there with people who care to see what you see and want to make a genuine difference.
Despite the inauthenticity, apparent silence, and inaction, I believe I did disrupt things through opening up the conversation, creating a larger network, and by introducing a path to authentic DEI work. I had felt invested in the process and potential outcome, but in the end, decided that it was best for me to exit this educational organization’s inauthentic and outdated version of cultural relations and DEI work. If leadership, school, and organizational culture do not support the development of real DEI work, then the best option can be to remove oneself from such environments.
Organizations and schools should ask themselves about the real cost to their development while continuing to give insufficient effort and value to DEI work and taking the path of inauthenticity and tokenism. I survived a negative environment professing to practice DEI by observing actions and inactions and by learning and seeking out opportunities for myself. These are some thoughts on how to journey through and learn from the process in order to inform your future DEI practice.
Caroline has over 20 years of experience working with diverse groups within education in the UK and internationally (Asia, Europe, and North America). Based in Singapore since 2007, she is currently teaching Language and Literature and English Language for middle school at an international school.