What if Diversity isn’t the Solution?
“After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands.“ (Rev. 7:9, NLT)
If asked to point to the most significant event that impacted your industry or market in 2020, most readers of this article would undoubtedly point to Covid-19. Indeed, the lingering effects of the pandemic, combined with new waves and variants of the virus, continue to disrupt the places where we live, fellowship and work. And yet, Covid-19 was not the only disruptive event we witnessed in 2020. More precisely, the social and civil unrest prompted by persistent racial injustice across the United States also had an outsized effect on many of our businesses.
For example, while many people have taken to the streets to voice their protest, simultaneously around watercoolers and in boardrooms, employees are pushing for their workplaces to stand up, be more vocal, and demonstrate that their organizational values align with those of their people.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives
This corporate pressure has resulted in a marked increase in corporate social responsibility reporting (e.g., 90% of the world’s largest companies and 85% of the S&P 500 according to a Jan. 14, 2019 Forbes article by Susan McPherson) and budgetary spending on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training (e.g., 86% of North American financial executives are expanding their budgets according to a recent OneStream Software study that was referenced in a May 13, 2021 CFO Dive article by Jim Tyson "Most Companies Increase Spending on Diversity Training: Study").
However, many would point to mixed results as the outcomes of this increased attention. As Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev highlighted in a July 2016 Harvard Business Review article “Why Diversity Programs Fail: And what works better,” double-down approaches (e.g., training, hiring tests, performance rating, grievance systems, and other tried-and-true DEI initiatives) have failed to generate the more diverse workplaces organizations envision.
Furthermore, many faith-based or faith-informed organizations find themselves stuck amid the ongoing debate in Christian communities around the connection between racial justice and the gospel. This challenge has further hampered efforts to realize what a Sept. 9, 2019 Forbes post by Sheryl Lyons posited as “The Benefits of Creating a Diverse Workforce.”
For these reasons and more, I pose the question: What if diversity isn’t the solution?
Please do not hear me belittling any of the diversity initiatives that I’ve noted above. They are right. They are necessary. However, they are not entirely the solution in and of themselves. I would suggest that diversity efforts, even when combined with equity and inclusion initiatives, stop short of fully addressing the root question that marginal people groups within our communities are asking:
Do I belong here?
How do I know that this is their question? We know their question by how they answer it – that is, with their feet as they walk out our doors.
This understanding is what we are learning at Young Life, and it is driving our organizational focus on belonging.
While diversity efforts focus organizations on increasing the variety of people that sit around the table, and where efforts to ensure equity and inclusion seek to redistribute power to elevate diverse voices, DEI initiatives stop short of enabling marginal people to feel and know that they are full members – fully welcomed, valued (even loved) – of our workplaces. This understanding is what we are learning at Young Life, and it is driving our organizational focus on belonging.
For context, in 2018, I accepted the invitation to join the staff at Young Life, where I currently serve as our Vice President of Diversity, Belonging & Strategy. However, my hiring was not the beginning of Young Life’s diversity work. In fact, Young Life can trace its efforts back to the 1960s when it launched ministry efforts targeting urban centers. Yet and still, as our organization seeks to live out our mission to introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith, we own that we have seen mixed results in serving the broad diversity of God’s kingdom. In essence, for 80 years, we have perfected a model that has seen wild success in some communities (i.e., traditionally suburban, whiter, more affluent) but inconsistent results in others (i.e., less affluent, more diverse).
Additionally, 2020 did not spare our community. While Covid prompted us to reimagine how we conduct our business (i.e.., sharing the gospel with young people), the racial injustice impacting the communities we serve forced us to move beyond strategies aimed primarily at diversifying our workforce. Simply put, the times we find ourselves in have pushed us to do the harder work (the HEART work) required to become a kingdom-reflective community (think Rev. 7:9-10) where everyone whom God has called to serve feels, senses, and knows that they belong. While we aren’t there yet, Young Life is on a journey. Here are three lessons that we’ve learned:
- Where DEI seeks to regulate behavior and change minds, Belonging aims to transform hearts. More precisely, Scottish Theologian Dr. John Swinton recently shared the difference between inclusion and belonging with our community. The former, he explained, is about governing behavior (i.e., policies, rules, etc.) to eliminate those things that oppress (consciously or unconsciously) different marginal people. However, the latter, belonging, requires us to go a step further. Namely, belonging requires love. It necessitates that we become people who see one another and move to care and do for each other such that we (and our communities) flourish. Think Luke 10:30-37 and Acts 2:42-47.
- While DEI focuses efforts primarily on addressing people and systemic issues, Belonging broadens the work to include cultural (and theological) challenges. Case in point, while a July 19, 2021 Cultural Intelligence Center post by Marsha Ramroop “Why It’s Time to Drop ‘Belonging’ from The Diversity Conversation” argued that belonging takes the focus off of the systemic work that organizations must do, I would suggest that it does precisely the opposite. As Dr. Christina Edmondson exhorted our leadership team, “Courageous leaders create belonging.” In other words, as those who shape culture, it is on every leader (and staff member for that matter) to build an environment that says to everyone that they, in all their gifting, belong as God created them.
- Belonging is the solution. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are the fruit. As one of our leaders often says, if we only focus on getting diverse people in the front door and forget to close the back one, we’ll continue to lose them as fast as they come in. Put another way, to keep diverse people in our organization requires that we build communities and companies where they want to be and belong. In doing so, these environments will naturally increase their diversity because of the more equitable and inclusive cultures that frame members’ vertical and horizontal relationships.
For us, belonging isn’t simply an HR or organizational strategy.
For us, belonging isn’t simply an HR or organizational strategy. At its root, this is a gospel issue. While we understand that we are caught up in the zeitgeist of the moment and that there is a broader societal debate driven heavily by non-Christian voices, we see a clear call in Christ’s lived example to be those individuals and organizations who create belonging for others. Why? Because that’s what Jesus first did for us. His death and resurrection did more than offer us salvation. He simultaneously mended that which we lost at the Fall – our belonging in God’s kingdom. As those called to follow him (Matt. 16:24), it is imperative that we become leaders who create belonging both as individuals and in our organizations. In doing so, we will show the world a better way – The Way – that is truly good news for all.
Dr. Arthur L. Satterwhite III is a recognized voice on Diversity and Leadership. He holds a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership, a Master’s in Religious Education, and a Bachelor’s in Business/Marketing. Dr. Satterwhite currently serves as the Vice President of Diversity, Belonging & Strategy at Young Life and as an adjunct professor at Regent University. He is also a member of the Christian Leadership Alliance board of directors.