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Barriers to NextGen DEI/IDEAS Work Part 1: Do More, Talk Less

Authored by Desi Carson; Illustration by Deanna Halsall

Just do it. Millennials and Gen Z’s don’t want to hear excuses from older leadership, we want to see what you’re about. As a queer, biracial, Millennial woman, me and many of my peers are looking to both challenge and dismantle existing unjust practices in society as a whole, in our personal lives, and in the workplace. This is not a blaming, pointing fingers, kind of piece. It is an external and internal accountability check for what we’re doing, what we expect, and how we can work together better to set our NextGen folx up for success.

NextGen folx like me have higher expectations than ever regarding equity and social justice when working for or looking to work at organizations. When I say NextGen, however, it’s not just a label regarding age alone but instead can be applied to all those who are working towards a better, more progressive future in which EVERYONE can thrive. A statement speaking out against antiracism in the Summer of 2020 wasn’t and isn’t enough for us. Many employees are thinking, “well okay, boss, you’ve said that and now what?” What’s next? Another mental health day thrown in during the year?

Don’t get me wrong, frequent mental health days should be available regardless but that’s a topic for another article! We want to see the explicit, bold action taken to support those pretty words in all of the newly revised DEI/IDEAS (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Social Justice) commitment statements. For almost 79% of new graduates, diverse workplaces were categorized as “very important” in their job search. Significant and impactful DEI work at a potential place of employment has become a standout requirement for job seekers looking for new positions. So what are we looking for? We’re looking for organizations to DO MORE AND TALK LESS!

As a start, let’s challenge the idea that leadership can support the creation of DEI committees from the sidelines, then just leave them to ideate and implement everything themselves absent the direct involvement and partnership of those with the most institutional power to foster change. Change management starts from the top. If leadership isn’t taking action, then most employees will see the DEI statements as hollow, inauthentic, and unlikely to create shared buy-in or collective effort by everyone at the organization. If a culture of overworking, pay inequity, and inaccessible or absent paths for upward mobility still exist, then most employees will see that the DEI statements were seemingly only intended for external reputation as opposed to internal impact. Even if this hypothetical DEI committee is created by a Chief Diversity Officer (especially if they are just a recent hire), the power vacuum often still exists and inhibits what the CDO and the committee can accomplish. More often than not, Chief Diversity Officers are set up for failure in the first place which also then supports challenges against the need for these roles or that IDEAS work isn’t valuable. Beyond having enough full-time hands on deck to take on the mountain of necessary IDEAS work, CDOs need real power to both implement and manage change. Otherwise, their hands will be bound in bureaucracy and forced to placate certain stakeholders in a way that can counteract IDEAS initiatives and/or values.

Additionally, let’s challenge the idea that everything has to be said ‘perfectly’ because us NextGen folx would rather have the real, raw, rough truth from leadership rather than pretty, diplomatic, and inauthentic sentiments.

“The best way to avoid offending folx is to understand, learn, and GROW from mistakes by sourcing opinions straight from the source - the folx that you’re worried about offending!” - Desi Carson

Hence the second part of this article’s title: Talk Less. Better yet, talk less and listen more. At any given organization, it’s extremely likely that there are beautiful voices of those with relevant lived experiences who, if given the chance, can truly open that organization’s eyes and influence DEI work for the better. Sometimes leadership needs to ‘make space’ instead of ‘taking space’ and as a result, have a more informed and results-oriented approach to their internal and external DEI work. On the flip side, NextGen folx are paying attention to the kind of language that is used in any type of written or verbal statement regarding DEI with not only tone, choice of words, etc. but also for what is explicitly NOT being said. Is the organization afraid to say the phrase “white supremacy”? Are they carefully picking and choosing which social issue to speak about, purposely leaving out more controversial ones? Are they making time for relevant conversations during the paid work day? Are they thoughtfully making connections amongst the intersections of systems and policies beyond surface level instances of bias? So in total: Talk Less, Listen More, and Ask Yourselves the Hard Questions.

As a last point, let’s do ourselves all a favor and take a Do More, Talk Less approach and apply it to your personal and individual social responsibilities. Talk Less by spending time in introspective thought. Let’s reflect on the ways we can unintentionally perpetuate systemic harm due to the inherent power dynamics within an organization as well as the very human biases that we all bring into any space with other humans. Let’s Do More in the spirit of courage and boldness instead of sitting on silent, complicit inaction out of fear of either offending or repercussions. Regardless of the identities that we hold, it is absolutely imperative that we take the time to be a better ally. No matter who we are, what we do, what we’ve gone through, or what systematic oppression we face (or witness), there will ALWAYS be others that need our support and elevation for visibility.

For some consolation, we ALL need to take this advice of Doing More and Talking Less. We are never stronger in combating systemic oppression and white supremacy than when we link arms together in the fight. I believe that NextGen folx, with all our fire and call for revolution, are also navigating with an unprecedented amount of grace in the face of life challenges. We don’t expect perfection from anyone, including ourselves, and we are right here with you on this journey.

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