Three Reasons to Be Positive About the Future of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

The equity industry is facing difficult times after the boom of 2020, but experts say there are good reasons to remain optimistic.

By Rhianna C. Rogers, Giovanna Brasfield, and Eric Castillo

Since the summer of 2020, issues of systemic and racial inequity have exploded into the spotlight in the United States. This movement brought a wave of new diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) roles and opportunities. Equity work practitioners saw a huge increase in DEI leadership roles, offering the opportunity to have impact and drive change in workplaces and industries.

But many of those opportunities proved to be short-lived, poorly resourced, or not-well conceived. In 2023, the equity industry now faces a decline in roles, restrictive legislation aiming to dismantle civil rights achievements, and institutions and workplaces canceling support for DEI initiatives. Practitioners are tired, burned out, and facing an uncertain future.

For those of us who have been working and studying in the equity field for many years, it was not surprising that the 2020 boom was followed by a negative backlash. But for those who are new to the field, it can feel as though this work is infused with negativity and the future of the industry is similarly bleak.

We believe there are good reasons to be positive about equity work, and that centering hope and positivity in DEI can help drive meaningful change.

1. We’ve Made Real Progress

Addressing inequity requires a commitment to acknowledging its detrimental effects on marginalized communities. Yet, it's a path fraught with resistance and backlash. Those dedicated to this cause are dedicated to positive change, often at the expense of their own mental well-being and work-life balance, culminating in burnout, fatigue, and even depression.

In our pursuit of change, it's easy to succumb to tunnel vision, fixating on the challenges we face. Amidst this struggle, we tend to overlook the strides we've already taken. DEI won’t die, it’s just evolving. Our commitment to achieving equity persists, even as the language and landscape of the struggle evolve.

It is imperative that we pause to honor and commemorate the efforts of those who preceded us. This collective labor, spanning from the Civil War era through the Civil Rights movement to the present, has yielded the progress we now see. We must take a moment to revel in these accomplishments, steering away from despair as our central narrative. Many of us owe our current lives and careers to the relentless dedication of those who paved the way, even just a generation or two ago.

2. We Have Decades of Scholarship Behind Us

Since 2020, we have seen the ramifications of individuals and organizations entering the equity arena without the training or expertise to effectively address the complex issues they've been entrusted with tackling. For instance, when an inexperienced DEI consulting group or individual conducts training without data and theoretical foundations, the participants may struggle to connect that knowledge with their actual work or align it with the specific needs of their colleagues.

Those who engage in equity work without proper training or theoretical grounding, even if they bring a valuable "lived experience lens," may inadvertently perpetuate problematic trends and systemic inequities. Given the regressions in DEI initiatives, we are seeing a reduction in DEI roles and a slowing down in the field. Despite these recent changes, the movement to “change hearts and minds” continues, as it did prior to 2020. No matter the framing of inclusion work, leaders in this space must continue to collective work to dismantle systems of oppression.

When one operates outside the established theories and methods of the field, critical connections tend to be overlooked.

Fortunately, we have decades of scholarship stemming from the civil rights movement and a robust community of scholars in various disciplines dedicated to supporting this vital work. To break free from these problematic patterns, it is crucial to empower equity practitioners with the knowledge and expertise required to contextualize their efforts and facilitate meaningful change.

3. We’re Building a Community

We're not embarking on this journey in isolation. To drive the DEI agenda forward, it's imperative that we unite our efforts and provide a stronger structure for the field. What we require is a framework that clearly defines the parameters of equity work. Moreover, we need a comprehensive set of standards that can elevate equity work in both practice and policy, emphasizing an equity-centered approach, intersectionality, and a focus on systemic change.

The National Coalition of Equity Impact (NCEI) is actively engaged in the establishment of cross-sector equity standards, aimed at fostering a harmonized approach within the DEI ecosystem. The primary objective of NCEI is to harness our collective intellect and advocacy to bolster and fortify our field. The time has come to discard superficial practices and performative gestures and instead dive headfirst into the authentic work that lies ahead of us.

To advance these goals, NCEI aims to:

  • develop intersectional and cross-sector standards for DEI work
  • standardize terminology
  • create education modules
  • hold annual conferences to promote change and community-building, and
  • provide a space to manage the emotional labor of equity work, among other goals.

If you have a genuine interest in creating a nurturing environment for advancing the future of equity work, we extend a warm invitation for you to join us.

History has shown us that every noteworthy social movement is met with resistance. However, despite this familiar challenge, we remain susceptible to feelings of weariness, discouragement, and burnout.

To combat these obstacles, it's crucial that we celebrate our shared victories, leverage the knowledge and expertise cultivated within our field, and seek out supportive communities. By prioritizing hope, positivity, and mutual encouragement, we can find the strength to persist in our ongoing struggle. Together, we can continue to press forward.