A Better Way to Think About DEI

John Terrill July 6, 2023

What we’re missing is a bigger story of diversity, equity, and inclusion; one that transcends project, intervention, or task-force narratives.

[Note: This story was first printed in Common Good at Made to Flourish on July 6, 2023.]

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives are coming under political fire across the country. Republican lawmakers in my state, Wisconsin, are threatening to cut $32 million in funding for the University of Wisconsin system over the next two years, an amount equivalent to what lawmakers say the system is planning to spend on DEI initiatives over the same time period. And Wisconsin is not alone — similar partisan tactics are playing out in over a dozen states across the country.

As important as diversity is for ensuring healthy, high-performing organizations — and study after study, including research by McKinsey & Company, shows that this is the case — we need a better way to have a conversation about what makes us similar and different. Is there a more life-affirming way to talk about age, ethnicity, race, physical ability, gender, sexual orientation, and neurodiversity in our communities and workplaces? A way that doesn’t mandate, but rather invites, leading to changed hearts, deeper understanding, and an embracing of the mutuality of our life stories?

Christian leaders may be best positioned to chart this path, if we rise to this challenge. The theological arc of the Bible winds its way to a vibrant garden city, described by John in Revelation 7:9, where “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” is represented, standing before the throne of God. Joy abounds, and God’s people in all their glorious diversity live, work, and worship in perfect trust and harmony. The church is called to pursue this vision, reassured that someday she’ll reach her full potential. Even today, though not fully realized, Jesus “has broken down the dividing wall … the hostility between us” (Eph 2:14).

Yet we suffer. We stonewall. We divide. We blame. And we forfeit our redemptive witness.

What we’re missing is a bigger story of diversity, equity, and inclusion; one that transcends project, intervention, or task-force narratives.

Where we’ve gone wrong

Of all places to find wisdom, conventional marketing may offer solutions to address the gap. When it comes to promoting DEI, many advocates pursue a push strategy. Push marketing goes straight to the consumer in a shotgun approach. It surmises that if we can bombard customers with enough direct appeals, we’ll eventually make a sale. It’s a straightforward, pragmatic approach that works best when there’s familiarity with a service or product. The goal is immediate impact, accomplished through high-volume advertising to drive demand.

Pull is different. It employs a longer-term horizon and achieves its goals by building on natural interests. It knits individual stories into a larger garment of interwoven stories. Rather than metaphorically knocking at a customer’s door and enticing it to be opened, pull marketing draws out innate concerns, inviting participants to walk across thresholds of exchange and mutuality of their own volition. When marketing DEI, pull strategies draw on a deeper narrative — one that recognizes our common humanity not out of rigid obligation but heartfelt desire.

“Tell them about the dream, Martin …”

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

As Mahalia Jackson on the National Mall in August 1963 enticed Martin Luther King, Jr. to tap into the deeper wellsprings of his heart, we, too, as Christians have a similar opportunity.

Maybe the more effective way to build diverse and flourishing communities is to pursue pull strategies, tapping into our universal need to belong. Each one of us, no matter our similarities or differences, have powerful, life-changing stories of being on the inside and outside. It’s this inherent energy of the universal need for belonging that we need to awaken in order to make progress together.

We all need to belong

In our digitally connected world, we’re chronically isolated, estranged, and lonely, to the degree that the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy, earlier this year issued a major advisory report, Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation. In it, he writes: “The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity.” If we don’t reverse this trend, Murthy writes:

We will pay an ever-increasing price in the form of our individual and collective health and well-being. And we will continue to splinter and divide until we can no longer stand as a community or a country. Instead of coming together to take on the great challenges before us, we will further retreat to our corners — angry, sick, and alone.

Activist and educator Kim Samuel, in her book On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation, defines belonging as “the experience of being at home in ourselves as well as the social, environmental, organizational, and cultural context of our lives. It’s the basis of human flourishing.” Through her research and work with communities around the world, she describes four core dimensions — the four Ps — that help assure us we belong: people, place, purpose, and power.

People — our associations of living, working, and serving — matter greatly. The quality of our relationships is essential, but so too are our experiences of place. No matter how virtual we believe our lives to be, we are bound to our physical workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities. As people located in physical spaces, we are tethered, but not in ways that constrain our creative need for purpose — our sacred vocation and innate desire to create meaning for ourselves and contribute to the larger commonweal. When we’re impeded from exercising these aspirations, we lose our sense of power or agency, what Samuel describes as “our capacity to participate meaningfully in the decision-making structures of the broader whole.”

But we must pursue belonging carefully

These four pieces of belonging are straightforward enough, but there is a shadow side. Each can be pursued for the benefit of self and the diminishment of others leading to exclusionary and unjust systems. Samuel expounds:

The shadow side of belonging is ultimately most dangerous when it manifests in dominant systems of power in our societies — when entire social, political, and economic structures are built on the objective of actualizing belonging for some at the expense of belonging for others. It’s when we deflect responsibility for addressing complex challenges together and instead retreat to exclusionary identities, blaming those who are not like us, and employing strategies of control, coercion, and punishment against the imagined “other.”

As Christian leaders, we have a redemptive responsibility to nurture belonging in the teams and organizations we steward. Thinking imaginatively about people, place, purpose, and power is a great place to start. In each of these areas, we can take concrete steps that both affirm and welcome the dignity of all human beings. But even more importantly, Christian leaders have an opportunity to move beyond the instrumental, re-enchanting the world with the truest story that already animates it: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

To counteract the exclusionary and tribal politics of our age, we need broader, more holistic systems of meaning-making. Tapping into our deeper ideals of belonging is a promising (and kingdom-oriented) pathway. Both connection and isolation are universal human events. Every one of us has experiences to share — stories of kinship and love, isolation and dislocation. But we must shift the conversation in order to pull us together. By telling our stories and — perhaps even more importantly — inviting in and listening to the stories and dreams of others, we can reawaken our shared humanity, which has too long been aslumber.