DEI for Everyone

“Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming  the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world. ”  – bell hooks

I have this quotation in my email signature and I always wonder if folks ever take a moment to read it. At first glance, the reference to community may seem disjointed from what people commonly understand about DEI but it reflects the framing and understanding I bring to this work. I am often confronted by the idea that DEI is about labels – putting people into boxes. There is a misunderstanding that by bringing attention to inequalities, DEI assigns blame and foments division. For me, so much of my work is about fostering understanding across individuals and preparing folks to navigate challenges that arise from differences by making them aware of the experience of others and the systemic barriers that exist. Through sharing our experiences and moving towards a place of mutual understanding and accountability, I hope to foster a shared sense of being in community with each other. 

Through community and my own life, I’ve had transformative experiences in places where I had a sense of belonging. The impact of these experiences of belonging is what brought me to DEI work and why I am an advocate for inclusion. I was born in Jamaica and grew up in Florida in an immigrant community. Many Jamaicans are Christians which partially contributed to the homophobia I grew up around. This affected my experience so much that, when I realized that I wasn’t straight in middle school, I hoped that I was bisexual because God couldn’t hate me if I wasn’t “fully” gay. By the time I was preparing for college, I wanted to come out but was afraid of how my family would receive me. I had a full-ride scholarship and thought I just needed to make it through the summer. This emboldened me; knowing that I wasn’t depending on my family if they decided to disown me. 

This independence was only part of my college experience. When I came to university, I met other people such as other queer folks and even other LGBTQ+ Jamaicans! I participated in LGBTQ+ student organizations, helping to organize educational and social events. I sat on panels and joined other students in LGBTQ+ Safe Space training for different areas of campus. In coming out and finding others like myself, I had a sense of belonging and community. Fears that I had carried since I was a child began to dissipate as I saw other LGBTQ+ students fully involved in campus life, and active in campus organizations and initiatives in the community. This inspired me to live more authentically and not let concerns around my identity and my reception impact my participation. 

Unknowingly, I was helping others. By my senior year, many younger students reached out to let me know the impact I had on their lives. I began to understand just how important a sense of belonging was and the ripple effect it has on others. In my experience of belonging, I was able to be authentic, allowing others to feel like they could be themselves. With this came a sense of accountability for myself and the community, particularly younger LGBTQ+ folks. When we are embraced for the differences we bring, we’re able to focus on the task at hand as opposed to dealing with the barriers posed by exclusion. 

Exclusion is harmful and hurts all. There is a power that comes from community and belonging and it is clearly something that many people don’t experience in today’s society. For example, look at Pride celebrations in the US. What started as a riot to liberate LGBT folks has, in recent years, grown into an annual celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community. With each year comes the inevitable complaints of folks asking why the LGBTQ+ community gets a month and what about other groups, often without context or understanding of how Pride came to be. Pride is about finding community, it’s necessary because up until recently, and not even everywhere, LGBTQ+ folks have not been included in society. For much of our history and even today, part of the daily reality for many LGBTQ+ people is exclusion in the shape of oppression, threats to life and liberty, and the explicit understanding that we do not belong in society. 

For me, finding other LGBTQ+ people, community, and a sense of belonging allowed me to find inclusion. The experiences I’ve had in the queer community and in other spaces where I was represented and affirmed are what make me aware of the power of importance and belonging. It also makes me aware of how many people have not experienced belonging and have harmed themselves as a result of exclusion.

Everyone deserves to belong. Exclusion is rejection, othering, and a lack of belonging. This can be caused by behaviors, actions, and words. It can be caused by slurs and microaggressions. It happens when people avoid certain groups or types of people. It’s facilitated by systems built to produce outcomes that are more favorable to some over others. It can take the form of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and many other discriminative –isms. Exclusion causes pain. It others individuals and communities. It creates barriers for some and not others. It makes the path harder in different ways. 

Growing up in Jamaica, I didn’t realize I was Black until I came to America. It was here that I experienced the impacts of racism. I learned how Black people were seen as different, as bad, and also as poor. Schools are funded from property taxes and, because I lived in a poor community, the schools in my zone were failing schools. As a child, I was part of the gifted program which made me competitive for magnet programs in middle school. As I transitioned into better schools, I saw firsthand how much more resources I had access to that many other people did not.

Today I’m intrigued by different ways to cultivate a sense of belonging outside of capitalism and white supremacy. If we look at our country’s history, we see that the country was built from exclusion by the slow expansion of rights to groups such as women and Black people. This has left us with an unequal and demanding society. This inequality is demonstrated not only in terms of economics or representation but in the narrow range of how we’re expected to contribute to society and be considered productive members as laborers. Inequality has created societal and individual pressure to follow a model of success that requires us to show up to work every day in ways that aren’t accessible because it wasn’t created for everyone. It’s inaccessible to those who weren’t born into it and it blocks those who didn’t follow the model of success required by society.

The power of belonging and the danger of exclusion

I see the power of belonging and the danger of exclusion in my work every day. In my 10+ years of doing this work, I’ve had a front-row seat to the ways DEI has evolved and the discourse around it. Because of events like Gamergate, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the #MeToo movement, people were exposed to public discourse on diversity, representation, and accountability. As a result of these movements came an opposition that tried to derail the change being made with cultural counterpoints such as the mocking of “social justice warriors”, an attack on “wokeness” and political correctness, and the rise of legislation against DEI and DEI-related programs. Thus, diversity, equity, and inclusion have become a charged concept making it harder for people to acknowledge the impacts of inequality, oppression, and privilege.

Today my focus is on diversity, equity, and inclusion as a process that then turns into belonging. I see how the world has made us more isolated and people are being drawn away from a sense of community every day. My work aims to meet people where they are at in their understanding of DEI by making them aware of the pain from isolation and building empathy and compassion for other people who are also experiencing isolation from different forms of oppression than their own. It’s through this work that I am able to work against white supremacy, marginalization, and harmful ideologies that only work to separate us more.

In my work with Tangible Development, we empower people by building a sense of belonging in the workplace. What we do helps people understand a sense of community and allow people to bring an authentic version of themselves to work. When a workplace has created a sense of belonging, not only will there be a richness of skill and knowledge, but also a culture of accountability to uphold the value that everyone is welcome.

Inclusion is everyone’s responsibility. While leadership and management set the tone, it is the individuals within the workplace that cement a workplace’s culture. As individuals, we can start to build a culture of accountability by recognizing that DEI is everyone’s job. The truth is, we’ve all experienced marginalization. At one point or another, everyone has felt like they weren’t enough or that they don’t fit the mold of what others expect of their identity. A common misconception I run into in my work is that DEI is not for white people. Yet societal expectations impact everyone including white cis-gender straight men who are expected to meet standards of masculinity and success that stop them from bringing their authentic selves to work as well. 

For this reason, it’s even more important to draw attention to systems of oppression in our society and the ways they interconnect to impact all of us. I am even more committed to diversity, equity, belonging, and inclusion work because I recognize that it serves all of us and we all need to be involved in this work. It may seem daunting to confront the history and legacies that shaped our society and to take accountability, not for what has happened, but for what will happen. It’s only through leaning into this discomfort, challenging ourselves to look beyond the status quo, and recognizing that we all do better when everyone does better. And working to create a world that is mutually shaped to meet all of our needs is what DEI is all about. Through sharing our experiences and learning more about the lived reality of others, we increase our awareness and understanding. We can begin to recognize that there is more that connects us than divides us and can tear down the barriers to inclusion and belonging.