“But I thought our job was to put ourselves out of business!”
My objection was heartfelt, but my coworkers squirmed. I glanced around the room. I suddenly realized that despite their sincere words and good intentions, my colleagues and I weren’t on the same page about social change, or our organization’s role.
It wasn’t the last time I’d be dismissed as a “radical” or “idealist”, nor the last time I’d find myself frustrated and on the margins. But I didn’t know it yet.
It was 1992. Three days after college graduation, I’d started my first full time job as a social worker for a nonprofit agency in urban Los Angeles. My city was just getting its bearings after the uprising sparked by the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King. Neighborhoods still smoldered and communities reeled from police corruption, gang violence, poverty, crack cocaine, and rising waves of refugees from Mexico and Central America. Most of the kids in my caseload of Latinx and Black families faced serious threats to their lives and livelihoods, every day.
I was 22, and I believed not only that we could eradicate racism and oppression — I believed I should play an active role in that eradication. I believed it was my job to provide “my” families with the golden key to their thriving — that one experience, resource, or perfectly-timed encouragement that would change everything. I believed it was our job as a social services agency to collaborate broadly and plan for our obsolescence — for a world where families of color facing unfair odds no longer needed our services. Every day, I thought about how to do my part.
I gradually came to two troubling realizations. One, the families that “made it” were going to make it without my help. I just eased the process or sped it up. Meanwhile, the families that didn’t make it weren’t going to, no matter what I did. The barriers were too immense, the problems too complex. I was like a tiny mole digging a burrow in an ancient desert on a fault line 100 miles long.
Two, none of the nonprofit or government agencies who claimed a commitment to ending social ills were planning for their obsolescence. They were more dedicated to self-perpetuation by growing revenue and garnering political influence. This true commitment was neither malicious nor conscious, but actions reveal truth, and systems dwarf individual efforts despite what our culture preaches. The dogged efforts of the many good people in these organizations only scratched the steel plating protecting the larger machines of power and profit that ground away in the opposite direction.
Three years and one more organization later, I left social services. I was frustrated with a system out of integrity with itself, and out of alignment with the vision I had for what was possible and necessary. I wanted us to take seriously the mission of ending oppression and putting ourselves out of business. I found no likeminded kindred to join, so I left.
This true commitment was neither malicious nor conscious, but actions reveal truth, and systems dwarf individual efforts despite what our culture preaches.
Nearly 30 years later, at 52, I’m having déjà vu. I just left the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) field, for eerily similar reasons.
My exit was set in motion in 2012 by two events: First, the murder of Trayvon Martin (and later acquittal of his killer), and second, the racist hazing of Dr. Christian Head, an African American surgeon at UCLA Medical School. Almost exactly twenty years earlier, I’d been a UCLA senior marching past that very medical school protesting racism and the King verdict, confronted by jittery cops while the city burned from betrayal and fury.
Faced with these two events, I began to deeply question myself and my society. We’d said we wanted a more equitable world, but what had all our work really accomplished? What difference had any of my work made? And what could we — what could I — do differently now?
I found new hope and inspiration in the ways evolutionary biology and emerging neuroscience could reframe the way we talked about what was newly dubbed “diversity and inclusion”. I incorporated science into the TEDx talk I gave in fall 2012, and I evangelized about unconscious bias. I leveraged the language of business and metrics to persuade leaders to adopt “D&I” best practices, and I provided them with tools to take practical action.
But a decade later, I have little hope or inspiration left. I recently wrote that one of the reasons I left DEI was because I’m no longer fit for duty, but my lack of “fitness” is just one symptom of deeper issues bigger than me. I see now that — much like in social services — the systemic problems dwarf individual efforts. I’m still a mole digging in a desert on a massive fault line. I see now that those who declare commitment to change are more committed in action to other goals: profit, influence, status quo priorities, existing power hierarchies, and other people changing.
I’m still a mole digging in a desert on a massive fault line. I see now that those who declare commitment to change are more committed in action to other goals: profit, influence, status quo priorities, existing power hierarchies, and other people changing.
My story and conclusions are deeply personal and unique to me. However, I offer them so those who labor in frustration might know they’re not alone. I offer them in the hope that those who are fit for duty can utilize my insights to create actual change when the world is ready. I leave them as legacy for kindred, wherever and whenever they may be.
These are the five awkward reasons why I’ve left DEI work after nearly 30 years, and what I believe must happen to catalyze true change. Read the rest on Medium.