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  • Writer's pictureEi Ei Samai

Hana-Dul-Set aka what my 5 year old's Taekwando classes illuminated about the stubborn places in div

Raise your hand if you're surprised by articles about why Diversity Officers are set up to fail. If you raised your hand, a working class white person probably has never told you that race privilege doesn't exist because they struggle economically and you have probably never dealt with leaders who worry that "too much social justice" will compromise organizational goals or that they don't have the time. Sigh.

After years of people suggesting I apply for these new DEI roles that have popped up like food trucks, and years of saying, "No, thanks!" I got clear about why I haven't wanted to.

I don't have confidence in the design thinking that went into creating those roles.

The Fortune article above mentions a few reasons why results aren't as imagined: newness of the roles, lack of power and data to make a difference, and lack of leadership buy in (last on the list of 8 priorities). I have one more reason that's more fundamental: our brains.

We sign up kids for martial arts so that they learn discipline, focus, confidence, and self governance, not so they learn how to fight. If I told my 5 year old that we were going to enroll him in a series of workshops to increase those character traits, arguing or bribing would ensue. Instead, we tell him TKD is how you become a ninja. You should see how carefully he folds his uniform and coils his belt to store them in between sessions.

Our brains like to learn and grow when the conditions are right. When the conditions aren't deemed right, those same brains are excellent protectors. They are scanning for threats constantly and categorizing the sensory input.

We want folks in organizations to learn, try, and co-create, not resist, please, and be paralyzed. Because cross identity relations come with so much charge, just hearing the words diversity, equity, and inclusion might send people into fight, flight, flood, freeze, appease, or fatigue. (Yes, there are more than the two fight or flight responses to stress. I have so much brain research I can share from the C-IQ program I am in. Message me if you care to double click on any of those brain claims.)

After two decades of immersing my three brains (head brain, heart brain, gut brain) in this work, I have two ideas: 1) rebrand the work, 2) make it age appropriate.*

Rebranding the work

The first time I was deconstructed and made aware of institutional privilege, it was through a high school leadership class. We were learning how to be responsible leaders after being elected into the Associated Student Body. It was mandatory, uncomfortable, and paradigm shifting, yet we felt special to be a part of this special leadership group doing this special work that our peers weren't privy to. I became open to seeing the ways I benefited from a structural or historical pattern because of the way those concepts were introduced to me.

Since then, I have learned the complementary skill of articulating the ways I am hurt by a social contract to the people who are beneficiaries of that contract, an exchange that requires more vulnerability than being protectively disengaged or angrily dismissive. As Brené Brown recommends, "People are hard to hate close up. Move in."

I learned because the right conditions for learning existed, which fueled persistent curiosity.

What's the ninja branding for this work that doesn't trigger cortisol and instead feels essential, special, and up-leveling? What if people learned the skills of engaging with DEI experiences, or lack thereof, as leadership "saw-sharpening" skills? What if brain bootcamps got us the DEI results we want to see like leaders checking for blindspots and being open to influence? What if team activities, like fundraising walks and volunteering, had a DEI twist? What might we see if DEI initiatives used escape rooms or fantasy sports as their experiential learning scapes?

Making it age-appropriate

As I mentioned, I started this journey in high school. I've been speaking this language, honing this craft, refining my skills, and surrounding myself with peers and mentors for over 20 years. That's a lot of time to become good at something. The people in these newly created roles have likely been doing this work for a long time. Our DEI ages are double digits with rich lived experiences and support networks we can call upon.

The folks we're inviting, enticing, inciting to shift, though, are like new learners of a language; their DEI age may be a single digit, maybe even zero. How many millennial transplants from the midwest have forgiving mentors and coaches to guide them as they process unearned privilege and questions that follow? How many baby boomer leaders are expected to manage risk while trying on new language, behaviors, strategies, and initiatives?

If we were to see rampant fragility, callous mistakes, toxic ignorance, and downright cray cray narratives as lack of experience with the material, would we get better results? If increased effectiveness of this work is urgent, isn't it worth a reframe?

What if people learned DEI engagement skills, such as listening to connect and self awareness, the way kids learned martial arts? These are the features I think of: incremental skill building; high warmth, high accountability environment; short sessions a few times a week; peers at their level and more advanced role models working together; no black belts using their superior skills to shame little kids; gentle guidance and more chances when they don't get it right; group time and individual coaching; clear steps to level up; mind and body working together; and life skills integration.

I am in a program currently that's about the neuroscience of conversations and realizing how much cortisol DEI work triggers for all involved. We can do better. We must do better so our children can work in more evolved organizations and share the planet more mindfully.

Synaptogenesis or how new synapses are formed in the brain is a fascinating area of study. The late child development researcher Dr. Karyn Purvis was known to say that play accelerated synapse formation from 400 repetitions to 10-20. Designer consulting firm SYPartners has an article with 8 beliefs about DEI in organizations. Belief 6. Diversity and inclusion efforts should be designed to maximize joy and connection, and minimize fear.

Who's up for a design challenge?!

*In case you're wondering about my qualifications to offer ideas, here's a little about me.

I am a US immigrant, cis-gender, hetero, mom of color of non-Christian faith. My childhood home had a mosque, a temple, and a monastery within earshot. I was 5 when I had my first run in with a bully, who happened to be of a different background, and heard the coupling of identity and negative behavior for the first time from the grown ups processing the event. I was 9 when my British educated grandpa told me the story of the Turkish Ambassador pouring tea into his saucer and how Her Majesty the Queen quickly followed suit to show social graces because that's what leaders do. He also told me stories about the hardship of British colonial days and the distant look in his eyes that I now recognize as holding complicated feelings about things, persons, events, history. I was 12 when I moved to the States and flipped from being of hegemonic identity to "minority" identity. I was 16 when I did my first Step Up, Step Back activity and then was deconstructed. I was 18 when I went to my first Women of Color Conference and learned the word "reification" from Angela Davis. Of my debt-incurring Pre-Med years I remember about 10% of the content but fully retained what I learned about the 13th Amendment and the military industrial complex. During and since, I have had the fortune of getting paid to work on educational equity, environmental justice, reproductive rights, voter rights, restorative justice, leadership development, community engagement, and last but not least, diversity and inclusion.

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