Diversity is Inefficient (blog post)



Diversity is Inefficient

Ashindi M., Senior Fellow at The New Organizing Institute


I can’t remember the last time I talked to someone who didn’t “value” diversity. Among organizers and political types, diversity comes close to a fetish. There is good logic to that if you’ve got a basic grasp on demographics. It will soon be impossible to win anything in this country with coalitions of the monotone.

So, with demographic realities and righteousness on our side, we strive to build diverse movements and organizations. My sense though, and tell me if I’m wrong, is that mostly we fail. While there are growing numbers of leaders from diverse backgrounds, I can use one hand (with fingers to spare) to count the organizations and issue-based coalitions that are representatively diverse from their leadership to their base. 

Lennox Yearwood of the Hip-Hop Caucus described the racial breakdown among progressive issue groups this way:

When I speak at anti-war rallies the audience is usually all White, when I speak at immigration rallies the audience is usually all Brown… Global warming, usually White, police brutality, usually Black, and so on. The progressive movement is segregated, and race is the tripwire that prevents us from coming together. Not only do I find this to be very discouraging, it is self-defeating.

I have a theory, actually a bunch of them, about how issues of culture, class, and education hinder building racially diverse coalitions. But other people have made whole careers out of enumerating those. It’s also hard to see how an individual can personally tackle those issues on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, there is one daily challenge to achieving diversity in our organizations and campaigns that any one of us can confront - if we can admit to it.

Diversity is inefficient.

At least, it is inefficient in the short run. In the long run, to repeat myself, we are not going to win anything anymore if we can’t build racially inclusive coalitions and organizations. That said, here are just a couple ways diversity consumes inordinate time and energy:

  1. Diversity requires us to go further out of our own networks to find new partners for our work or new hires for our organization. That takes more time than hiring and working with people we already know.
  2. Once we have identified a diverse set of folks to work with, it takes more effort to work with them than it does to work with people who are more like us. We are likely to have different communication styles, knowledge bases and points of reference. These points of difference are actually an incredible strength but, in practice, they can multiply the time it takes to find common ground and move forward. Truth.

And then there is this- it turns out that diversity is not just inefficient, it’s not even enough. Getting a diverse set of bodies into a room is insufficient. We also have to make sure each of these voices count for something.

Here is one way to think about the difference between diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Diversity is the black (or Latino/a, or asian, or gay) person who answers the phone in an office.  Inclusion is about the people in the room when important decisions are made. My way of thinking about it is: inclusion = diversity + empowerment.

The problem with diversity that doesn’t take the next step to inclusion is that it doesn’t work. In fact, my experience is that it usually backfires. Most of us have seen people with great intentions of building racial bridges horrified to see chasms of racial mistrust forming instead where there is diversity without empowerment.

Building bridges takes time and focused effort. We have to be ready and willing to give everyone’s voice equal weight, and share power across new alliances. When we don’t do this, chasms seem to form naturally where we meant to have unity.

I worked for a while with a group of civil rights leaders who frequently referred to the “chocolate chip model” of politics, where they were engaged by mostly white coalitions who were looking for diversity but not inclusion. Typically the less diverse groups would create a strategy and, only later, look to build out their diversity. They welcomed new diverse players with open arms, as long as they didn’t express dissent from the rest of the group or tip the balance of power. In the chocolate chip model, the goal is to check a diversity box.

Inclusion, on the other hand, requires us to make space for the whole agenda to shift once the needs of multiple groups are seriously considered. Engaging new people in this way can disrupt existing priorities and makes things chaotic and messy, at least for a while. It is, initially, so very inefficient (as, by the way, is democracy).

Inclusion is also difficult because, as it turns out, we are programmed to form in and out groups. There was a study that asked people to count the number of dots on a page. Some people over-counted the number of dots. Others under-counted the dots. When you got all those people in a room and labeled them all as “over-counters” or “under-counters”, they formed measurable preferences for the people who were most “like” them. Under-counters would privilege other under-counters and discriminate against over-counters. Given half a chance, we intuitively form tribes based around things we have in common with others, even when they are meaningless.

Feel free to read this study to say that having an in-group preference doesn’t (necessarily) mean you’re racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or religiously biased. Forming an in-group preference in any setting is a part of a natural instinct humans have to form tribes. It’s one of those tendencies- like the human inclination, formed in leaner times, to consume all available sources of protein or fat- that may have once helped us survive but now works against us.

We can also read the over and under counter dot study to better understand how our natural inclination to relate in-group may be constantly working against our goals for diversity and inclusion. However we identify ourselves, we have to expect a swim upstream to get outside of our self-defined in-groups.

Here is an example of how the tendency to relate most easily to people in our in-group can play out in a coalition. Imagine a meeting in which everyone in the room has agreed to messaging for a campaign targeting primarily low-income African Americans, except for the one Africa-American at the table. As irrational as it might sound to write off the input of the person most likely to relate to the core audience, it happens all the time if that person is in the minority. Further, if that person expresses dissent, they may well end up labeled as difficult to work with- especially if they express their understandable frustration at not feeling heard or empowered. If this scenario sounds improbable to you I would like to speak personally from my (lifelong) experience as a black woman. It happens all. the. time.

Majority rule will always be more expedient. And some other goal (let’s say health care or climate change, or just the next report that’s due) will always feel more pressing than making sure we’ve made the time to be inclusive. This means we have to value inclusion so highly that it becomes it’s own objective . In fact it needs its own set of strategies.

That doesn’t mean that all other work stops so we can talk full time about our differences. The whole point is for us to be able to more effectively create change together. We have to, however, believe that it is actually more efficient to take the time required to build bridges than to stand idly by as chasms form and widen.

In a spirit of hope that we can become a generation of bridge-builders, I’ve started a list of concrete strategies for practicing inclusion, as follows.

Acknowledge that, in the short run, diversity and inclusion can feel inefficient.  Then explicitly decide that we value them enough to create time to make them happen. As one example, this might mean longer processes for decision-making and hiring to tap into new networks and incorporate different viewpoints.

Make time for difficult conversations about difference and do not over-personalize them. Take risks in beginning conversations about difference and expect that the first reaction to these conversations may be distrust and frustration. We get much farther the less we take it personally and the more we extend ourselves. Genuine dialogue takes time, openness, self-reflection and a ton of generosity. Talking about difference is hard for most of us. We need practice to do it well.

Make space for ideas that may not resonate at first. We lose more good thinking than we know by shutting out a train of thought that may simply be out of our own comfort zone. Different life experiences truly do shape different points of view. This can be an asset if we let it.

Hone your awareness of in-group preference, particularly if you are in a position of power.  Is it possible that you are including and excluding people based on how comfortable they make you feel as opposed to the value they are adding?

Read.  We can’t learn everything from a book, but we also can’t always expect others to shoulder the burden of educating us. Literature can do a lot to hone our sensibilities and make sure we are not imposing on others to educate us. Relatively current biographies of people from different backgrounds or books specifically about racial difference like “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” might be a good start.

Use this simple inclusion metric.  If you want to create an inclusive group process ask yourself- how many meetings did we have before we included diverse voices in the process?  If you are being inclusive, the closer you can get to 0, the better.

Intentionally build a critical mass of diverse voices.  If one person in the room has a significantly different background than others, remember how easy it can be to marginalize their point of view- especially if it varies from what everyone else is saying. The more diversity there is in the room, the more comfortable people are likely to feel expressing a different point of view and believing they are likely to be heard.

Create virtuous cycles by activating networks of people from diverse communities. We naturally tend to have networks of others who are a lot like us. People from diverse communities will gravitate to inclusive organizations or coalitions, bringing their networks to bear along with them. As this happens, the work of building an inclusive movement or organization will become easier over time.

The one indispensable strategy is for each of us to identify actions we can take that are within our personal control and make the time to do them. These steps we take past diversity and towards true inclusion may feel inefficient in the short run, but they are genuinely the only path forward.