When I was given a DEI Lead role, I genuinely jumped with joy. It’s my dream job and dream career long term. I’ve delivered workshops, and collaborated with amazing organisations; I’ve written articles, blogged and podcasted about diversity and inclusion and I’ve been approached by several people looking to do similar for their organisations. then I hit a very long ‘DEI-esque’ break: maternity leave. The time has forced me to reflect, feel and be still in many ways about my work and here is a short account (I’ll try) of what it really feels like to lead DEI for an organisation.
DEI is overwhelming and underestimated
DEI is everyone’s responsibility because it affects everyone - quite literally. Yet, it’s only recently become a ‘buzz word’ or perhaps only recently has it been given the accolade it deserves; it cannot be ignored. The rise (gift) of wokeism and a Gen Z workforce means it has to matter more.
Needless to say, for many people in the workplace (older millennials like myself, Gen X, baby boomers…) DEI is overwhelming because we are being forced to unlearn or reconfigure what we’ve normalised and learned not just professionally, but personally through our own lived experiences; our personal truths, if you will.
In most cases in the workplace, DEI learning has to happen in a very small window of time, sometimes your own time and at double speed. With post-Covid, work-life imbalance and Adam Grant’s perfect explanation of languishing that many of us are experiencing, it’s safe to say, (un/re)learning about DEI may not be high on anyone’s agenda.
That’s hard work. It’s overwhelming for a DEI Lead who has the responsibility to navigate this change for an entire organisation. At best, they’ll get it onto your radar, at worst, the organisation will be accused of tokenism.
As a DEI lead in education, I purposefully and actively use the words ‘organisation’ and ‘workplace’ because often, people mistake schools for being anything but. Working across a few sectors has taught me schools have very similar ‘issues’ to any other workplace - albeit they’re not really profit making, they don’t benefit from increasing budgets, they’re constantly at the forefront (or receiving end) of any social change or adversity, and they don’t (in many cases) have specialised, on site HR (Trusts, the independent sector, FE all have similar needs and issues). You might say, it makes the work in education more complex and dare I say it, requiring more skill.
Doing this work solo in the first instance, with it still being regarded as ‘new’ (although I’m getting tired of this excuse now) can be justified, but is a big job. But let me caveat this: DEI is a strategic and leadership responsibility which needs its own entire infrastructure. Equally, that does not mean an existing assistant head, deputy or ‘lead’ in schools capacity (desire, interest, or expertise) to do it.
DEI is specialised work, which needs time, strategy, money, respect and skill - it should be at the heart of your people strategy and at the centre of your safeguarding strategy. It cannot be an add on - it just doesn’t work.
You will always be wired and triggered
Glennon Doyle quite perfectly explains to go where you are triggered in her wonderful book, Untamed. The exact quotation is plastered all over my workplace to remind me of my purpose and ‘why’. Working in DEI is so rewarding - there is nothing more purposeful than making people feel seen, heard, important and real. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing people flourish. Equally, it is so uncomfortable and hard. Really hard. There is nothing more painful than seeing people struggle mentally, physically and emotionally just because of who they are. This takes its toll.
You constantly worry about missing important dates; you want to include everyone and fear missing out on anyone from your DEI strategy; you are at the receiving end of nearly every ‘people’ problem and issue the organisation may encounter. You have an overwhelming sense of guilt and responsibility all at the same time.
The paradox is that the 'work' should and almost needs to happen overnight, yet it is not an overnight process.
Intersectionality becomes how you read, translate and respond to EVERYTHING. uncomfortable conversations are your comfortable conversations. A safe space is always vulnerable. And, beyond all of this, you are strategising, leading, managing, and implementing valuable policies and practices to make life so much better for everyone around you.
Whilst navigating Organisational DEI, how do you navigate yourself?
This is something I had to learn fast.
Strategy and a timeline are key to keep you grounded, on track and suppress the overwhelm. You cannot do it overnight, no matter how urgent and pressing the work is. The top level work takes time and your Headteacher/Leader should give you time to listen, understand and identify key priorities, culture needs, opportunities and more to put a strategy in place. DEI cannot be checked off in a 1 hour CPD session, or even 3 hours of CPD. It cannot be addressed in a few lessons. It is a range of themes, a culture, a mindset and curriculum that needs to be integrated into your whole school and organisation strategy. Rest assured that the work is never done, it just gets better and better.
You cannot do it alone. Sometimes, schools and teachers (myself included) adopt a martyrdom approach - one person manages and does it all. They become the DEI ‘expert’. They become the go to for ‘everything DEI’ whether that be strategy, staff training, student activities, DEI in the curriculum, operations and more. This can lead to a breakdown in communication, stress, loneliness, workplace conflict, more stress and most importantly, limited impact. DEI can and should be the responsibility of many. There are several strands, areas and several skills that are needed to successfully implement DEI. Once you, as Head of DEI, have created your strategy and proposed the resources needed, reach out to relevant stakeholders; reach out for expertise and give the work the importance and infrastructure it needs.
Set your boundaries and know ‘your people.’ Leading DEI is a privilege. It is transformative for organisational culture at every level. There is so much to do and you will be pulled, pushed, challenged and propelled in every direction. In many ways this is exciting. In some ways, it can take over your life. Set your boundaries and always come back to the organisation’s vision and your strategy. This will help you set boundaries, manage expectations and make an impact.
Those who lead or specifically work in DEI are good people. They are intensely empathetic, compassionate, intuitive, just, human, brave and vulnerable (I’m biased, I know!). Identify your inner circle, the people you can trust, offload to, seek advice and guidance from. These people will fast become friends, your professional safe space.
Accept that you won’t get 'DEI right' first time and you’ll make mistakes, need correcting and need to keep learning constantly. This is a huge, transformative opportunity for you and your organisation - positively embrace it, no matter how scary it may seem.
Would I change anything about being head of DEI? Absolutely not. I love my work. So much. It is meaningful, testing, and challenging, and I adore every impact it has. And, what do I love most? It’s about steady, meaningful change. It encourages people to confidently speak their truth(s), belong, be seen and be heard. It’s about kindness and respecting difference. It brings out the best in people - and as cheesy as it sounds, that’s the core of what we need for sustainable workplaces, better education and ultimately, good people.
For more support in leading DEI at your school or organisation feel free to get in touch and I highly recommend www.thegec.org and www.diverseeducators.co.uk for your DEI training and development needs too.