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Are We Really a Nation Divided on DEI: A Revealing Q&A with Amanda Shaffer

By Marcia Silva posted 12 days ago

Amanda Shaffer headshot
Amanda Shaffer is a professional coach and consultant with extensive experience supporting both institutions and individuals to initiate, transform, and grow. She has written multiple diversity-focused guidebooks, toolkits, and videos for national associations and academic institutions. Learn more.

What are the challenges of doing DEI work now?

At this point, if you are paying attention to the DEI legislation tracker on the Chronicle of Higher Education you are pretty familiar with our current challenges.   We’re facing a lot of restrictive and vague legislation, book banning, and quite a few fear-based preemptive changes.

There is also an attitude of what I'm calling “post-COVID rudeness”. This has impacted and changed the ways that we interact with each other and has provided the opportunity for folks to be openly hostile about their beliefs about DEI initiatives, which was not a usual thing ten years ago. Another big, big challenge is the high level of over-all exhaustion and burnout that many people working on DEI are experiencing.

In Iowa, there was recent legislation passed on expressing “divisive concepts” like microaggression or bias, which is just profoundly bizarre to me. These restrictions interfere with teaching and the sharing of ideas, experiences, and best practices but it is ultimately a futile exercise. We cannot put the toothpaste back into the tube. These ideas exist out in the world and given our global information-based lives, there is no real, comprehensive way to erase them or eliminate access no matter what you legislate.

What do you think is really happening? Are we going backwards?

We’re facing some historic challenges – both historic progress and historic setbacks. There is a great timeline on the Library of Congress website where you can see how things have happened throughout history. It tracks 1640 to 2014 and reminds us of how far we have come from racial segregation to the civil rights legislation and all the steps in between. And the reality is that talking about diversity evolved along with these changes in our country. What were once “encounter groups” used to bring people of different races together, sometimes for the first time ever, became a topic of academic study which is how we now know that there is a “business case” for diversifying a workforce and helping your employees become more culturally competent in our increasingly global world. And now we find ourselves in this new place of accelerated restrictions on language, activities, and programs.

We’re in a funny place but we are not going backward exactly. A lot of folks like to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he said: “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

But I think it’s more like two steps forward, one step back, slow and often frustrating, but still forward movement.  I like to think about this as a kind of spiral, where even though we appear to be falling backward right now, we never go back all the way to the beginning. Circling and always moving forward, even if it doesn't feel like it when you are in it.

What else is making it harder to do DEI work?

The other thing that everybody is dealing with is just this absolute fire hose of awfulness that is coming at us all the time through the media. All platforms – TV, websites, podcasts, newspapers, social media – it is relentless doom and gloom, disaster and outrage. If we look at national polls there is evidence that the American people don't like how this is going. They do not want people to be shouting at each other constantly and they don’t want politicians doing all this destructive and dysfunctional posturing. You can see this in the surveys from Pew Research a very well-respected source for this kind of data.

Image Source: Pew Research Center

The other thing that comes out in these national surveys is that Americans think there’s too little attention on the issues important to average citizens. The bottom line is we're all exhausted with all of this constant nonsense and I bet the rest of the world is too.
So are we as a country as divided as it seems? 
This is the curious thing - and I cannot stress this enough - an overwhelming majority of Americans agree on core values. Most Americans poll as moderate with something like 10% to 15% of folks that are extreme on the left or right. Most Americans don’t fall into any extreme corner.
What's really happening with how people think and behave is very different from this national narrative that we're being subjected to about the incredible divide in our country. We still believe in maintaining our rights. 

Image Source: AP News

Do Americans support DEI?

Image Source: Good Authority

Yes, Americans support DEI. Again you see in the polls and research that people support and want these diversity and inclusion initiatives to take place because they know diversity is good for the country. Diversity is important to the country and is central to our origin. Inclusion and our drive for equity and opportunity is also key to how we have historically prospered as a country of immigrants. 

Image Source: Pew Research Center

You can see from some Pew data that the majority of whites, blacks, and Hispanics say racial and ethnic diversity is very good for the country.

Of the Republican and Republican-leaning respondents, 65%, support diversity. And yet the media that drives us toward the clickbait articles would have us believe that zero percent of Americans support diversity as a goal, that they reject all of it, and it's just not true.
Image Source: Pew Research Center

So how do we go forward from this disconnect? What do we do? When the evidence is not making its way through for people to understand what actually is happening in the world – how do we keep advocating and promoting the value of an equitable society? That’s the question on everyone’s mind.

What does diversity mean?  
So let's dig in a little bit. What do we mean by diversity? All of you have been doing this work for some time, so you know the categories that we use in government civil rights reporting and then there are the more expanded categories like neurodiversity and socio-economic diversity. 
We also mean diversity of training and education, especially in higher ed. There was a study that just came out recently that, 80% of faculty are trained at 20% of the institutions in the United States. So, 80% of the people who become professors come from this tiny, insular group of colleges and universities. So the very way that we staff our colleges and universities is designed to maintain the status quo. If we do not actively understand how we can work to diversify the professoriate we clone ourselves over and over. This is not the path to the best and brightest knowledge production or innovation!  That's why programs to increase diversity are so important. Knowingly limiting the potential for hiring the next great mind sounds ridiculous and yet that’s what we do with artificial parameters that exclude more qualified candidates than they include. 
Diversity at its core is just the presence of difference. And this is your official reminder that the U.S. has always, always been multicultural. 
Can you talk more about why diversity in higher education is so important?
The reality is that all the research points to the fact that in 2024 the business case for diversity is the strongest that it has ever been. As I said earlier the academy is a place of innovation and discovery, but it is also a place of entrenched behaviors like the faculty-staff divide. Corporations strive to be inclusive because of the gains from a variety of contributions from people with differing backgrounds, experiences, and styles of thinking. Higher ed can historically be very hierarchical and rigid unless attention is paid to inclusion.
Attention to inclusion across faculty and staff, attention to increasing different kinds of representation when hiring, attention to how we equip people to be effective and culturally aware in their interactions with colleagues, students and the community – this is all in that diversity training bucket. 
There are many ways that striving for this kind of authentic environment really fits in a higher education and not just in the corporate business case. One big reason is that it's easier to attract and retain talent. There’s research coming out of Deloitte and McKinsey and a lot of other folks showing that the younger workers will stay someplace if the company has a diverse workforce.
The final thing to remember is that without understanding diversity our students will not be prepared to be a part of what is becoming an increasingly diverse workforce. How can they function effectively if they only experience a homogeneous institution? Usually, we start with the student outcomes when we talk about diversity, but I prefer to focus on the people who stay, the faculty and staff who are the backbone of our institutions. 
An evergreen concern is how effective we are at delivering on the purpose and mission of higher education. If you believe that mission is knowledge production and innovation, then diversity must be a part of that system. If you believe that mission is producing workers equipped to get good high-paying jobs upon graduation, then diversity training must be a part of that system. Because without variety and difference we are less than we could be. 
How do we help that reality get out into the world? 
Think about how to use your lived experience to invite understanding, build empathy, and motivate people to action. Keep talking, keep advocating, know that you are not alone and never give up hope. And remember, if it looks like you are moving backward, it’s just the downswing of the spiral of progress.

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