by Milo Primeaux, Esq. (he/they)
CEO, Just Roots Consulting, LLC
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives have been trending for almost a decade, but now, a year after major civil uprisings and Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, many US organizations are still unsure of what it means to create a truly equitable workplace. They turn to the innumerable DEI consultants who have flooded the market, most of whom are not at all prepared to explain what an equitable workplace is, let alone how to make one. It’s hard to know how to cut through all the mediocrity and find someone who is worth their salt.
Here are three indispensable tips to help you find the DEI consultant that is right for you.
1. Figure Out What You Really Want to Achieve (Not Just What Sounds Good)
Let’s be honest – most organizations with DEI initiatives are only interested in achieving diversity (i.e., a variety of identities among staff) and maybe inclusivity (i.e., making everyone feel welcome, included, and valued). Very few organizations actually want equity (i.e., fairness, justice) because that requires a permanent cultural shift and redistribution of resources and power in ways that most organizational leaders would never allow to happen.
One thing is certain – you will not make any gains at all if you are not able to say clearly and honestly what it is you want to achieve.
If you are merely interested in “checking the diversity box”, you can go to almost any DEI consultant and get some basic training or model policies that will do the trick. This consultant will likely focus most of their attention on diversifying your hiring pools and blaming bias in hiring as the primary culprit of your woes. They will echo your own sentiment that there are not enough “qualified people of color” to hire – a very problematic framing that implies most people of color are not qualified for job openings and that overlooks the vast overrepresentation of underqualified or mediocre white people who consistently get hired due in part to their sheer numbers in the hiring pool. This consultant will have absolutely zero long-term impact on your organization – their training will be quickly forgotten and any gains in diversifying your staff will be quickly eroded when your talented new hires of color do not stay because a non-inclusive or even hostile workplace persists unscathed.
If you are aiming for inclusion, you will need someone who understands how US workplaces systematically normalize and reward whiteness and white people, values, and fears in a way that is actively exclusionary to Black, indigenous, people of color, women and femme people, LGBTQI+ people, disabled people, uncredentialed people, immigrants, non-native English speakers, and so on. This consultant will cover things like intersectionality, microaggressions, and interrupting bias with a focus on skills development and confidence building so participants are more likely to put what they learn to use. They may also offer suggestions for improving your personnel policies and practices to be more inclusive of the needs and experiences of historically marginalized people. This consultant will have some impact on the workplace culture, but without a significant shift in power and devotion of resources, you will not achieve true equity in your workplace.
If you are interested in achieving equity, you will need someone who is prepared to name white supremacy, explain the historical legacy of white dominant cultural norms that are alive and well in every aspect of American society, and challenge your entire organization to engage in deep, consistent critical self-reflection. This consultant will center everything they do on an analysis of power – who has it, who doesn’t, why this dynamic exists, and how to change it. They will offer a wide variety of consulting services, such as:
An intersectional equity assessment of how your organization is doing today
Recommendations based on quantitative and qualitative data
Educating your entire staff on core competencies of inclusion and equity
Intensives for managers on applying equitable principles to their work as leaders
Facilitating race caucuses to foster growth and depth among white staff and staff of color (respectively) in separate and equally important spaces
Capacity-building for your internal DEI leaders, and more.
They will emphasize the need for transparency and accountability to achieve a permanent shift toward an equitable organizational culture. They will make you deeply uncomfortable, and they will artfully support you throughout the sometimes-painful process of leaning into your growth edges. This is a diamond in the rough, and well worth the search!
2. Find a Role Model Who Practices What They Preach
As black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In other words, you can’t eradicate oppression from your workplace using the same methods, policies, norms, and expectations that put oppressive dynamics there in the first place. You need a DEI consultant who can engage your staff and leaders in challenging concepts and conversations, earn their trust and respect, and think outside the box to help them envision a radically new, equitable workplace. You want someone who embodies anti-racist principles in what they say and what they do.
When interviewing potential consultants, ask them:
What role do they believe white supremacy plays in workplace inequity? How do they plan to guide your organization in understanding and then dismantling white dominant cultural norms, values, and fears to make space for something new?
What does “de-centering whiteness” mean to them? How will they de-center whiteness throughout your time together? How will they guide your organization to center the identities and experiences of Black, indigenous, and other people of color in all that you do?
How will they disrupt bias as it occurs in real-time (for example, if someone says something offensive during a virtual training session)? How will they prioritize equity and inclusion over the comfort of those who are causing harm (even if it’s unintentional harm)? How will they hold white organizational leaders accountable?
What’s an example of a time they took responsibility for their own racist or offensive comments or behavior? How did they seek to repair the relationships that they harmed? How will they support your staff to do the same?
3. Intersectional Consultancy is Key
Effective DEI work must be intersectional – that is, it must consider the ways in which all our various identities work together to directly inform and impact our experience in this world, and how the world treats us based on white supremacist norms, values, and fears. This means that even if your DEI work focuses explicitly on race equity, your DEI consultant must be able to talk about how other forms of oppression like sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism work together to exponentially impact people of color on top of racism.
For example, although a white cisgender (non-transgender) woman might experience sexism based on her gender, she will not experience racism because she is white or bias because she is not transgender. By contrast, a Black transgender woman is likely to experience anti-Black racism, racialized sexism (negative stigmas and stereotypes attributed to women of color and Black women in particular), transmisogyny (prejudice against transgender women as “not real women”), as well as painfully misfired homophobia and ableism. Indeed, Black transgender women are one of the most multiply-marginalized identity groups.
If any of your DEI efforts do not center Black transgender women's experiences and result in a workplace where they can thrive, then you will have failed in your purpose.
Your prospective DEI consultant should be prepared to answer how they plan to center the voices and lived experienced of the most historically marginalized people if they themselves do not embody those experiences. For example, if the consultant is not Black and does not intend to have a Black co-creator, how can they offer you quality anti-racism consulting? If your consultant is not transgender and does not plan to have a transgender co-facilitator, how can they claim to offer transgender equity training?
If your consultant does not practice what they preach, then what does that say about you for hiring them? How you spend your money matters and speaks volumes about your true values and intentions.
All three of our tips amount to one piece of advice: ask good questions, of yourself and your intentions, of your organization and its true goals, and of your potential consultants, their values, their priorities, and their demonstrated commitment to helping clients like you achieve real, lasting equity. If you do that, we're confident you will find the right consultant for you and make progress toward achieving your goals.
Want to learn more about what achieving workplace equity can look like for you?