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Rethinking diversity, equity and inclusion training

People walk by an office building at the business district of La Defense west of Paris on October 7, 2020. (Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)
People walk by an office building at the business district of La Defense west of Paris on October 7, 2020. (Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)

Lots of organizations require their employees to participate in diversity, equity and inclusion training. But is it effective?

“Many antiracist frameworks approach the work of anti-racism from the top down,” Chloé Valdary says. “And their workshops will perpetuate the notion that people based upon skin color should be put into boxes.”

DEI training is now a $3.4 billion industry. But what’s all that money actually buying?

“A lot of companies will ask, you know, ‘Who else have you worked with or what did you do with so-and-so?’ And that to me, signals that it’s not intrinsic, that it’s kind of like this exercise in conformity,” diversity consultant Robert Livingston says.

So, what kind of DEI training actually works – and how do we know that?

Today, On Point: Rethinking diversity, equity and inclusion training.


Frank Dobbin, chair of the department of sociology at Harvard University. Co-author of the book “Getting to Diversity: What Works and What Doesn’t.” (@DobbinFrank)

Robert Livingston, diversity consultant to scores of Fortune 500 companies and other organizations. Lecturer in public policy, Harvard Kennedy School.

Chloé Valdary, CEO, Theory of Enchantment, an organization that offers anti-racism training. (@cvaldary)

Transcript: A new way to think about diversity and inclusion at work

ANTHONY BROOKS: Let me introduce another voice into this conversation. Chloé Valdary. She’s the CEO of The Theory of Enchantment, a diversity and inclusion program that focuses its training on love, among other things. And Chloe, welcome to On Point. It’s great to have you.

CHLOÉ VALDARY: Thank you so much. Glad to be here.

BROOKS: Yeah, it’s really good to have you. So your website lists clients. They include TikTok. WeWork. The Federal Aviation Administration, and Greenwich High School. And I was reading a really interesting article about your program, and it points out that your website asks potential customers a loaded question, looking for an anti-racism program that actually fights bigotry instead of spreading it.

BROOKS: So let’s start there. I’d love to you to just sort of explain that provocative statement there.

VALDARY: Yeah, I think that a lot of our partners were feeling very much under attack by bringing in or when bringing in programs that perhaps centered, for example, a Robin DiAngelo style approach to DEI. An approach that where the facilitator would tell folks, depending upon their background, depending upon their skin color, things like, you are privileged. Or things like, you are underprivileged. Either explicitly or implicitly. And oftentimes in facilitation, that would actually result in a sense of fracturing between groups of different ethnic backgrounds.

And it would also result in, instead of this coming together of people from different backgrounds, which I totally agree with, it would result in a kind of self-segregation. People would feel like they couldn’t empathize with other people, and they would also assume different things about the lived experiences of others. And so many of our partners and clients were coming to us feeling like these are the only types of DEI programs that are in the market today. We are looking for something else, something as an alternative.

And at that point, I had already developed a curriculum that taught and focused on what Dr. King called the beloved community, which really centers agape love, unconditional love, which Dr. King said was the aim of the civil rights movement. Which center that as the sort of organizing principle around which to fight for equity, equality.

BROOKS: We actually have tape from Dr. King talking about this idea of agape. So let’s listen. This is Dr. King’s Love Your Enemy sermon from 1957 in Montgomery, Alabama, where he talked about the idea.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. [Tape]: It is a love that takes nothing in return. It is an overflowing love. It’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men not because they are likable, but because God loves them.

BROOKS: I’m reading about the principles that guide your course work. One, treat people like human beings, not political abstractions. Criticize to uplift and empower, never to tear down, never to destroy. And three, root everything you do in love and compassion. So what does that end up looking like as a DEI training program?

VALDARY: So it looks like really trying to give organizations an ecology of practices. We you know, I heard you guys talking about training earlier and how training is often, you know, a 15-minute sort of implicit bias test. But Theory of Enchantment is actually about giving folks long term practices, that they can then use those practices to build their systems within their company around.

And with this, we’re actually talking about multi-year partnerships. This kind of way of being that centered around agape love does not happen overnight. And it can’t happen overnight because, you know, we are all susceptible to bias. We are all susceptible to self-deception. And the only way we can actually help to counter that or even strive to counter that is by practicing. And so I’ll give you an example.

Treat people like human beings, not political abstractions. Well, we ask the question, what does it mean to be a human being? One of the practices that we give people is called the Who am I? practice where they actually ask themselves, Who am I? And for everything that comes to them, whether positive or negative, they are asked to say thank you. They’re asked to express gratitude for the complexity of their being. Why is that important? Because when we stereotype others, we are simultaneously stereotyping ourselves.

So if I am walking around thinking that a group of people are, for example, lazy, right? I stereotype another ethnic group as lazy, I am denying the fact that in certain contexts I am lazy and if I don’t make peace or come to come into right relationship with that aspect of my identity, if I am suppressing that or ashamed of that, I am far more likely to unconsciously project it onto other people who do not look like me.

So we give people that Who am I? practice. We introduce people to the Who am I? practice and we also encourage them to practice it on a regular basis. So once a week, for example, this is just one example of many practices that we give, especially in our in our online curriculum. That again, is all about this awareness that we are all susceptible to bias, we are all prone to self-deception. And the only way to sort of work through that and it is a lifetime practice. The only way to work through that is not by, you know, memorizing a set of propositions, but by actually committing to a discipline.

BROOKS: One of the pop culture references that you use in your Theory of Enchantment training is from an interview the rapper Jay-Z did with The New York Times in 2017, where he talked about his experience going to therapy. So I want to play a clip from that.

JAY-Z [Tape]: Every emotion is connected, and it comes from somewhere. You know, you realize that, you know, someone’s racist toward you, not even about you. It ain’t about you. It’s about their upbringing and what happened to them and how that led them to this point.

There was a lot of fights in our neighborhood that started with, Who are you looking at? Are you looking at me? You look at me and then you realize, Oh, you think I see you? You’re in a space where you’re hurting, and you think I see you. So you don’t want me to look at you. Knowing that and understanding that changes life completely.

BROOKS: So sort of expand on that a little bit about the profundity of what Jay-Z is talking about there.

VALDARY: So, I mean, this goes to something that we try to teach people about supremacy. People think that supremacy is this kind of mysterious thing whereby a person really actually thinks that they’re better than another human being. But if you were to look into the psychology of supremacy and supremacist tendencies, someone acting out of a supremacist tendency, nine times out of ten actually feels an incredible, incredibly strong inferiority complex, and which is to say, a deep sense of a lack of self-worth and is overcompensating by projecting this kind of, I’m better than you, I’m bigger than you, I’m holier than you, etc.

This is what’s known, I think in psychology, as splitting. And splitting is this mechanism by which we as human beings will see the world in black and white. Figuratively and literally speaking, we will say, Oh, all those people, you know, if we were experiencing scarcity, let’s say some sort of material scarcity and or psychological scarcity and we don’t have the tools to deal with that, we will drop into splitting and we will say all the people over there who look like me are good, and all the people over here who don’t look like me are bad.

It’s … a defensive mechanism used to bring about security into one’s space. And that’s basically what Jay-Z is getting at in explaining that. And so if you can first of all, become aware of that, become aware of the fact of how you function as a human being, be aware of how the human condition is playing itself out in all aspects of your life, including the workplace. And if you can practice seeing through different lenses, then you can actually regulate that, calibrate collaborative tendency.

And we all have the tendency. Every one of us has the tendency because that’s part of what it means to be human. But if we can become aware of that and practice different techniques to come out of that lens, we will be better off in the long run.

BROOKS: I want to get Robert Livingston back in this conversation. Robert. If you could sort of respond to what you’re hearing.

ROBERT LIVINGSTON: So I like the idea and it’s not an entirely new idea. I mean, as she mentioned, you know, with Dr. King, there’s a lot of research on humanism. Carl Rogers, in psychology, there’s a long tradition of that from the 1950s. But in my work and in my book, I talk about how a lot of what we see and a lot of the roots of, you know, aggression is insecurity. And that if you affirm people, that they actually become less prejudiced. And there’s a lot of research on this. So if you make people feel better about themselves, they’re less prejudiced. If you tell someone they failed a test, they become more racially prejudiced.

So there’s a long history of sort of research on this. But I think I want to respond in two ways. One is I think this word love or even agape gets tossed around. And there’s a wonderful book by bell hooks called All About Love. And in the whole book, she spends, you know, 150 pages explaining what love is. And, you know, the central thesis is that most people don’t really understand what love is even in their own lives. And one of the critical components to love is respect. And I think that’s where a lot of this approach falls short for me, because we’re not just talking about recognizing our common humanity and loving one another.

I think there is a critical element of respect here that is necessary. And I think even Dr. King said, you know, love without respect or love without power is anemic. So you don’t want to turn yourself into a doormat in the service of love. And I think a lot of people interpret love as meaning that I’m going to love you regardless of what you do.

And it’s kind of this unconditional acceptance of behavior, some of which may even be unacceptable behaviors. But I think my other issue is … in my 25 years of experience in doing this, I have a hard time understanding how this can actually move the needle in organizations. Because as I mentioned before, there are three types of people, dolphins, ostriches and sharks. And I can see this bill being wonderful for dolphins and not so for the ostriches.

BROOKS: The question I would add, and this comes from what Robert was talking about earlier. You know, we’ve got to deal with hard truths. And sometimes dealing with hard truths is going to make people uncomfortable. Is there a place for hard truths that might make people uncomfortable and be necessary to move the needle here?

VALDARY: Yes, I think it is a kind of common theme to assume that love means not being honest with people or not being truthful or direct with people when they mess up. But the second principle to the Theory of Enchantment is criticize to uplift and empower, never to tear down or destroy. So that act of being critical when criticism is required is actually built into the framework. But there’s also this piece about respect that I agree with. But I think what they’re … trying to get to the heart of is that often people are not respectful of others, in part because they lack their own sense of self-respect.

Also, the Theory of Enchantment is obviously a much more, you know, bottom-up approach. And I do think that in order to accomplish some of the things that were talked about earlier, you need both a top down and a bottom-up approach. So, you know, I’m a huge fan of ideas like mentorship programs. I mean, in many ways my career is the product of mentorship programs.

So I do believe that structurally things should take on that shape and form. But I want to bring up a critique that Derrick Bell, the father of Critical race theory, actually brought up. When it comes to top-down approaches that actually, because the ecosystem is not fervent, won’t actually work. Derek Bell actually critiqued that in his book Silent Covenant, and that’s worth thinking about.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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