So, you want to hire a DEI officer? Here’s what to know first

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By Erica Buchanan-Rivera

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black lives, coupled with health disparities of a global pandemic, has compelled many individuals of all backgrounds to start a journey of understanding antiracist work and how to actively dismantle racism. As one piece of this, many leaders are thinking about developing positions devoted to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work to streamline identity-safety and antiracist efforts.

As an educator in a DEI position, I am aware of the belief that equity officers, particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), are the resolution to racial inequities. I understand the optics of employing a person who is devoted to systems work and the façade that a DEI officer possesses the sole authority to transform institutions. However, I also understand the trials and hardships that are tied to these roles in impenetrable systems of whiteness or spaces where antiracism or equity learning is new. I want to offer some considerations for leaders to think about if your school or district (or non-education organization) insists on hiring a DEI officer.

Understand Your Why

District leaders need to understand the purpose of a DEI role and assess the why behind the hiring decision. A DEI officer is in charge of examining the conditions of learning and actively works to remove barriers that hinder student success and well-being. Though each district may look a little different, the person usually has knowledge and expertise in promoting equity and inclusion.

Reflect on what diversity means to the school or district. How do educational leaders define equity? When you think about antiracist work, are you only thinking about racist incidents that may have made their way to social media or are you thinking about racism in its most subtle forms and the proactive work that is required to eradicate it? Are you also thinking about the intersections of identity (e.g. gender, class, religion, etc.)?

This journey of racial equity requires much self-labor and introspection that no one can do for a person. If your ideal image of equity work is managing inequities through diversity celebrations and not dismantling disparities, you may need to reevaluate your commitment to antiracism. This work is not a social event. Hosting an international festival on a Saturday evening is not going to eliminate racism when students return to school on Monday morning.

DEI efforts are not accomplished by checking boxes; these efforts are challenging, long-term, generational work. Know what you are signing up for and the associated risks that may emerge for a person who is intentionally disrupting the status quo.

Collective Work, Not the Work of One

Educational leaders who are contemplating the addition of DEI positions need to debunk the myth that one person can resolve the inequities that were historically shaped and securely embedded in every system by design. Many DEI positions, from my experience and network, are held by BIPOC who are placed in environments with a strong presence of whiteness. One person cannot swim upstream against the current of institutionalized racism with limited support. Equity efforts shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of one person who does not possess the power to change policies and hold everyone from bus drivers to school boards members accountable.

Instead, every person who interacts with children in a school system plays an integral role in dismantling racism. To think anything different and lack ownership, personal growth, or responsibility perpetuates the problem.

Racism is also not the only issue that many officers tackle. DEI officers devise inclusive practices for LGBTQIA students, develop community partnerships to support students, work with families and student clubs, and organize professional-development experiences.

Speaking Truth to Power

Many DEI officers are going to come with a critical consciousness to unveil issues that people do not or willfully choose not to acknowledge. They are often expected to hold the conversations most people tend to avoid. DEI officers need to know that their truth and assessments of systems or narratives from stakeholder groups will be heard and validated. It is difficult to hear that your own house is filthy, but we cannot begin to clean what is soiled if we do not accept that a mess exists.

Author Nadia Owusu describes narratives from DEI officers, particularly women of color, and the challenges that emerge from pointing out inequities. District administrators must expect and encourage a DEI officer to be courageous, but leaders must also have the courage to listen, accept proposed changes, and work to support recommendations (e.g. dress code policies or hiring practices).

Listen, Validate, and Act

Many DEI officers know they will face opposition, resistance, and teachable moments when well-intentioned people make mistakes, especially as officers call out inequities.  Supportive leaders, including directors and superintendents, must be open to feedback and acknowledge when harm has been done. They should not tone-police, show discontent about how one packages the message, or resort to gaslighting (psychologically manipulating someone into questioning their reality).

If leaders find themselves unsettled by the call-out process and not the inequities themselves, they should work on their fragility. DEI officers want their evaluations to be respected and prioritized with the intent to change outcomes and should not feel punished for naming malpractices. No one wants to sound like a broken record to a leadership team who is not ready to receive the information or intentionally prioritizes other areas of focus over equity.

Support and Accountability

It is critical to think about systems of support and capacity-building in this work. What structures does your DEI officer need in order to develop more leadership and growth among staff? Will school buildings have equity teams and other mechanisms to devote time for critical conversations? How will a DEI lens be applied to all decisions that are made at a district and building level? Who will hold people accountable for the implementation of culturally responsive practices, ABAR (anti-bias and anti-racist) work, and identity-affirming environments? In my district, leaders offered a stipend to teachers who wanted to serve as equity coaches in each school building. I train the coaches in ABAR work and assist them with school improvement goals.

In my experience, many DEI officers have the autonomy to create professional learning but can’t hold people accountable for the transfer of knowledge into practice. It does not matter how many workshops your district creates or who attends; what matters is how individuals use that learning. If evaluation systems do not reflect antiracist work, clear expectations, or individualized growth plans to deepen understandings of sociopolitical contexts, the work is performative. Everyone must be “all in” and held accountable in ways that place systems work at the forefront of every decision.

Being a DEI officer is emotionally taxing. BIPOC in these positions may have racial battle fatigue or find themselves in situations where their humanity is attacked. This work comes with continual risks, and if DEI officers are not causing discomfort, they are probably not doing the job right. As a DEI officer in a predominantly white community, I have received racist notifications and many unsolicited opinions from people who cannot fathom a lived experience other than their own. I talk to DEI officers who are barely asked by supervisors, How are you doing, and how can I help? It is important for leaders to provide specific supports for mental health, affinity spaces for restoration, and compensation that demonstrates officers’ value. 

DEI officers also need to know that they are not alone in this work. Everyone must learn how to speak out and challenge decisions that perpetuate inequities or center whiteness. Everyone must critically examine how they show up. We all have the responsibility to create equitable outcomes for students.


About the author

Erica Buchanan-Rivera (@ericabrivera) is an educator and fierce advocate for identity-affirming spaces where students can be their authentic selves. She has served as a teacher, principal, director of curriculum, and DEI officer of a K-12 district. Additionally, she consults with schools nationally to talk about antiracism work and was an ASCD Best of Express 2019 recipient for her writing on the importance of race conscious educators.

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