American Civic Life

Diversity Work Isn’t Working. It’s Time to Consider a New Approach.

(Stephen Schildbach/Getty Images)

(Stephen Schildbach/Getty Images)

(Chronicle of Philanthropy) — In the closing weeks of 2023, at least 20 influential people in philanthropy — roughly half foundation presidents, and half individual donors — told me that rethinking their diversity giving would be a central focus for the first part of this year. Most of them had invested heavily in diversity work during the past three years, and none were happy with the results so far.

Virtually every philanthropy leader I spoke to raised concerns about either the rise in antisemitism or the rise in Islamophobia, and in some cases both, driven by the Israel-Hamas war. These concerns are well founded. Jews now have the dubious distinction of being the most common targets of hate crimes, and anti-Muslim hate crimes have spiked dramatically, up 300 percent in my home city of Chicago.

The philanthropy leaders — two-thirds of whom were either Jewish or Muslim — told me they see a double standard when it comes to free speech, with their particular group bearing both the brunt of insult and the lion’s share of accusations. Jews feel subject to antisemitism and are also accused of being oppressors. Muslims feel they are called terrorist sympathizers for even the most reasonable criticism of the Israeli government’s conduct in the war.

They all expressed alarm that even with all the attention to diversity issues during the past 10 years, some groups were facing growing levels of open discrimination. Is there something wrong with DEI or anti-racism approaches that could be exacerbating the problem?

With a likely election showdown this year between President Biden and Donald Trump, people are rightfully concerned about the polarization in American life. They want an approach to diversity work that doesn’t further divide people.

My guess is that the 20 people I happened to speak with represent a much larger group and that rethinking diversity giving will be a major theme in philanthropy during the coming months.

I think this is a positive development, and should encourage more foundations and individual donors to take a hard look at what’s working — and what isn’t. Here’s what I recommend.

Avoid Debating DEI

First things first: Don’t waste time on the binary, for-or-against DEI conversation. It almost always generates heat, not light. People tend to cherry-pick facts and stories to fit their preferred narrative and engage in ways that suffocate open conversation rather than elevate civil discourse. The dogma on all sides is loud, and it devours diversity.

Instead, ask yourself a set of fundamental, philosophical questions: What is the purpose of your diversity giving? What do you feel a successful diversity program looks like? How would you like to see the larger culture change with respect to issues related to diversity? What role do you hope your giving might play in the creation of successful diversity programs and broader culture change?

My own view is that diversity efforts should focus on cooperation across difference for the purpose of improving our common life together. Improving our common life can take many forms, such as creating art, increasing literacy, and reducing economic disparities.

Diversity should inspire, not divide. We should not return to the old melting pot metaphor, where everyone must give up their distinctive identity. Nor should we continue with the battlefield approach that has defined diversity work since, roughly, the emergence of Donald Trump on the national political stage.

How do we know we’re in a battlefield mode? Just think of the words that characterize the current approach to diversity work: resist, dismantle, decolonize, critique. It’s all about us vs. them.

Instead, the metaphor that should guide diversity giving is a potluck supper.

A good potluck includes a diverse array of people who bring their distinctive contributions to a common table, inspired by their unique identities. The goal is to create a space where a diversity of dishes mixes together to form a unique whole — and where a diversity of people engages one another in constructive conversation.

We need to recognize that barriers such as racism, sexism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and homophobia make it harder for some people to bring their contributions to the table. While we work to eliminate those barriers, we need to remember that they don’t define people. Identities are principally a source of pride, not a victim status. Islamophobia, for example, is real and ugly, but being a Muslim is not mostly about being a victim of Islamophobia — it is mostly about being inspired by Islam.

The cooperation-across-difference approach to diversity work isn’t new. It was essentially the idea behind Barack Obama’s most celebrated speeches. But for philanthropy leaders reflecting on their diversity priorities, Obama’s message is worth revisiting.

The cornerstone of his narrative was that everybody belongs. In his address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama spoke of children on the south side of Chicago who couldn’t read, senior citizens forced to choose between rent and medicine, Arab-American families worried about being rounded up by government officials on suspicion of terrorism. The message: Being American means that all these people matter — that their problems are everyone’s problems, and that their hopes and potential inspire all of us, indeed define who we are.

Obama often emphasized that diversity is America’s greatest asset. But he also cautioned against wielding identity as a bunker of isolation, a barrier of division, or a bludgeon of domination. He was concerned about purity tests, about people canceling one another based on disagreements, and about the general retreat from open and respectful discourse. In his farewell address he noted that democracy requires a “basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”

What does all this mean in practical terms? As we begin an election year in which the nation’s democratic ideals are in the crosshairs, we need to repeatedly remind ourselves of the promise of this diverse nation. And we need to ensure that diversity work reflects — rather than works against — that promise.