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Why cultural reimagination must precede DEI initiatives

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There are myriad ideas circulating in the current diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) conversation. And for good reason – much needs to be said. And yet, there is much less noise just one layer below – in the realm of culture.

Within American capitalism, we are heralded for outcomes and answers but, we have an estranged relationship with questions. Typically, it is not the answers that we produce that grow us; it is the questions. The process of cultural reimagination teaches us to contend with questions, and those questions lead us to be more inclusive and open-minded in our approach to pursuing racial equity.

Why must organizational cultural reimagination precede DEI initiatives?

Cultural reimagination necessitates a willingness to unlearn

What is needed for the work of cultural reimagination extends beyond what we know as critical thinking into the realm of critical unlearning. Unlearning requires that we interrogate our current environment and ask, for example:

  • what factors, individuals, and ideologies inform our current culture?
  • what are the ways in which our policies, practices, etc. uphold the status quo?
  • what is spoken and unspoken within our culture?

Cultural vestiges (e.g., leaders of an organization displaying reluctance to extend true power beyond the C-suite) will always linger because there will always be individuals dedicated to delivering rescue breaths. So then, our responsibility is to limit the potential for their spread by ensuring that they have increasingly fewer host options. Unlearning allows for the installation of sustainable countercultures, so that ideologies of domination must forever contend with cultures that are founded in racial equity and informed by critical unlearning.

Cultural reimagination requires bedrock-level alteration

To engage in effective cultural reimagination, we must first reject the idea that simply placing new ideas on top of old ones will cause us to move and lead differently. We have traditionally begun racial equity work on planes informed by the very cultures that we intend to upend. For example, when we elevate a “business case” for DEI investment, we seek to install a culture of equity as informed by a capitalist construction of success, which is inherently inequitable.

The process of cultural reimagination seeks to reconnect individuals and teams to often latent qualities – empathy, vulnerability, and idealism. It also compels the development of an intrinsic motivation to pursue racial equity. If folks’ commitment to racial equity is tied only to an extrinsic motivator, they may not uphold and perpetuate cultures of liberation long-term. The work of cultural reimagination ensures that no one moves forward without being abundantly clear as to why racial equity matters for others, but also for themselves. We cannot hope to transform organizational culture until we, as individuals, have been transformed.

Cultural reimagination builds endurance

Cultures of oppressive and supremacist ideologies are not undone in one week; one month; one year; one lifetime. Modern practices of inequity and exclusion are centuries-entrenched; any belief that there is an express solution reflects an unsophisticated understanding of the challenge. 

The process of cultural reimagination involves full renegotiation of who we have been, who we are now, and who we aspire to be. An effective cultural reimagination journey compels folks to consistently ask (regarding organizations):

  • what will I temporarily accept within our culture?
  • what will need to be urgently dismantled within our culture?

Achieving racial equity may not be the conundrum that we believe it to be. We may simply need to downshift to the cultural reimagination gear.

To learn more, please enjoy a recording of Rachel Wyley’s webinar, Establish an Organizational Culture That Supports Your DEI Initiatives. This webinar recording is free and open to the public.


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