The State of DEI on MLK Day: Our Actions Speak Louder Than Words

If anyone understood the power of language, it was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

More than half a century after the civil rights leader’s assassination, his voice rings clear in our collective consciousness.

  • “The time is always right to do what is right.”
  • “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
  • “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

The clarity and hope of these words contrast with a struggle over language we face today. At a time when some companies are growing hesitant to use the terms “diversity, equity and inclusion,” what name do we give to our efforts to bring Dr. King’s dream closer to reality?

On the holiday commemorating what would have been King’s 95th birthday, it’s worth remembering that this enduring struggle requires not just words but, more importantly, actions.

Whatever language we use to describe it, the work to create an inclusive and welcoming culture remains critical for the employers and members of TalentFirst.

A Steady Course Amid Shifting Attitudes

At the same time, it’s clear that corporate America’s DEI efforts have entered a challenging phase.

Hiring of chief diversity officers, the fastest-growing C-suite title in 2020 and 2021, suddenly declined 4.5% in 2022, according to LinkedIn. The U.S. Supreme Court 2023 decision striking down the role of affirmative action in higher education raised a host of new questions and implications for employers of all types, challenges that TalentFirst examined in a virtual session in September.

Meanwhile, Axios reports that “Companies are backing away from the term ‘DEI’” as they try to avoid being drawn into political battles.

Despite the noise, it’s worth noting that DEI has been a priority for TalentFirst for the better part of a decade — and the motivation has always been practical, not political. While the work itself is complex, the reasoning is simple:

  1. Our employers need diverse talent.
  2. We will never reach our goal to be a leading, prosperous region if we leave any part of the population behind.

Without even considering the moral case for DEI, there is abundant research by McKinsey & Company and others documenting the business case, including better financial performance, stronger culture, improved retention and more.

These are among the reasons our region’s CEOs have agreed to become champions of this cause by signing our Diversity & Inclusion commitment, joining our Inclusive Leadership Development Events and more.

These efforts continue in earnest in coming weeks:

February 7: TalentFirst’s HR Council welcomes our first guest speaker of the year, renowned human resources leader Ovell Barbee, SPHR, author of “The Big House: A Human-Centered & Progressive Approach to DEI and Positive Workforce Engagement.” Barbee will explore the effective integration of DEI priorities in collaboration with HR.

This event is exclusive to members of our HR Council. Find out how to join this community of practice for top-level HR and DEI leaders.

March 12: Save 9-11 a.m. on this date for our Inclusive Leadership Development Event, featuring a keynote address by DEI thought leader Dr. Sandra Upton. This event is open to all audiences, and the first 50 to register will receive a copy of Dr. Upton’s new book, “MAKE IT LAST: A Roadmap and Practical Strategies for How to do DEI.”

Registration will open soon for this important opportunity. Watch for announcements on our blog and LinkedIn.

‘Keep Moving Forward’

Whatever we choose to call these efforts, it’s more important than ever to demonstrate a commitment to the work.

In a Forbes article this year titled “Now Is Not the Time To Give Up On DEI,” David Michels, a Bain Japan Managing Partner, argues: “Times of transition and change like the current economic cycle are exactly the wrong moment to scale back on diversity commitments. If anything, companies should be reinforcing these efforts.”

This is something else that Dr. King understood all too well — that any kind of progress would require an enduring commitment in the face of all kinds of headwinds.

Here again, his words ring true:

“If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Keep moving forward: sound advice for all of us.


Subscribe to our blog feed

Related Reading

Mom in graduation cap and gown, with smiling daughter.

A new study shows that most American adults recognize the value of a postsecondary credential for career and financial success. At the same time, employers...

Toy cars in foreground of children playing on floor of classroom.

A lot of hard work was finally showing progress toward expanding access to high-quality preschool education and addressing the state’s child care crisis. New legislation...

Stressed woman at work putting her hands to her head.

Even as the initial shock of COVID-19 has diminished, employers and their teams continue to face challenges, stress and disruptions in their lives and the...