The Journey to Belonging: The Next Step Beyond Your DE&I Initiatives

For the past couple of years, "Belonging" has emerged as one of the new buzzwords in corporate strategies to develop more equitable and inclusive workplaces.  Many employees are asking the question, "Is Belonging just another feel-good word to circumvent the real work required to achieve equity and inclusion?" It's a good question, and although I am a strong promoter of Belonging, it's only recently that I fully grasped its impact. 

The THEO Executive Group, where I'm a Senior Advisor, has held many virtual meetings during the pandemic, including our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force meetings.  During one of those meetings, I experienced an epiphany that touched my core. It happened as I watched the computer screen appear with boxes showing the members of our Task Force. 

There I was, a 73-year-old Black female retired HR executive and attorney, grouped among a Gen X white female attorney, a Baby Boomer white male physician, a Gen X Black male professional, a Gen Y white male professional, and a Baby Boomer white male retired HR executive and academician.  In the four decades of corporate life in which I made a miraculous ascent from the lowest level clerk to a senior executive, I'd always felt a void. But staring at those boxes, I realized that the void was gone.  I felt this incredible sense of Belonging and value.  I knew that I was valued not only for the expertise that I brought to the table or that I met a goal for diverse executives but as a fellow human being and a highly respected member of my work community.

My journey took almost half a century to get to Belonging –which I consider the best possible status for organizations to achieve. As a Black woman who has weathered every iteration of programs from Affirmative Action to Diversity, and present-day Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I), I have experienced a road filled with detours, barricades, dead ends, cautions, and many U-turns.  I can now attest to the importance of Belonging.

This is not to minimize the many efforts that have been made in the past. Affirmative Action had a tremendous impact in opening once closed doors of opportunity. Diversity, a replacement many years after Affirmative Action, felt like a welcome change because companies moved beyond a legal imperative and worked toward more diverse cultures because it was the "Right Thing to Do." From there, we moved to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, with a much-needed focus on the compensation, professional development, and career progression of diverse employees.

But with the good work performed, there were pitfalls. Affirmative Action created a wave of hostility and anger among the dominant population. Diversity was championed for a while, but cultural changes were scarce. And DE&I seems hopeful, although as a professional who has seen it all, one wonders what will happen when the news coverage ceases, the public support for social justice wanes as it has in the past, and business leaders stop prioritizing their DE&I initiatives.

This is why I advocate for Belonging. I believe that Belonging is the next step after an organization makes diversity, equity, and inclusion foundational to its values. It happens when boards, leadership, and employees commit to a transformation of culture, talent retention and development, strategy, and organizational design. This is not a quick process, but one that requires significant introspection along with the will to truly change.

This comprehensive approach requires an in-depth review of all organizational layers to identify areas where any part of the employee population is either advantaged or disadvantaged in a way that negatively impacts the organizational climate.   Much of the resistance and antagonism toward Affirmative Action and Diversity was the fact that segments of the employee population felt excluded, stigmatized, demonized, or victimized. These sentiments cannot occur where there is Belonging, even at the most subconscious levels.

Belonging is the ultimate outcome. For decades, companies have worked around the periphery of creating organizations that embody diversity, equity and inclusion and then scratched their heads with frustration when they didn't achieve significant and sustainable change. Imagine the kind of change so embedded in an organization's culture that one day there wouldn't be a need for diversity professionals to promote and track equity and inclusion, and employees wouldn't feel the need to join Employee Resource Groups to gain a sense of community.  I believe that all things are possible for organizations willing to live and abide by their values, even if it means transforming their culture to achieve this level of change.


Daisy Jenkins, Esq. specializes in human resources, diversity training, and executive leadership navigation, development, and acceleration. In addition to being a published author and longtime industry resource, Daisy is a senior advisor with THEO Executive Group, a trusted advisor to many of America’s chief executives and leading organizations. Working in partnership with their clients, THEO develops extraordinary human beings and lifts leaders to build truly great workforce communities. The THEO Group is noted nationwide for being change agents with proprietary methodologies that deliver, inspire, and transform.

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