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Holding Onto the Dream, 60 Years After the March on Washington

This week marked the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, the moment that brought more than 250,000 people together in one of the most powerful demonstrations for justice in U.S. history. The late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” became an iconic message that is still reflected on to this day.

But what has actually changed in the decades since the historic march?

Dr. King was assassinated just five years after the March on Washington. The wealth gap is continuing to grow. The country is more segregated than it was a generation ago. And not to mention the dismantling of laws like affirmative action and continuous attacks on Black history, and anti-racist efforts. Compounded, all of these things place the field of DEI at a breaking point: how do we move forward and realize the true dream that Dr. King had, in spite of the challenges piling up against that progress?

We can find clues as to what Dr. King would think of the state of the world today in the “I Have a Dream” speech. I find it hard to imagine how pleased he would be with the field of DEI specifically, considering how it’s now been co-opted and sanitized to be more palatable for White people, and less threatening to the power they still ultimately hold within organizations and companies.

Dr. King spoke to the theme of urgency in the speech, stating “We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” He also spoke to this theme in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” where he describes “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”Long-delayed justice and gradualism are common symptoms in the world of DEI; consciously or unconsciously, many leaders delay addressing anti-Black racism in their places of work, allowing the harm their Black employees are experiencing there to continue until they decide it’s time to fix it.

Dr. King teaches us that justice is urgent, and continuous delays equate to denial. Waiting for ‘the right time’ to promote your Black employees, pay them equally, or address how White supremacy is showing up in your organizational culture are all signs that values of inclusion and equity are not truly being lived out.

The boom of DEI after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 has cooled off, and in large part because many leaders of organizations and companies fail to see DEI and anti-racist efforts as life-long commitments to continuous learning and growth. Dr. King also has insights on this challenge in his speech, where he states, “we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

DEI strategies that look for an endpoint to doing the work are misguided; uprooting anti-Black racism and White supremacy culture in the workplace is a lifestyle, and one that must be committed to for the long haul. Expecting Black employees to be satisfied with inconsistent and ineffective DEI work counters the vision of justice that Dr. King held. Justice must continuously be strived for.

It can feel disheartening to look at the state of the world and of DEI today and realize how far away we are from the dream Dr. King held. But there’s one other lesson Dr. King would have for that feeling, too: “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair,” he says. From practitioners, to leaders, to workers, holding fast to the faith that this work is not in vain can reignite the dream that one day the workplace can truly be an equitable, anti-racist space.

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