The acronym DEIJ stands for diversity, equity, inclusion and justice, and it’s used for everything from campaigns for better policing to efforts to create a more wholesome work atmosphere at companies. Its status as shorthand for a complex set of ideas has also made it, at times, a flashpoint in disputes about race and politics.
What do the concepts actually mean, and why do they matter? Devona Williams, Ph.D., has trained thousands of people in the business world about these ideas, starting long before the modern acronym, so she’s had a front-row seat to see the movement develop.
Williams runs the business consulting firm Goeins-Williams Associates and also serves as chair of the board of trustees for Delaware State University (DSU).
While “DEIJ” is handy for posting on social media, or to use as a memory aid, what it really comes down to is living together well, Williams says.
Here, she explains what DEIJ represents.
Diversity: Many people misunderstand this, Williams says, as being about African Americans. “It really isn’t. It’s really about valuing and understanding the differences of all people and recognizing and valuing them for their talents and their abilities.” Diversity refers not only to racial differences but also to a wide range of experiences, backgrounds and identities.
Equity: The idea of equity is a level playing field, Williams says, as opposed to simply treating all people the same. It “should take into account that people are at different places,” rather than assuming we all have the same starting point in life. For example, a university might make a special effort to help first-generation college students so that they graduate. “To me, equity is allowing everyone to have the same chance,” adds Semaj Hazzard, a 2022 graduate of DSU, instead of a situation where some have an automatic advantage.
Inclusion: This is about a sense of belonging and “looking at ways to make people feel more welcome,” Williams notes, or “creating an atmosphere or culture that helps people feel that they are a part of something.” An example of its opposite: Williams recounts when, as a female executive, other executives would adjourn after meetings for golf sessions at a male-only country club.
Justice: Once it becomes apparent that people are not being included or valued, or are facing discrimination, justice comes into play: That means doing something about it. “How do we make sure that our systems are fairly treating people, that the laws are fair [and] that people are held accountable?” Williams says.
Pitfalls and Rewards in the DEIJ Effort
When you put all the different letters together, tension can arise, Williams notes. Efforts to add diversity or equity, like affirmative action, can result in some people feeling left out.
“It’s a dance,” she says. “And it requires a great deal of diplomacy. And it also requires people to be thoughtful in their conversations about things, so that we’re not attacking each other because we might have a different perspective.”
To value people, Williams continues, you must understand them and where they are coming from, which means having empathy. “This requires more than a two-hour training. It can take years. But, when done the right way, it can improve productivity and give people opportunities to advance, and also cause people to have better feelings about how they work with one another, improving the overall atmosphere of an organization.”
When you learn to value a group of people or come to a new understanding of an individual, “it can be one of the most gratifying things that you can experience,” Williams says.
A Struggle for Benefits
DEIJ is not just another term for the civil rights struggles of Black Americans. But of course, in a society with a history of intentionally excluding people of color, that often comes into the conversation.
This isn’t just ancient history, either. In 2023, it’s easy to find people in Delaware who remember segregation, including Williams herself. “I still remember the ‘colored-only’ drinking fountains that I saw in Sussex County… and not being able to get housing as a young college student at the University of Delaware (UD),” she says.
Wilmington activist Bebe Coker also remembers those legal divisions, and the ways people subverted them. “You would wonder why you’re drinking the same water from a different fountain,” she remembers. “As kids, we used to watch around to see if anybody was looking; we’d drink out of the white fountain.”
DEIJ At a Historically Black University
For many decades, Dover–based DSU created a space for Black students denied a place at UD. DSU is still known for a large population of Black students, but as society has changed, so has the way it goes about its mission.
“We create opportunities for all people, really, who might not otherwise have an opportunity to go to college,” says Tony Allen, the university’s president.
For growth and development, “Diversity in education is a must,” asserts Bradley Skelcher, a historian and professor emeritus from DSU. “And I include race, sex, ideas, intellectual diversity.”
While the university’s founding focused on students of color, it has since created opportunities for all kinds of disenfranchised students, Allen points out. He and Skelcher both mention how the campus has welcomed people brought to the country illegally as children by their parents, often referred to as Dreamers, based on never-passed proposals in Congress called the DREAM Act.
Sometimes the conversation can be difficult. Hazzard, the 2022 alumnus, served on the Student Government Association and remembers tension over a white student taking on a position with the SGA. He and other students rallied to her support.
He understood the unease among some, because DSU was founded to provide a place for Black people who couldn’t find it elsewhere. But, he says, “We want to love and appreciate everybody. We want to realize that everyone can bring something to the plate.”
John Ridgeway, a 1975 graduate who now serves on the board of trustees, says DSU has been ahead of the curve. He points to the university’s efforts to add “appropriate resources for students to try to manage the challenges that they face,” like the formation of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council. “Those resources, when I was in college, were not available,” he remembers.
Allen says DSU represents the broad diversity of this country across a lot of fronts, from race to ethnicity and gender identity. Making sure everyone feels welcomed and belongs is “really important to how we do business…and, quite frankly, why we were founded in the first place.”