Michael Benitez heads MSU Denver's DEI programs and will give the keynote speech at the DEI Leadership Institute's inaugural Annual Conference.

How to create a better tomorrow: A conversation with Michael Benitez

Jul 13, 2023 | Leaddei

When the DEI Leadership Institute’s inaugural Annual Conference kicks off on Aug. 16, Michael Benitez, Ph.D. will be ready to deliver the keynote speech.

Benitez is the vice president for diversity and inclusion at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and a nationally recognized scholar practitioner and educator in the field of diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education.

His critical perspectives on social and cultural issues and on topics related to leadership and identity development, intersectionality, race and ethnicity and knowledge production have earned him national acclaim. And his deep knowledge and practice of innovative equity and inclusion-based strategies has helped to address some of higher education’s more pressing campus climate issues of today including the Diversity Monologues — a critical spoken work initiative he helped implement and shape at multiple institutions.

In this Q&A, Michael breaks down DEI to its core elements, addresses the back-and-forth nature of DEI progress in the U.S., and gives a sneak preview of his keynote address.

Editor’s note: This interview was performed on May 11, before the recent Supreme Court decision banning affirmative action at universities. It’s been lightly edited for style, length and clarity. Some of the introduction above was pulled directly from Benitez’s bio.

OK let’s start with the basics: What is DEI, exactly? DEI stands for diversity, equity and inclusion. As of lately — in the past decade — a lot of people have begun to sort of acronymize or, you know, create an acronym out of DEI.

They’re very related, but they’re not the same thing, and I think that gets lost when people start to use the acronym DEI.

The “D” is for diversity, the “E” is for equity, the “I” is for inclusion. And as of lately, folks have started to add other words to that, whether that’s a ‘B’ for “Belonging” or a “J” for “Justice.”

So, it really depends contextually where people are at, where they work, what their moment is, what their struggles and their context is.

But, and generally speaking, diversity, equity and inclusion work sort of seeks to mend or rectify, [recognizing] historically, that by way of structures, the system has caused — as a result of laws — that it had created exclusionary practices that prevented people from participating fully, that didn’t offer the same opportunity to all equally.

So, diversity, equity and inclusion work is truly very important work at this moment, even as we are in 2023. It’s probably one of the most important agendas of our time.

U.S. history shows that progress is never linear. It’s back and forth — often two steps forward, one step back. You see it in the current backlash to DEI just three years after the national reckoning during the pandemic of the George Floyd murder and other racial injustices. Companies that made big DEI promises are not following through and getting pushback when they do. Would you say that DEI progress is a pendulum? It’s an interesting question, right? Let’s start with maybe even defining diversity. When you think about diversity, writ large, diversity is difference, right?

It’s about everyone and everything and variety and the different ways of thinking or different identities — all those different elements that make us who we are and our humanity in total, right?

But then diversity, when you think about the Civil Rights Movement, when you start to go back to the ‘60s. Well, really, you could go back way before the ‘60s, but let’s focus on the ‘60s as a significant turn-around pendulum moment for the United States.

Diversity became politicized. And it wasn’t politicized because somebody decided, “We’re going to take this word and we’re going to turn it into a weapon; we’re going to weaponize diversity.”

It was politicized because diversity didn’t grow, you know, out of somebody, for example, saying, “Hey, I have a great idea: Diversity, what a thought! Let me write a paper on that.”

Diversity came about because people were fighting and struggling to have the same opportunities and rights as everybody else. That’s an important element to understand about the way in which diversity is grounded in the different ways that we try to understand and practice it.

Here, 60, 70 years later, and we missed that piece — diversity as a practice, as a strategy, as something that’s valued and should be valued by education, corporations, public service not-for-profits, right? All different sorts of industry alike.

It really has to do with how are we leaning into what was? How do we understand what was, and how do we try to create a better tomorrow?

Diversity becomes a big part of that, and so even when it’s not political and we don’t want it to be political, it has to be because it grew out of the politics of hope.

And I think a lot of folks take that and they say it’s this radical term that is politicized so that, you know, people who share certain identities get things that they don’t deserve. Or a big excuse is that’s in the past and we’ve got to think about the future.

Another one is, you know, it’s really about the bottom line versus sort of the humanity and the moral imperative behind the work.

If we start understanding diversity as not only a concept but a process, but also a journey, a place to land — a good place to land, that would benefit society at large immensely. Not just people of color, not just people of minoritized identities, but everyone. Then we’re starting at a better place.

So that foundation matters.

And then equity is important to understand because I think we misunderstand equity, and I think we’ve ran with equity in so many different directions and everyone’s gonna have an interpretation. But like any other academic discipline — whether that’s mathematics, whether that’s engineering, whether that’s education — when you get into the granular, all those bodies of work, they all have a very particular body of research and literature that kind of defines what the work is.

You know, I wouldn’t go to a scientist and try to define a molecule for him or her or them that fits around the paradigm of biology. That person might look at me and say, “Whoa! What are you talking about?”

And I think that when we talk about equity today, a lot of us who are experts, who practice this, who study this and its impact, the need for it, we also see that when people make certain commentary, it just doesn’t align. It doesn’t fit with the body of work, with the literature, with the way it is anchored and it was founded.

So on one hand we have an increase in something like representation of underrepresented people in different spaces. But on the other hand, what then happens by way of equity, when you know people who are underrepresented in certain fields or disciplines or industries, what happens when they get into that space?

Are they expected to just assimilate and take it for what it is and do what the company does?

Or what role does the corporation, the entity, the enterprise have in actually aiming to cultivate a sense of belonging and trying to cultivate a sense of being valued? In creating a sense of validation and compassion and really inviting voices to come to the table and contribute in ways that matter to not only that person, but to that organization at large.

And then we have inclusion, right? So equity has to deal with not only access, it also deals with cultivation and it deals with outcomes. We have to look at all that in general and then we get to inclusion. And the thing about inclusion is that one way that that folks can look at it is: Everybody’s welcome, everyone’s included, everybody’s invited.

But inclusion through an equity and diversity lens goes further than that. It actually says, “You’re not only welcomed and invited because we understand your voice has been missing for so long. We’re actually gonna privilege your voice because your voice has not been one that we’ve considered for a really, really long time.”

Some places, some organizations are way further ahead; but other organizations, they’re still at the very beginning of this work, which is why something like hope is what we aspire to. Sometimes moving fast. Sometimes moving with a little bit of grace and a little slower makes sense depending on where you’re at, because there’s also consequences around doing this work in the political landscape that we’re in today.

So when we think about a pendulum, you know, we could go back to the ‘60s and ‘70s as one portion of that. But then we could look at the early ‘80s and the mid ‘80s as a different sort of approach to the ways in which diversity became so politicized.

And now you have this more conservative pushback, and you know, it doesn’t have to be bad. I don’t think that liberalism or conservatism or centrism are bad. I just hope that we can continue to lean on this work for the work that it is.

And when you think about bringing it all the way back to 2023 and everything that has happened since and even going back to what happened with with George Floyd up in Minnesota, and you think about all the different companies and industries that started to say, “Oh how dare this happen?” and “I can’t believe this happened in my backyard and my nation.”

They’re also missing a point, and that point is it wasn’t just George Floyd.

It was a host, a collective, of different bodies — largely Black and Brown, but not limited to Black and Brown — that have have bared the brunt of injustice, and have had to suffer the consequences of bias, of racial inequities, of dominant thinking.

And I know that there’s resistance when we’re talking about the “isms,” whether that’s racism or sexism or some of the other inequities. But they’re also very real, and we are a nation that, regrettably, was founded on inequities.

And we don’t have to dwell on that, but we can hold onto that with love. We can hold onto that with a sense of greater hope and do better moving forward.

So, the pendulum is going to continue to swing, right? There’s going to be some years where we as a nation, everybody’s all in — at least we think we’re all in, right?

And then we’re going to have years where you really feel the resistance toward diversity, equity and inclusion, like this moment right now where we see different states trying to pass legislation to prevent these conversations from even happening at the places, especially educational institutions where they need to be happening the most.

How can we remain open to learning the more indoctrinated and created version of history that we espouse in America, and how can we continue to carve out room and space for different understandings, knowledges, for different people to bring and share their stories, even if those stories don’t sound pretty? Even if they don’t sit well, they’re still all part of American history.

So when I think about the next few months, for example, we’re gonna continue to see a polarized nation.

We’re gonna continue to see a lack of centrism and ability of people on all sides to be able to come to the middle and not make it about themselves, not make it about their beliefs. Not make it about the bottom line. But truly make it about humanity, truly make it about the collective, make it about who they serve. Make it about how we serve and and be able to suspend their disbeliefs, whatever their disbeliefs may be for the benefit of everyone that shares in that array of spaces throughout our societal landscape.

So yeah, we do have a pendulum. We’re gonna swing back and forth, two steps forward, one step back, on and on. But at the end of the rainbow, what we’re really thinking about is a more righteous, better, equitable, hopeful and loving humanity.

We’re not trying to impose down each other’s necks, but truly exist and respect each other — not only in the differences, but acting in ways that demonstrate that love, that compassion, that validation, that learning and growth, that piece of ourselves that says we’re working on ourselves individually and when we work on ourselves individually and we reflect, then collectively we’re building a greater and more loving humanity.

Do you believe that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. is frequently quoted, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”? You know, I do. When we think historically where we’ve been, when we think historically how we were founded as a nation, when we think about some of the work out there that we’re beginning to extrapolate and excavate, maybe some of the gaps that we’re not talking about, we begin to learn that ideas of justice or acting toward justice have existed, you know, since way back. I mean, we could go global, we could go back thousands of years even.

But when you think about the U.S. and our foundation, sort of the foundation of American democracy, you see where it started with so much exclusion and so much discourse that said, “These people have all the rights, and these other people have no rights.”

And in some cases, in the cases of Black or African American people, they were only partially human by legal definition.

You think about the suffrage movement in the early 1900s, but even that was geared toward white women. And then you look at civil rights, you look at things like Jim Crow. You look at things like separate-but-equal laws that started to emerge.

Then you think about the cultural wars of the ‘80s, and now here we are trying to truly account for this with a sense of transparency.

And it’s it’s difficult for many who love this nation to sit with that because it means we we need to also implicate ourselves and admit that some people were prevented from having access to opportunities, and that means they weren’t able to grow generationally, they weren’t able to pass on wealth. They weren’t able to accumulate wealth — all those things that fit with the American dream that we that we so proudly preach.

So how does the arc bend toward justice? We have a more diverse nation. We have a lot more laws around equal opportunity. We have a lot more compliance practices that try to hold institutions accountable. But we’re still not doing enough.

It may bend toward justice, the arc, but it’s a very slow, slow process.

What’s the No. 1 thing you hope attendees walk away with after your keynote address at the Annual Conference? I really hope that that folks walk away with a sense of hope, with a sense of worth, with a sense of acknowledgement and understanding that when we’re having these difficult conversations and we want to engage this work — knowing that my role is never to change another human being; human beings change on their own.

My hope is they walk away wanting to change on their own. That they see the value and the worth beyond just diversity as representation, but diversity as an act of love and as an act of of mending that is leaning into what we have not done right before that we could do better tomorrow.

That’s truly my hope: That they are empowered to truly show up with a sense of civility and humility and respect in the ways that that they interact with each other, in the ways that they show up with some grace into their respective roles and organizations, and being able to drive what could be an incredibly polarizing and and difficult conversation. But to do it from a place of thinking about the collective, thinking about what they’re doing this for versus thinking about whether this does or does not land well with their own individual beliefs.

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