The diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) industry saw unseen levels of investment in 2020 as companies examined their workplace cultures following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent racial reckoning. Many companies drafted statements on their “commitment” to DEI, and some hired new officers to ensure the work would be done. DEI roles increased by 55% in 2020 alone, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

But three years later, that explosion in these positions hasn't led to significant change in corporate America.

Guests on Basic Black said people still aren't grasping the goal of DEI, and some in positions of power view it as a threat.

"The whole idea of the DEI role is disruptive. You're removing barriers. You're working in a system that is not set up for you. You're walking into dismantlement," said Kim Dukes, managing director at Koya Partners Diversified Search Group.

Recent layoffs across the country have disproportionately affected DEI professionals. In 2022, the attrition rate for DEI roles was 33%, compared to 21% for non-DEI roles, according to an analysis by Revelio Labs.

In addition, many employees who stepped into DEI roles have left due to frustration and burnout. Diversity officers in towns including Lowell, Natick, Falmouth, Pembrook and Worcester all stepped down over issues with lack of support, communication and microaggressions from coworkers.

Dr. Anouska Bhattacharyya, vice president of programs at YW Boston, said companies should view the equity effort as an ongoing journey where mistakes will be made, but ultimately, it's a crucial piece of technology just like any operation system.

"It is really about breaking down the idea that DEI is this new limb, that you have to grow this new set of strategies, new language that we can weaponize against each other, that it makes people feel like they're excluded. It is about us feeling like we belong in any space," Bhattacharyya said.

Felicia Jadczak, co-founder, co-CEO and head of DEI programming at SHE+ Geeks Out, likened DEI efforts to a pie where everyone gets a piece. However, people with a large part of the pie right now don't want to get a smaller piece.

"That resistance is going to be very challenging to overcome, because it's not something you can overcome with a training, with reading a book, with listening to a podcast, with watching this discussion right here," Jadczak said. She noted that a long, sustained effort will be the best approach.

Along with a long and sustained effort, Dr. Nefertiti Walker, vice chancellor for equity and inclusion at UMass Amherst, said it's important for leaders to set their own goals and priorities around DEI.

"The difference between the organizations who have been successful and progressing towards their DEI goals are the ones who have embedded DEI into the fabric of who they are and into the fabric of positions that they have in existence, and not made it something adjacent to leadership, adjacent to the organizational goals," Walker said.

Watch the latest episode of Basic Black Fridays at 7:30 p.m. on GBH 2 or live on our website. You can also watch on the GBH News YouTube channel. Subscribe to get notifications for future premiere episodes.