With Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs currently facing relentless attacks in legislatures and courtrooms across the country, there is no better time than the present to get clear on what DEI work actually entails — and on how we can work to defend the programs that uplift our diversity and defend access to the American dream.

On June 20th, NationSwell hosted a virtual Mainstage event called DEI in Focus: Understanding, Defending, and Advancing Together that sought to ground us in what DEI is and isn’t; how and why it’s being attacked; and how the work is rooted in common values that connect us all.

The event featured a rich conversation between Sid Espinosa (former mayor of Palo Alto and current Head of Social Impact at GitHub), and Stacey Abrams (lawyer, voting rights activist, political leader, and bestselling author). Below are some of the key learnings from the event:


  1. Understand the underlying history of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and its importance within the U.S. Since the founding of the U.S., efforts to advance DEI have enabled the manifestation of key movements and legislation, such as the civil rights movement, the labor rights movement, gender rights, LGBTQA rights, the Voting Rights Act, Title IX, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Understanding the role of DEI in activating these societal changes, and emphasizing that it is connected to a plethora of identities and experiences, can support the case for its continuance.
  1. Acknowledge the offensive tactics used by forces working to dismantle DEI. Forces behind the Dobbs decision, the Students for Fair Admissions decision, and Project 2025 use three tactics in their offense against DEI: 1) Delegitimize language and progress on DEI to build a false narrative on its decline; 2) dismantle progress by engaging in litigation; and 3) disband progress by supporting legislation that inhibits fair access to conditions necessary for achieving the American Dream (participation in education, the economy, and elections). 
  1. Enforce the fundamental meaning of each word in the DEI acronym. “Diversity means all people, equity is about fair access to opportunity, and inclusion is participation in the American Dream” (Stacey Abrams). The DEI field is motivated to widen opportunities for achieving this Dream, currently disproportionately afforded to select groups of people. Accomplishing this goal would lessen barriers to success for all people, regardless of their identity or lived experience. 


  1. Sustain the acronym to solidify the credibility of the field. Allowing the acronym to be reduced by engaging in semantic changes to DEI work gives way to delegitimizing the work itself. Owning and celebrating DEI – in terminology and in action – helps every person see how DEI has improved their access to the American Dream. 
  1. Uphold conviction around DEI across institutions by openly communicating about the harms of retreating. The impacts of the Students for Fair Admissions decision on business and examples of companies scaling back their DEI work are being conflated in the media. Companies can break through this noise by communicating a fact-based counter-narrative centered on underreported legislative progress in favor of DEI (e.g., Allen v. Milligan), sharing information on the business case for DEI, and publicly reporting how successes from investments in DEI outweigh the case for retreating. 

“Remember what the Students for Fair Admissions decision said when coming into collective action. It was not a death knell to affirmative action. It was a realignment that is problematic, but in the same decision, they defended DEI in military academies, and they permitted DEI to continue in other aspects of education.”

– Stacey Abrams

Advancing together

  1. Leverage philanthropy to lift organizations that work on the front lines. “Philanthropy is impervious to harm relative to any other institution in the country” (Stacey Abrams). This demands that in moments like today, where the moral call to do this work is being questioned, funders double down on their efforts to meet the needs of organizations working on the frontlines of protection who are “already wobbly.” 
  1. Advance DEI by speaking up, standing firm, and staying in touch. 1) Speak up by signing on to op-eds, going on TV, and sharing stories about how DEI operates where you work and how it has affected your lived experience. 2) Stand firm by relentlessly advocating that the alternative of not having DEI is a loss for all Americans. 3) Stay in touch by connecting with organizations like NationSwell, American Pride Rises, and the Black Economic Alliance who can help you find communities of support and lift up one another’s work, as well as access resources and tools.

“When you feel alone, it’s easier to block you, stop you, and force you into retreat…we need to be expanding what we want, expanding what we demand, and not constraining it to accommodate those for whom nothing will be sufficient except our demise.”

– Stacey Abrams

View the full conversation: