Management consultant Michelle MiJung Kim is the founder and CEO of Awaken, which hosts workshops geared toward equity and empowerment. She is also the author of The Wake Up: Closing the Gap Between Good Intentions and Real Change. We spoke with Kim about DEI, the stumbling blocks to inclusion, and what must be done to effect lasting change that benefits all.

In your experience, what do we get right and wrong about diversity?

Many people mistakenly believe DEI is about achieving diverse representation for representation’s sake rather than seeking to uproot oppressive systems and cultures that create unjust and violent conditions. Without this understanding, many continue to perpetuate harm despite their good intentions, creating cycles of disappointment, broken promises, and myopic solutions.

One thing people are starting to get right is that this work is becoming increasingly important to different stakeholders: employees, consumers, younger generations. However, awareness alone won’t guarantee transformation—we need principled actions, consistent practice, and sustained commitment.

What we don’t hear enough is how messy that level of transformation can be.

It is messy because change requires disruption. Achieving social justice requires that we uproot existing norms, practices, and systems in our current reality, a reality many find difficult to face and describe with utmost honesty, let alone accept as needing transforming. As we seek to disrupt the status quo, we will be met with resistance not only from those who vehemently oppose such change, but also within ourselves, because dismantling oppression requires us to face our privileges and complicity in the very systems we denounce.

The uncomfortable truth is that this work requires us to build our capacity to stay in the mess, the gray zones, and at times frustrating uncertainty, and to abandon the very notion of perfectionism and good/bad binary thinking—both of which are characteristics of white supremacy culture—that set us up to fail.

Long-standing institutions, like publishing, are waking up to business practices that damage DEI. What keeps us from turning conversations into action?

There is often a large gap between an organization’s proclaimed vision and their actual willingness to make the necessary trade-offs to attain the desired outcomes. This gap, left unaddressed, becomes the source of cognitive dissonance felt by many advocates and marginalized people, causing further disappointment, disorientation, and cynicism. As more people wake up to the reality of social injustice that harms all of us, we will be faced with a question: What are we willing, or unwilling, to give up to transform ourselves and our organization? Being brutally honest with ourselves is often the first step that will help unlock the path to living in alignment with our proclaimed values and creating the kinds of change we say we want to see in the world.

The title of your keynote is “Closing the Gap Between Good Intentions and Real Change.” Where does that begin in your experience?

We must take the work of transforming ourselves seriously. Through my work with hundreds of organizations, I’ve witnessed how, despite layers of policy changes, harm and abuse can continue. While change was apparent on paper, it wasn’t legible in the lived experiences of marginalized people. I strive to create a culture of proactive accountability where people want to live in alignment with their proclaimed values and practice accountability to advance DEI, rather than focusing solely on the bare minimum standards with inevitable loopholes.

Michelle MiJung Kim is the breakfast keynote speaker, Feb. 22, 7:45–8:45 a.m., Ballrooms 6ABC.

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