Although I felt there were many essential bills crafted and passed in Utah’s recent legislative session, there were a few that I found deeply troubling. Even weeks later, I remain dumbfounded by how we as individuals and a society continue to make decisions based on fear instead of decades of research. At times, we don’t pay attention to the evidence right in front of us to make critical decisions that could impact others. On a societal level, when we ignore evidence in public policy work, potentially hundreds of thousands of people could be negatively impacted. This is the case for the recently proposed legislation that would have thwarted current diversity efforts in certain settings. 

This past year I have published a few different articles on why diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and equality matter. The most recent pieces include one titled “Why just talking about diversity won’t help Utah move forward” and “Belonging doesn’t happen without these 4 things.” As I mentioned in both editorials, most companies and other types of entities today know the importance of having a diverse workforce and understand the importance of efforts around inclusion and belonging. This also relates to college and university campuses in terms of student body, faculty, staff and administration. Today, this is a no-brainer. The evidence has been stacking up for decades, and the case for this work grows more compelling each year — not less. It’s not about people’s “feelings,” it’s about what’s effective. 

In fact, those who understand the research and best practices around this topic know that this work is not only important, but essential for Utah. Yet, imagine my dismay and shock when I discovered that there was proposed legislation that ran contrary to the mounds of evidence — evidence showing that statements, initiatives and efforts toward diversity, equity, inclusion, or DEI, and belonging are critical if institutions, organizations and societies are committed to creating environments for everyone to better thrive. 

Yet, what we know is that if we are viewing things from a scarcity mindset, DEI work can make people like me (White, straight, able-bodied) and others uncomfortable. It is natural to react and push back when we don’t understand situations or they seem strange. For example, when we believe that policies or practices that provide aid, opportunities and access to people of color, those who identify as LGBTQ+, and other marginalized populations somehow threaten or take away from people like me — this demonstrates a lack of awareness of our blind spots and how our brains work.

We must be uncomfortable to truly learn and growth. 

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Bills challenging diversity, equity and inclusion efforts get pushback in Utah

In fact, my college students sometimes tell me that my class makes them uncomfortable because I require a lot of deep thinking and work. When they tell me this, I typically smile and say, “That is wonderful! You are now in the space of true learning, growth and development.” 

Deep learning is change, and change is uncomfortable. But being uncomfortable is OK. It is the only way we can become better people. And it tends to be a temporary, transitional state as we grow and move forward. Personal and professional development is about change — growing, learning and expanding who we are. And becoming better people includes accepting, supporting, lifting, serving and loving those who are different from us. Internal work makes us uncomfortable. I’m just learning all of this myself. I’m not there, but the more I sit in a space of discomfort as I challenge myself to become an ally for Utahns of color, for example, the more I’m beginning to expand my understanding, compassion and desire to support. 

Threatening to limit institutional policies and efforts around DEI is not going to help anyone. It comes from the scarcity mindset based on fear and survival, instead of the abundance mindset allowing for trust and bigger possibilities. My own ancestors settled the Utah territory because it was a place of refuge, a place of connection and a place of opportunity. That is part of what “the Utah Way” is all about. In the future, let’s keep (and demand) our legislation be aligned with the Utah way and not give in to fear of change or being challenged. We are Utahns. We can do hard things.

Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman endowed professor of leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.