Unlocking the Power of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Keynote Speech


Keynote Speech on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Across All Sectors: Implementations, Challenges, and Future Prospects

The following is the text of the Keynote Speech presented at The 8th Annual International Conference on Ethnic and Religious Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding, September 26 – 28, 2023.

The theme of the conference and keynote speech was “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Across All Sectors: Implementations, Challenges, and Future Prospects.”

Speaker: Arthur J. Lerman, Ph.D., Pd.M, Professor Emeritus, Political Science, History and Conflict Management, Mercy University, Dobbs Ferry, NY; Certified Mediator and Chair, Board of Directors, Institute for Mediation and Confllict Resolution, Bronx, NY.

The text has been revised in view of conference participant reactions and post-conference insights of the speaker.

It’s a wonderful and undeserved honor to be asked to be the keynote speaker for this great organization and great conference. I just haven’t done enough to be deserving.

On the other hand, I’m one of those annoying people who always reaches for the microphone—the type who thinks (with little evidence) they always have something to say.

So I begin with a “thank you”—to those who decided to ask me to speak, and to those who now are willing to give me a hearing.

When learning that the overall theme for this conference was “diversity, equity and inclusion,” I mischievously responded that diversity, equity and inclusion is one of the most demonized phrases in today’s American politics. My immediate response was, why not go all the way and add “Critical Race Theory”?

I imagined a major protest demonstration outside the conference building, and a flood of maligning social media messages. (Perhaps though, we are just too scholarly and, therefore, beyond the notice of angry political storms.)

But then I began to consider the phrase, “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.” Yes, perhaps some overly enthusiastic implementors of DEI programs have gone too far, provoking angry pushback. Perhaps some programs are ineffective, or even counterproductive.

(Though, given our current ideologically charged climate, even the most thoughtfully designed programs are encountering pushback.)

(Note: Post-conference NYTimes Letter to the Editor, October 2, 2023, by K. G. Muhammad and E. Licht of the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project, Harvard Kennedy School, argues that “research…shows how diversity programs enhance campus life…Students from marginalized identity groups…perform better academically…create more racially diverse learning environments…campuses produce more engaged scholarship…”)

But look at the words themselves. Do they not depict the basic necessities of a humane social order—the elements necessary for a society/social group to function in a tolerable way for its membership?

I mean, every society has, as Tevya said in Fiddle on the Roof, “its types,” and that means “diversity.” And for them to live humanely together, does there not need to be fair treatment—’equity,” and a working together— “inclusion”?

Oh! Yes! I’m assuming a basic underlying value about the worth of each human being. Assuming the moral values of an underclass/ubermensch system would throw all this off.

When I noticed the topic, I immediately envisioned two tracks, one about my current writing project. The second coming from the images that jumped out at me upon my receiving the keynote speech request.

The images are powerful, so let me begin with them.

Overcrowded boatload of migrants on the Nile

Image accompanying Sept. 8, 2023 NYTimes headline: “War Drives South Sudanese Back to an Ill-Prepared Homeland.” Image: Overcrowded boatload of migrants on the Nile. (Photo by Joao Silva/NYTimes).

Centers one on the phrase, “diversity, equity and inclusion,” yes?

Woman and son climbing over barbed wire fence

Image accompanying Sept. 2, 2023 World Journal (Shijie Ribao) headline: “Illegally Crossing Border Immigrant Family (Feifa Rujing Jiating Yimin).” Image: Woman and son climbing over barbed wire fence. (Getty Images).

One can cheer her on or condemn her, but it does make one think about “diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Elk Wallow Picnic Grounds for White Only

NYTimes headline: “Our Supposedly Glorious Past Existed Only for Some.” Sept. 11, 2023. Image: Sign: “Elk Wallow Picnic Grounds, for White Only.” (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Text by Esau McCaulley describes his fear of physical attack while buying gas in an all-white southern U.S. small town “in the late 1990s.” He talked of “the map,” used by blacks when driving, to designate “safe places…at gas stations or towns where they would not be subject to violence.”

Hard not to think about “diversity, equity and inclusion” after glancing at this picture.


Image accompanying Oct. 4, 2023 NYTimes headline: “Asylum Quest Led to Choice: Capture or Fire.” Image: The blaze in Avas, Greece, in August was part of Europe’s largest recorded wildfire. (Credit, Achilleas Chiras/Associated Press)

Note: This was reported after my talk. It was too compelling to be left out.

“In August, a group of 18 Syrian asylum seekers crossing into Europe found themselves trapped between the Greek police and a wildfire…On Aug. 21, around 9 p.m., the group of asylum seekers burned to death…”

More to say?

NYTimes headline: “Diversity Statements by Faculty Complicate Hiring on Campus,” Sept. 10, 2023.

Note above on “pushback.”

And my second track? What have I been writing about?

My project is to develop a list of observations (that I have come up with through my years of teaching, reading about and participating in politics), observations about promoting a humane social order.

And, as I’ve been noting, that requires diversity, equity and inclusion.

So my observations should be almost automatically entwined with DEI.

It is as if I’ve been working on the keynote speech even before I was asked to work on it.

Oh! These observations are not original. Some go back to the ancient classics. Some were suggested more recently by modern social science and journalistic commentary.

And, in one form or another, most of us, and most politically active people, already know them.

The challenge is that they are still frequently violated, causing much physical and social-psychological damage.

So all I am doing is reminding us about what we already know but too often, at crucial moments, forget.

Or, what some choose to ignore, because their goal is not to promote a humane social order.

Oh! My list is long. Today I’ll only have time for some.

At the conference, I began by listing the following eight, then discussed the first few with the conference participants more thoroughly.

1) The nation state, nation being understood as ethnic group, is a bad idea.

At one point in our history, especially after the First World War, the idea that each ethnic group should have its own state was considered the most humane and peaceful alternative to inter-group conflict in multi-ethnic states—e.g., like within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

But it does not work. Demography does not permit it. There are always minority groups to tempt the quest for ethnic purity via ethnic cleansing and/or cultural suppression.

See Sept. 21, 2023, NYTimes, “One Million Tibetan Children, Indoctrinated by China,” Gyal Lo:

As the Chinese government continues its 70-year quest to build legitimacy and control over Tibet, it is pivoting increasingly to using education as a battlefield to gain political control. By separating children from their families and familiar surroundings and funneling them into residential schools where they can become assimilated into Chinese subjects, the state is betting on a future where younger generations of Tibetans will become groomed Chinese Communist Party loyalists, model subjects easy to control and manipulate.

(See also Muslim ethnic groups forced to abandon their religious traditions, cultural practices and local languages https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/06/china-draconian-repression-of-muslims-in-xinjiang-amounts-to-crimes-against-humanity/)

And not to be seen as an American simply propagandizing against China:

See Sept. 25, 2023, NYTimes, “A War Against the Children,” Z Levitt, Y. Parshina-Kottas, S. Romero, T. Wallace:

For more than 150 years, spurred by federal assimilation policies beginning in the early 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Native American children were sent to boarding schools across the country. In many cases, they were forcibly removed from their homes.

A new accounting shows that at least 523 institutions were part of the sprawling network of boarding schools for Native American children. At least 408 received federal funding.

Israel’s declaration of independence recognized the dilemma by envisioning a state safe for Jews, but guaranteeing full rights for others as well. Yet, even that was an overreach.

Full rights for others always remained an issue.

And today the Israeli government has scrapped the idea entirely. (Though not without half the population in the streets conducting continuing protest rallies.)

The only solution is to see the state as an administrative apparatus, set up to protect the rights of anyone living therein, allowing individuals identifying with an ethnic group cultural autonomy, as long as they do not encroach on the autonomy of others.

One may be “patriotic” to one’s own ethnicity, but patriotism to the state would be to an entity that values and protects the ethnicity of all—i.e., values and protects according to the standards of diversity, equity and inclusion.

(Growing up in the diversity of NYC, I always thought that this was the United States which properly called for my patriotism. The idea that the U.S. was basically for one racial group, and that all others were somehow less American, perhaps to be tolerated, was not what I learned.)

(A win-win solution could be that all share an overarching world-wide or state-wide culture, while each promotes its own “sub”-culture. (Code-switching as a positive idea?)

2) Leave no individual/no group behind. More important, let no individual/no group feel it is being left behind.

This helps to explain the anti-immigrant, anti-minority, even anti-foreign-nation, resurgence in the U.S. and abroad. In the U.S. we have the “replacement theory,” that elites plan to replace “white” Americans with black/brown people—those already in the U.S. and more coming as immigrants.

Being left behind can be felt by any group or individual, and the perceived characteristic may not only be ethnicity. It may be economic class, religion, ideology, sexual orientation, or just being the skinniest kid on the block.

And given recent mass shootings, don’t underestimate the damage a skinny kid can do.

Not only must democratic leaders remain aware of this danger, but also of the danger of politicians convincing people they are being left behind, building grievance, even if the grievance is empirically questionable.

Hopefully, DEI can be a welcoming program for the left behind and left out. And, also, hopefully, well designed, DEI would not be seen as a threat to those already “in”.

Major example—macro- economic change (climate change too) making old products or technologies obsolete, leaving those working in such fields without livelihoods.

Free Market Capitalist Response: Occasionally threatening an individual’s livelihood is a good idea. It stimulates creativity, making society more creative.

Leave No One Behind response: While a few individuals may successfully, even spectacularly, respond to livelihood threatening macro-economic change, most people’s lives, over large geographical areas, will be devastated. Leave no one behind means making sure new opportunities and alternatives are within reach of all who are threatened. (This does not mean such opportunities and alternatives would not foster creativity.)

(Too much to hope for: Having the major “old-tech” energy producing companies convert to non-global warming renewables—i.e., Joe Manchin and the Koch brothers embracing the Green New Deal?)

3) In politics you are your trauma.

History has not always been kind. As individuals and groups our emotions are often dominated by deep scars—colonialism, genocide, destruction by war, nature or economic collapse. We carry these scars into the polling booth, as well as into all our socio-political relationships.

To be left behind is one of these scars. It’s a reason for an ethnic group to seek its own nation-state, perhaps in the creation thereof, inflicting scars on others standing in the way.

The ideal of diversity, equity and inclusion is to recognize and validate these scars, creating national and international societies that include all into a healing whole.

4) Unreasonable circumstances rarely give rise to reasonable people.

Maybe this is the same as the above, but it points to the behavioral outcome.

Here we reference all the techniques of peace building—active listening, empathy, sensitivity, truth and reconciliation—accompanied by persistence. But there are no guarantees.

5) In all interpersonal/intergroup relations, everyone must have an emotionally fulfilling role. (This is from Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro, Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate, 2005.)

A guide to avoid or ameliorate # 3 and 4 above.

6) Never push the other side too far.

This advice goes back, at least, to Aristotle’s Politics. And it was just restated by Thomas L. Friedman, “Lebanon’s Nightmare Could Become Israel’s Future,” NYTimes, August 15, 2023:

…already breached the core social contract that has held Israel together for the last 75 years — “live and let live.”

Lebanon and Israel have two big features in common: They are really small in geography and incredibly diverse in population — religiously diverse, ethnically diverse, politically diverse, linguistically diverse, educationally diverse.

When your democracy is really, really small and really, really diverse, there’s only one way to maintain stability: All the diverse actors must respect the principle of “live and let live.” …All have to abide by certain limits on their reach.

One theory is that very diverse nations are safer for democracy, for no one group will be strong enough to dominate the others. Everyone will have to make coalitions just to get along—and coalitions mean compromise—live and let live. (See James Madison, Federalist #10. Also, W. R. Clark, M. Golder, S. N. Golder, Principles of Comparative Politics, 2018, pp. 750-751.)

But, when some groups combine into a majority coalition, diversity may be constrained. Equity and inclusion may then be left with fewer defenses if targeted. (E.g., Israel and India, 2023.)

7) Never put all power in one person or group.

This is the principle of the republic versus monarchy. Machiavelli wrote The Prince to get a job, but his favorite writing was The Discourses on Livy. In which he praised “republics,” political systems in which power can check power and people may thus live freer more dignified lives.  (See W.R. Everdell, The End of Kings: A History of Republics and Republicans, (London, The Free Press, 1983, Ch. 5).

And Machiavelli was channeling the biblical prophet Samuel and the ancient Greek lawgiver Solon.

The message is: diversity promotes fairness and inclusion. Dictatorship (overconcentration of power) destroys all three.

8) Some form of proportional representation is necessary.

Gerrymandering, manipulating the boundaries of legislative districts to favor one political party over another, has long been a scourge on democracy—ensuring improper representation for both majorities and minorities..

Today, it has become a direct threat to democracy in the U.S.A.


In 2018, [a Wisconsin] gerrymander proved strong enough to allow Wisconsin Republicans to win a supermajority of seats in the Assembly despite losing the vote for every statewide office and the statewide legislative vote by 8 percentage points, 54 to 46. (J. Bouie, “A Breathtaking Contempt for the People of Wisconsin,” NYTimes, Sept 8, 2023.).

North Carolina: Has used Districts 1 and 12 for minority voters.

Maryland: Uses broken districts to give an advantage to Democrats.

Pennsylvania: Divides its major urban areas among other districts.

Kentucky: Places urban populations in rural districts.

Louisiana: Combined Baton Rouge and New Orleans into one district to minimize Democratic votes.

Utah: Divides Salt Lake City into surrounding rural districts.

Texas: Has tried to propose districts that would unfairly affect minority voters.

Arkansas: Has drawn district boundaries to balance out city voters with rural voters.

Ohio: Unfairly distributed districts in a partisan way.


The only way to eliminate the scourge is through some kind of proportional representation.  If 45% of the voters vote for Party A’s candidates, 45% of the legislators in the resulting legislature should be from Party A.

There are issues in setting up a proportional representation system, but many countries have done it well, ensuring a fairer and more accurate representation.

Only accurate representation would align with the democratic values indicated by diversity, equity and inclusion.


During the conference discussion, the difficult question of how such observations as the above eight, and the fundamental values of diversity, equity, and inclusion they imply, could be honored when so many powerful political actors are conscious only of a self-aggrandizing, violent, political universe. Or, if motivated to serve others at all, they serve only their few immediate supporters, or, perhaps, only their larger ethnic group.

At the moment, I could not go beyond the often-used phrase, “the struggle is long and hard.” This meant, I suggested, building organizations, person by person, starting with neighbors at the grass/rice roots—and “persisting.”

Thinking now, I’d add that there are already many organizations out there which we can join—including this one, the International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation. Here we can include the Center’s mediation training.

Yes. It’s hard to maintain optimism, but here are three examples to strengthen our resolve:

1) Throughout the Israeli/Palestinian conflict there have been Israelis and Palestinians reaching out to each other in neighborhoods throughout Israel. And right now, many of them are in the streets, conducting massive demonstrations for saving/improving Israel’s democracy and for fairness to the Palestinians.

Mass Protests Over Government’s Court Plans Sweep Israel https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/09/world/middleeast/israel-judicial-protests-netanyahu.html?searchResultPosition=10

2) I can also think of the early 1960s civil rights movement in the U.S. Blacks and whites stood and marched together for social justice. And we did get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which greatly improved the DEI quotient of the U.S. political system. (Though we are currently struggling to maintain these gains.)

3) And: as recently as 2003, ordinary, unarmed women from Liberia defeated one of the most brutal dictators in modern history. And not only to him, but his henchman, his secret police, and the rebels and warlords who opposed him through guerilla warfare.

The women brought civil war to an end, disarmed the rebels, and swept the dictator from power. They laid the groundwork for a new democracy and saw to the election of Liberia’s first woman president. Not a bad piece of work. And the women’s only resource — the power of nonviolence. J. Dear, March 9, 2010  https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/pray-devil-back-hell.

But the struggle continues. There is fear about the U.S. 2024 elections…and for democracy in Hungary and Poland…and for the independence of Ukraine…and for peace in Somalia…and Sudan…and…


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