Defunding DEI: The Threat of Low-Conscious Leadership
The 2016 election and its aftermath reinforced that living in an America that neglects diversity and inclusion is dangerous—for everyone. The administration before Biden showed us the gamut of what discrimination toward the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities can be. We saw everything from bigoted social media posts to the revocation of laws that protect the queer community.
After largely condoning a president who proudly upholds inequity, it is no surprise that the Republican party continues to produce politicians who disregard the rights and safety of queer and other underestimated groups. Like infamous, low-conscious leaders before him, Floridian governor, Ron DeSantis, is quickly becoming a household name based on a hateful agenda, theatrics and outlandish media presence.
On May 15th, 2023, DeSantis signed an anti-DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) bill. Florida’s new bill is one of 34 anti-DEI bills across 20 states. This means that the sunshine state is not alone in condoning bills that retaliate against DEI initiatives and social speech-related protections. States like Ohio have passed similar bills—in fact, Ohio’s passed just days after Florida’s. The recent uptick of discourse about DEI (and the “threat” of DEI) positions us in the midst of another culture war.
A Familiar History
Our country is not unfamiliar with what it means to be living through a culture war. The 1990s were rife with civil disputes. The climate of the country after Reagan was tense; to name a few points of contention, there was the ongoing AIDS epidemic and a resurgence of race-related protests after Rodney King. With this, though, came crucial scholarship, art, and activism.
Today, we look back and admire the diverse voices from the 1990s—cultural critics, artists, musicians, scholars, and authors—whose unique perspectives can (and should) be celebrated. In a way that resembles what we’ve seen before, more forward-thinking voices are going to be stifled, because of Florida’s recent anti-DEI bill. To understand the ramifications of this bill’s passing, let’s discuss the specificities of a world without DEI, one that many Republicans consider “utopic.”
DeSantis Pushes Anti-DEI Agenda on Florida
According to many Republicans, the rights of Black, queer and transgender people are detrimental threats to the education system in Florida. Therefore, the newly-passed bill makes it a point to defund DEI initiatives, which also effectively governs how race and queerness can be discussed in the college classroom.
It should not be shocking to hear that many classrooms in the United States already whitewash American history. But for years now, college campuses have been one of the few places with classrooms that allow for discourse about oppression as it relates to American history. We cannot consider the true history of this country without understanding critical race theory (CRT), the evolution of bias and the treatment of queer people based on their gender and/or sexuality. And for the most part, college campuses have historically facilitated these tough conversations.
Threatening Freedom of Thought and Speech
With the implementation of this new bill, professors on Florida campuses will not be able to freely discuss issues through a progressive lens—using methodologies like queer theory or CRT—because doing so “distorts” history, according to conservatives. Not only will discussion be stifled, but funding DEI initiatives, including the existence of DEI-related committees and coalitions, will be banned as well.
Rightly, many educators, citizens, and students alike have argued that DeSantis is censoring academics and infringing on academic freedom. Academic freedom ensures that both students and faculty members at a university can freely express themselves, without fear of being censored or punished. This safety net is crucial because it allows for rigorous scholarship and diverse perspectives in academia and beyond.
The Ramifications of Low-Conscious Leadership
Now, what exactly went wrong in Florida? We might consider the climate of Florida a product of the state having a low-conscious leader in power. DeSantis is a prime example of a leader who makes decisions based on self-interest without regard for how those impact quality of life for so many of his constituents.
In Florida—and in several other states—low-conscious leadership is sending us backward as a society. For one, the student body in public Florida colleges will now be more homogenous. DeSantis is cutting back funding for programs that would recruit women, Black, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, disabled, military veterans, and students from other underestimated groups.
Beyond making it more difficult for these groups, DeSantis is also responsible for manipulating the educational curriculum that future leaders are consuming at public colleges. Even those who do attend Florida colleges will not have the privilege of curricula that are intellectually challenging from a diversity perspective.
Arguably, however, it is most concerning that students and educators will no longer be learning in a growth-oriented space where difference is accepted. When it comes down to it, DEI initiatives foster classrooms that are empathetic, compassionate, and harmonious. There is room for dispute, conversation, and rigor, and there is a common understanding that everyone’s perspective is to be heard and everyone’s safety is to be made a priority.
We Must Move Forward as Conscious Leaders
For DeSantis and other low-conscious politicians, these are not considerations. But for leaders who aspire to make positive changes in a country that sometimes seems so severely broken, we can learn from these actions, using them as antithetic examples of real leadership.
About the author
Kelly Campbell (they/she) is the founder of Consciousness Leaders and an inspiring keynote speaker. They are a Trauma-Informed Conscious Leadership Coach to self-aware visionaries. She writes for Entrepreneur and has written for Forbes. Kelly hosts "THRIVE: Your Agency Resource", a popular podcast for creative leaders. They are the author of "Heal to Lead" (Wiley, 2024), a radical new book on transforming past trauma in order to uncover our innate leadership power.