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Diversity, inclusion efforts at the Village— Understanding implicit bias

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The persistence of racism in Yellow Springs
This is the fifth article in a series that examines racism and implicit bias in the village, and means for discovering and preventing it

Articles in this series


When YSPD Corporal Jeff Beam goes out on a call, he knows his implicit biases may affect how he sees those he encounters in the situation.

For instance, a 2 a.m. call about a noise violation could find Beam face-to-face with someone whose interactions with police officers have not always been positive, he relayed recently.

“It helps with that interaction, knowing we’ve all come from different places,” Beam said.

Beam, who is white, believes it is important to understand his biases and to not let them affect his work.

“I take a second to pause and think, ‘Do I have any biases going on in my heart?’”
Beam said. “It adds another layer of filtering as we carry out our official capacity.”

Beam first learned about implicit bias — how unconscious attitudes can shape one’s actions — at a Village diversity and inclusion training last year.

Over the last six months, the nearly 50 employees of the Village attended three half-day trainings to create a more inclusive and diverse work environment and improve cultural competency at the Village.

According to Council member Kevin Stokes, who led the effort, the municipal government is the epicenter of the community and should be a model of anti-racism and cultural competency.

“When we’re competent, we know we are different, we appreciate the differences and we moderate our behavior so that no harm comes from how we behave,” Stokes explained in an interview last year.

But first, the truth that everyone holds deeply ingrained unconscious attitudes toward those who are different — especially people of color — must be acknowledged, Stokes believes.

“The goal of the training was to educate people that we are all biased, we are all prejudiced,” Stokes said. “We are all possibly ‘small r’ racist. If you deny that possibility, you’re not living in reality.”

More than 85 percent of all Americans consider themselves to be unprejudiced. At the same time, researchers have concluded that most Americans hold “some degree of implicit racial bias,” according to information shared by the trainer.

That’s a glaring gap between self-perception and reality, one that Stokes hopes to close here in Yellow Springs.

“Some people think that we are in a post-racial society. They think all of the problems are solved because they don’t experience the problems,” Stokes said. “Those of us who get judged based upon the color of our skin, our ‘lie-dar’ becomes more attuned.”

Understanding implicit bias, privilege

During the three trainings, which cost the Village $10,000, trainer Tiffany Taylor Smith, of Dayton-based Culture Learning Partners, and her sister, Melanie Taylor, led Village employees in interactive exercises and discussions on topics such as microaggressions, equity and equality, diversity, inclusion and implicit bias.

Implicit biases arise not only from how people are socialized to see one another, but also how people are socialized to see themselves, according to Taylor Smith, who is black. The roots of implicit bias go back to the foundation of the U.S. and thus are also ingrained in most of our nation’s institutions, she added.

“It’s about whose stories were told, whose stories were not told and what message was transmitted to you about your existence and [black people’s] existence,” Taylor Smith said.

Rather than to blindly accept “the way in which we have been conditioned to see ourselves,” Taylor Smith advises, we should seek to intentionally examine “our own individual cultural stories.”

“It comes from really understanding where you grew up, who you grew up around and what messages were transmitted to you indirectly and directly,” Taylor Smith said.

Those messages, which include who is within and outside one’s group, are “imprinted in our brain,” according to Taylor Smith. Because our brains help us navigate what is safe and who is safe to be around, our implicit biases can act up without our conscious awareness.

“With police, they are acting on the impulses stored in their brain. They have been imprinted with the fear of African-American males since the founding of the country,” she said.

However, intentionally examining such beliefs can help “dismantle and disrupt” racism at the personal and institutional levels, she believes.

Another example of implicit bias involves economic opportunity. Despite the cultural message that success comes solely from working hard, there are those who simply didn’t have access to the same opportunity as others, Taylor Smith says.

“There is a belief that if you don’t have a certain level of success, it’s because you didn’t work hard,” Taylor Smith explained. “But it’s really about access — access to education, access to resources.”

Conversations around white privilege were some of the most challenging and uncomfortable of the trainings, according to several who participated. The issue came to a head in one group after participants watched a video that showed the unequal playing field for blacks compared to whites in the form of a cartoon track-and-field race.

Taylor Smith was not surprised that there was some tension created by the video, whose goal is not to represent everyone, she said, but to “spark conversation.” Above all, she wants people to understand that being privileged doesn’t necessarily mean one’s family had a lot of money.

“Does it mean that every white person had wealth? No,” she said. “It’s really to think about the way that resources have been allocated in this country.”

In her 17-year career as a diversity and inclusion trainer, Taylor Smith has seen resistance to even looking at the role of race in one’s life. But she has also seen that resistance overcome.

“What if it were true that race impacted your life? People don’t even want to ask that question,” Taylor Smith said. “There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance, but people come into a resolution.”

Diversity and inclusion at the Village

While the implicit bias training has a personal impact on participants, ultimately the hope is that it might also have an institutional one, according to Taylor Smith. For Stokes, the goals are still to increase the diversity within the Village and improving the climate of inclusion.

In fact, having diverse representation on Council was one reason he ran for office, to change what he saw was an unfortunate visual of predominantly white people in leadership.

“The picture we show makes a big difference,” Stokes said.

When it comes to creating an inclusive environment, Taylor Smith says it goes beyond merely creating a “welcoming” one. She went on to define inclusivity as a place that a marginalized person could “navigate knowing they have access to resources and information.”

“It means regardless of who you are you can feel safe and supported and you can express your concerns and you have equitable access to resources across the board,” Taylor Smith explained.

Village Human Resources Director Ruthe Ann Lillich reported this week that Village staff as a whole is currently somewhat more diverse than the community it serves. And she believes the Village is dealing well with rare incidents of discrimination. Still, there is more progress to be made, Lillich said, especially in recruiting more candidates of color to apply for positions within the Village.

“We’re taking a more serious look at it and we’re trying to find more places to recruit,” Lillich said.

Lillich’s most recent survey of 48 staff members showed that 23 percent identify as nonwhite. Specifically, within the police department, 35 percent identify as nonwhite. Meanwhile, just 17 percent of Yellow Springs is nonwhite, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013–2017 American Community Survey.

Lillich sees those demographics as something to build on. She was also encouraged by a separate survey some employees responded to that found that while there were a few reports of harassment at the Village, employees were aware of the steps that could be taken to report the behavior.

Out of 28 responses, there were three reports in which sexual harassment was observed, one report of racial discrimination observed and one report of gender discrimination observed, according to the voluntary anonymous survey, completed in December 2018.

When it comes to direct experience, one employee reported they had experienced sexual harassment and one had experienced gender discrimination, while none reported racial discrimination, the survey found. And 22 out of 27 respondents said they knew what steps should be taken to report such behavior. To Lillich, that’s an indication that the Village is “doing a good job.”

Lillich also believes ongoing training is critical to create a more inclusive environment at the Village.

“I feel like if you go in with an open mind, you might learn something,” she said of such trainings. “I think people did once they got in there,” she added of the recent trainings with Taylor Smith.

A next step for Lillich is to arrange a  training to increase transgender awareness among Village staff, she said. The idea was originally the suggestion of Village meter reader Rose Pelzl, who came out of the latest implicit bias training in January with a feeling that it wasn’t as comprehensive as it could have been.

“There was a hole in what was going on,” Pelzl said this week, which she added was no fault of the trainers.

“The training was more focused on race, gender and religion,” she said, while the trans issue, “was the glaring omission.”

Pelzl said it’s critical that Village employees, especially in Yellow Springs, understand how to address those who are transgender.

“If you’re afraid of offending someone, you can’t help them,” Pelzl said. “It’s okay to make mistakes.”

Pelzl also doesn’t blame anyone for their lack of awareness on the issue, which has only recently entered the public’s consciousness.

“People don’t know what they don’t know,” she said.

Lessons learned

Reflecting on her work in Yellow Springs, Taylor Smith said that the conversations about race she led here are complicated and not easy to talk about, but nevertheless important.

“People are afraid of saying and doing the wrong thing,” she said. “That’s why we need to have these conversations in safe spaces and reflect on our own experiences.”

In anonymous feedback forms filled out after the trainings, Village employees expressed their gratitude for the training and especially for learning more about their fellow co-workers and their life experiences. Others called it “eye-opening” and “engaging.”

“I was reminded that the doors of communication and understanding are always in front of you, you just have to be willing to open them,” one participant wrote.

“I found a better sense of self and acceptance of coworkers,” wrote another.

There was also some criticism, especially of the video showing the track-and-field race. One comment singled out “victims wanting to be victims or ‘victims’ seeking oppression,” and another wrote, “‘Black Lives Matter?’ — No, all lives matter!”

Some feedback to the training demonstrated “an unwillingness to put in the hard work,” Stokes reflected. Still, he is hopeful for a change. For one, he has developed a draft “Diversity in Hiring Practices” policy for the Village, and although it has yet to become official policy, some of the recommended practices have already been used.

Looking ahead, Stokes sees that Council  got the conversations started, but that it’s now up to Village staff to continue them. After all, such trainings don’t work when they are “one and done,” he said.

“I want us to step back and let the employees create a culture of their own,” Stokes said of Council’s role. “I think we’ve tee-ed up the conversation.”

What YSPD Chief Brian Carlson took away from the trainings was a better understanding of language, including how words can be harmful even with when intentions are good.

As an Arab youth, Carlson heard his share of hurtful comments about his ethnicity, but only recently realized how his comments may be similarly impacting others.

“It took me a step further to understand with the things I say that even though the intent is good, they may still have a negative impact on that person,” Carlson said.

“Words, phrases, pronouns — things are changing, and we need to be educated as well,” Carlson added, referring to YSPD staff.

“As a leader of the organization, I have to set the standard.”

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