Implicit bias can be difficult to recognize and even harder to address, but that isn’t stopping Columbia’s Inclusive Impact Institute from taking steps to educate and empower members of the community to do just that. The organization, which aims to create diverse and inclusive communities through curriculum, offers its Journey Toward Inclusive Excellence to provide the opportunity for community members to “confront their biases,” says Inclusive Impact Institute Director Nikki McGruder.
The Journey is a series of carefully curated “experiences” open to community members that encourage people to develop their self-awareness and learn to recognize implicit biases, privilege and oppression. The Journey educates participants on ways to address their biases and to challenge existing systems of oppression in the community.
In this context, implicit bias generally means “unconscious stereotype-based assumptions that can affect decision making,” says Rachael Hernandez, an MU postdoctoral research fellow whose previous work included training doctors on how to address their unconscious prejudices when interacting with patients.
Implicit bias is something everyone struggles with, McGruder says. “All of us have biases. No one is exempt,” she says. “Even when we think that we’re the greatest human being, we still have biases.” But she emphasizes that simply having biases doesn’t make someone a bad person, particularly because the Journey deals with unconscious bias and “things we aren’t even aware of.”
The Journey Toward Inclusive Excellence was created to help shine a light on these hidden biases.
Starting the Journey
The first step is registering and getting a program passport. This can be done at Daniel Boone Regional Library, the Columbia/Boone County Department of Health and Human Services or Columbia City Hall. The passport is a booklet that contains a schedule of the Journey experiences organized by the Inclusive Impact Institute or its various community partners.
At the beginning of the process, participants are also encouraged to take some of the online Implicit Associations Tests (IATs) created by Harvard University researchers. The tests cover a variety of topics like gender, disability, race and sexuality. They help identify a person’s potential biases and internal beliefs about certain topics. McGruder says the tests can be taken privately at home. “My suggestion is that you always start with the one that you don’t think that you have a problem with and let that be your first assessment,” she says, adding that people might be surprised by the results.
From there, McGruder says participants can reflect on their results and start “the intentional work of choosing what experiences (they’re) going to attend.” Hernandez praised the Journey’s use of IATs because she says those types of associations tests are best used for self-reflection rather than diagnosing other people’s biases.
The Journey will look different for everyone because people are encouraged to select experiences based on the implicit biases revealed by the tests. A foundational step for all participants, however, is attending a Cycle of Socialization experience, which informs people where implicit biases come from.
“What we’ll do is help people understand that our lived experiences contribute to our having the biases,” McGruder says. She says there are many factors that contribute to bias: where a person grows up, a person’s family and the family’s existing biases, a person’s teachers, the schools they attended and the media, to name a few.
Although the Cycle of Socialization experience is technically step three of the Journey, the next one isn’t until March 18, and McGruder says there’s no reason for anyone interested in starting on the Journey to wait and potentially miss out on other experiences in the meantime.
Outside of the socialization experience, the Journey has a wide variety of other experience options, including discussions on disability or race, poverty simulations, movie/book discussions and more. McGruder says they try to keep the experience approaches varied because not every method works the same for each person. “There’ll be something that speaks to one person that might not for another,” she says.
As participants continue on the Journey, they can use their passports to keep track of the experiences they attend. The program, with its detailed schedule of experiences, runs from January through August each year, but McGruder was clear that there’s no real “end” to the Journey. She says people must continuously check their biases, expose themselves to new cultures, and learn from others.
“The work is really up to you,” she says. “We want everyone to take ownership of their journey, and so it should be ongoing. I do this work every day, but my journey is ongoing.”
McGruder says that the Journey usually engages between 500 and 700 people each year, and some individuals even choose to participate in it more than once. She considers the Journey Toward Inclusive Excellence a success because it is a step toward the Inclusive Impact Institute’s goal of creating a community where everyone has a place and feels they belong.
While increasing awareness of implicit bias is only a “piece of the bigger puzzle” when it comes to addressing discrimination, Hernandez says it is important for people to learn to recognize their own biases. She says it gives people a way to think about their personal role in perpetuating discrimination, and for that reason, the Journey and its experiences seem to be effective for addressing implicit bias.
“It seems like they are really on the right track toward success in a lot of ways because those different activities do fit into the research literature about remediating bias and about addressing bias,” Hernandez says. “In trying to access individuals who can make individual changes and better themselves by addressing their biases, that is one important step.”
Hernandez also says that she hopes the Inclusive Impact Institute is assessing the changes in perspective and behavior of its participants to see how effective the program truly is.
There are some limitations to programs like the Journey Toward Inclusive Excellence, says Hernandez. Firstly, Journey participants volunteer, which means they might already accept the idea that unconscious bias and discrimination are important. She says research shows that one big challenge in this type of training is accessing people who are skeptical about the impact of implicit bias. Secondly, she emphasized how important it is that programs like the Journey focus on reaching people with the power to make decisions that can lead to discriminatory outcomes. While everyone has their ability to improve interactions with people who are generally stereotyped, Hernandez points out that it is important to reach those with power.
Despite these possible constraints to the Journey’s effectiveness, Hernandez said she still thinks there is a lot of value to the program.
“I think it’s particularly promising that this type of program exists in the community,” Hernandez says. “It shows that there’s an audience for this, and it shows that people are willing to self-reflect and try to improve their communication with stereotyped or minority groups. And that, in and of itself, is super promising.”