Building an Inclusive Village by Addressing Bias at an Early Age

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In 2015, Forbes published an article stating that a growing portion of the $8 billion diversity and inclusion training industry was being invested in unconscious bias training. In fact, according to a 2015 study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), 45 percent of all companies surveyed had already provided this type of training to their employees. Another study published by i4cp in early 2016 found that less than 20 percent of respondents reported having leaders who were effective in addressing biases in themselves or others as well as creating inclusive workplaces. That is a significantly minimal return on investment. It also raises a question: Why aren’t these efforts producing better results?

Perhaps we can find a clue in a recent paper by Ellen Wolpert, the founding director of the Washington Beach Community Preschool in Boston who previously worked for Education Development Center, Inc. In her paper titled Redefining the Norm: Early Childhood Anti-Bias Strategies, she points out how children pick up social biases and internalize them at a much younger age than most people realize. In other words, by the time an employee in his or her late 20s participates in an organization’s unconscious bias training program, he or she has already established certain patterns and behaviors. With this understanding in mind, I have often asked myself why more is not done at an earlier age to avoid allowing bias to take root in people instead of waiting until they are adults with strong inclinations and then putting them through programs to address those well-established tendencies.

This is not to say that there have been no efforts at all to address bias at earlier stages. Take Sesame Street, for example, a 50-year-old TV program that has helped many children begin to grapple early in life with important topics in a more balanced, less biased way. Three years ago, the program announced the latest member in a string of characters designed to promote understanding and inclusion among young children: Her name is Julia, a red-haired 4-year-old with autism.  Throughout Sesame Street’s history, other topics addressed as part of the show’s inclusion efforts have included racism, breastfeeding, HIV, Down syndrome, disabilities, incarceration, women’s rights, and adoption, among others. This commendable effort starts very early; the average age of viewers is between 3 and 5 years old.

Conscientious families of course do not and should not want to leave all this work to TV programs. There is much we can do at home to help develop our children and grandchildren into more open and inclusive people, despite our own biases. One way to achieve this is by doing something that unfortunately is very rare, as this next story illustrates.

Jacqui Robertson is chief talent, diversity, and inclusion officer for William Blair & Company and a member of the i4cp Chief Diversity Officer Board, as well as a personal friend. She recently told me about an eye-opening experience she had in college. Here’s how she related it:

During my first year of college, a classmate and I were having a very casual conversation. I was excited to live on campus, and while setting up my dorm room, which consisted of a few items other than a bed, I asked her for her opinion about the best way to configure belongings in such a small space. She responded with her thoughts, and I continued to chat and ask her questions. Finally, she made a comment that was incredible to me. … She admitted that no one had ever asked her what she thought before. “What about your parents?” I asked. She said, “Especially my parents. They’ve never asked my opinion before.” I couldn’t help but think that when parents spend more time imposing their opinions versus trying to understand their child’s point of view, they can’t help but raise biased children who grow into biased adults.

Indeed, how do we raise children who open themselves up to different perspectives instead of pushing their own narrow views when that is exactly what their parents exemplified? The bottom line is that we all have and will continue to have biases, but what can make us more inclusive is our ability to be open and respectful of other viewpoints. We can teach that to our children from the moment they enter this world by being open to their perspectives and encouraging the same from them toward others as well as us.

When these children move up and through the educational system, from grade school through college, this inclusivity evolution can continue if those of us who are educators pick up the baton. Teachers, university professors, and other educators need to encourage vigorous intellectual debate around ideas and discourage dogmatic closed-mindedness. We need to teach people what I affectionately call the “Aretha Franklin Rule of Respect.” This means that if we hear an idea that does not align with our perspectives, we don’t automatically assume the other person is wrong.

Conversely, if a person expresses an idea that’s in agreement with our own worldview, that doesn’t mean we found the other genius in the room. These are simply different views for us to respectfully examine.

Finally, when newly minted young professionals land in our offices, we as supervisors, managers, and executives can help them gain exposure to and appreciation for people who are different from them. For example, encourage young men to join the women’s employee resource group (ERG). Ask Hispanic and African American employees to become part of the committee celebrating Asian American Heritage Month.

Continue their development and expose them to the broader tapestry that makes up the collective diversity of the organization and our nation. Encourage them to learn to understand and respect perspectives that are different from the ones they hold most dear. And yes, put them through those unconscious bias training programs to continue to deepen their understanding of themselves and others within and outside of the organization. Implement practices that reinforce inclusiveness by using strategies. Then, when the time comes to give them the mantle of greater responsibility, they will be better prepared to become the inclusive leaders we all desperately need today.

With all this in mind, what can we as a country do in the long term to prepare future generations to be more inclusive and effective than present-day leaders?

● Invest in training families to be more open and to raise children who are more open and inclusive.

● Invest in supporting more children’s programs like Sesame Street that help plant the seeds for children to become more well-rounded, inclusive citizens.

● Support the training of educators to manage classrooms that encourage cognitive differences while respecting other perspectives, as well as discourage disparaging conflicts that arise when we protect what we consider to be the only right way of thinking.

● Encourage newly minted professionals to move into others’ mini-communities by participating in ERGs focused on people who are different from them.

● Strive to continue to make ourselves more self-aware, inclusive leaders through formal programs and improvements to our own behaviors. As a wise person once advised, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

The renowned African American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, and writer Frederick Douglass once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Furthermore, there is a proverb — often attributed to African sources — that states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I would submit that it also takes a village to produce an inclusive and robust society and equally inclusive and robust organizations out of our rich national and global diversity. Let us therefore continue to invest in the work of addressing the hardened biases in our current leaders while at the same time investing in and working to build a village that will raise the more inclusive and successful citizens, employees, and leaders of tomorrow.●

Joseph Santana is chairman of the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s (i4cp) Chief Diversity Officer Board and president of Joseph Santana, LLC. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. For more information, visit joesantana.com.