Professionals who are working with members of the community often see social bias in its manifestations as system barriers. Also, because these professionals build relationships with community members as part of delivering services, they see social bias in the daily life experiences of those community members. Yet, these professionals who dedicate their careers to selflessly serving in the community setting and with marginalized persons are not inoculated from perpetuating biases.

Their expertise has afforded them detectors for identifying social biases broadly and generally:

  1. system barriers example: Policy Link and The Food Trust explore access to fresh, healthy, and affordable foods in one’s neighborhood for its impact on health.
  2. in daily life experiences example: Lance Hannon and Robert DeFina explore the consequences of colorism on perceived intelligence, and note the consequences of racial bias when engaging in such things as job interviews.
  3. interpersonal relationships in the course of delivering services example: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration explores unintentional retraumatization when trauma is not screened for during the delivery of services.

Even more so, some organizations have their staff members take tests to explore implicit biases, such as with the exam provided by Project Implicit. What we talk little of are the social biases widely experienced throughout community organizations, engaged in by the well-intentioned professionals. Vernā Myers, a diversity advocate, reminds us to “to stop trying to be good people.” That is, many organizations train staff in diversity and even sometimes on implicit bias, but these type of training are couched in a dangerous assumption.

The assumption says that professionals who are drawn to engage in community-based services are not vulnerable to supporting, encouraging, and enacting social biases towards the members of the community who are being served. This assumption can derail the effectiveness of trainings on diversity and implicit bias, and make inert the well-intentioned work in community organizations.

A bias-prevention tool that may work for various types of organizations is known as “bench cards.” Bench cards are used by judges on the bench to assess the connections between the case and facts at hand, the immediate courtroom hearing before the judge, and the research-based understandings about the competing forces in people’s lives. Take for example this bench card tool by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. This example is practical and for on-the-spot use as well as away from the bench during reflection and further considerations. After comprehensive training on diversity and implicit bias has been accomplished, organizations may find it important to use bench cards, or the like, to make sure that the training sticks; that is, the new information must translate into action and chronic awareness in terms of the organization’s practices and the behavior of the professionals.

Notice that while professionals, including judges, are often faced with making decisions on individualized and nuanced scenarios, the very actions of professionals feed systems and patterns. The consequences of the interaction between a professional and a member of the community (e.g. a mother who is visiting a service site) have an overwhelming influence on the trajectories that are possible for the community member. While cases are experienced and dealt with by professionals as individual cases, people who receive the service cumulatively experience many types of services and institutions throughout their lives. Implicit bias sprinkled “here and there” adds up to social trends that impact the individual and the community in identifiable ways.

Therefore, when we read short news articles or Linkedin messages on, for example, the health divide and life longevity by zip code, it is vital that we recognize that the stimulus that forms such health issues are not created by mystical forces; instead, these health issues are a compilation of systems-based and interpersonal biases across years. Notice the role that all of us can play in community organizations by recognizing that implicit bias is a moment-to-moment option that professionals can opt-out of with diligent effort and support from their leadership. Even for organizations that do not frame their mission in social justice language, these organizations have a major role to play in reeling-back social bias. If your organization supports professionals with tools like bench cards, we’d love to hear about it