“The Elephant Can’t Fit Through My Door," said the Giraffe: Addressing Implicit Bias for Organizations

The Action! Team recently had the benefit of attending a training on implicit bias hosted by the Mel King Institute and facilitated by Malia Lazu of The Urban Labs. Malia started with the story of the elephant and the giraffe who were buddies at the watering hole. They had good conversation and shared interests, so one day the giraffe invited the elephant over for dinner. When the elephant arrived, they went to walk in the door, but began breaking the doorway because it was a doorway built for giraffes. The giraffe had to tell the elephant to stop because his home was not built for elephants.

This is where we began our conversation; discussing institutional and structural bias that impacts the lives of people every day. While good intention and inclusionary conversations are being had more and more, there is a need for everyone to acknowledge our own biases that can shape our perception of the world and how we treat others. Acknowledging this implicit bias is a crucial step in furthering often uncomfortable conversations on dismantling historic injustices so that we can realize a society that works for everyone.

I want to use this article as a reflection on takeaways from this training. Plus, some additional thoughts as we look at continuing to address challenges created and supported by bias and how our organizations can take actionable steps forward to change systems of inequity.

Build Doorways That Work for Everyone

The story of the elephant and giraffe opened a productive dialogue on how many people feel addressing bias and systemic injustices. We discussed acknowledging one’s own intention in not wanting to marginalize or oppress people, but recognizing the historic — and continued — impact bias has on populations of people, and where we play a role.

As a society, we need to work together to open these doorways to include everyone (the inclusion part of Diversity & Inclusion) but move further by asking, “How might we design a society where everyone feels they belong?”

We asked the question, “What gives you a sense of belonging?” Summarizing a longer dialogue, there were three elements related to the feeling of belonging that stood out to me:

1. Feeling comfortable where you are — entering a space and saying to yourself, “I feel welcome. I feel valued. I feel safe.”

2. The ability to be your authentic self — not feeling as though you need to compromise anything about your appearance, your identity, or your culture and heritage to feel included.

3. Not feeling you have to censor yourself — the ability to express oneself without fear of judgement, repercussions, or harm.

So, how do we, as organizations, leaders, and individuals, build ecosystems that make our staff, as well as the people we serve, feel (truly feel) they belong?

Creating Structures of Belonging: Ideas for Taking Action

1. Commit: Establish your organization as a safe space for exploration.

Not all programs and policies work. Therefore, I encourage we consider “Solving the Inequities of Our Systems; Internally & Externally” as a foundational value that becomes a key driver of our organizations. If we commit to addressing the challenges of institutional, structural, and implicit bias, it encourages us to keep moving forward with agency, an area many organizations lack in addressing challenges of equity and access, and resolve, so if one program doesn’t work effectively, not using “Oh, we tried” as an excuse to not try something else. It is also critical to communicate to our teams that our workspaces are safe spaces where they can ask questions and expect support from leadership.

2. Train: Provide trainings in implicit bias to establish a baseline.

It is important to establish an understanding with our teams around implicit bias that equip them with concepts, language, and definitions that provide a baseline to open dialogue with others in your organization where they may have felt uncomfortable discussing some of these topics in the past. Plus, communicate that it is okay to feel uncomfortable having these conversations and that these are complex issues that take time to break down, understand, and address.

Consider:

    1. Full team trainings that establish everyone in the organization, regardless of title or position, can benefit from discussions on bias.

    2. Trainings for the organization’s leaders that promote how to address power structures and build healthy team dynamics that remove unhealthy associations to hierarchies.

    3. Ongoing staff trainings that provide opportunities for further growth, questions, and discussion that show your organization’s commitment (your values system) to a safe and brave space ecosystem.

3. Build: Conduct Team Building Workshops & Activities

Now that your team has more capacities to discuss issues of bias, team building exercises can function more efficiently and equitably and support strengthened team dynamics, interdepartmental collaboration, and workplace productivity. People excel where they feel that sense of belonging, are encouraged to be engaged, and know there are supports in place that help them succeed. These activities not only increase productivity and output from staff, but also increase the retention rates of individuals working for organizations that prioritize team building.

4. Socialize: Provide space for your team to get to know each other

So, you’ve addressed your commitment to ED&I as a core value of your organization. You’ve provided your team with terms and definitions surrounding bias that they have begun addressing. And you have integrated belonging as an integral part of team building and productivity workshops. Now (and throughout each of these steps), encourage the individuals on your team to be their authentic selves. Acknowledge each of your team members as an individual with a unique lived experience, their own cultural identity, and that each part of what makes them who they are is an asset to your organization. Further, encourage socialization amongst your team by providing times where they can learn about each other and their experiences outside of work. Host socials during business hours where people don’t have to compromise other activities in their lives to attend. Better yet, give ownership of social activities to your team so they can work together to establish things they would enjoy doing.

Recognize Your Power

This is an overwhelming, complex issue. End of sentence — no “but”. As advocates for equity and those coming into their understanding of it and committing time to deconstructing one’s own implicit bias, it can be a tiring and seemingly impossible issue where we can find ourselves asking, “Well, how can I really do anything about the injustices of our world?” I’ve asked myself the same question.

I will end with this: recognize where you currently hold power and how you can support others in the discovery of their own power. The individual voice is more powerful than many people realize. Unfortunately, due to bias and structures of oppression, many people’s power has been suppressed to the point where they feel it doesn’t exist. Help us change this dialogue. Some people have to fight harder to reclaim their power, but we all must work to realize a society where everyone belongs.

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Thank you to the Mel King Institute and Malia Lazu of The Urban Labs for supporting the attendees in further exploration of our own biases and giving us more capacities to address these issues.

Have ideas for how to create inclusive, equitable ecosystems that promote feelings of belonging? Send me a note at josh@actionbydesign.co.


Action! by Design works with organizations, groups, and cities to cultivate community. We use a citizen-centered design method to build places, programs, and experiences for people.

Contact us at TheTeam@Actionbydesign.co to discuss opportunities to work together!