Aims to address hidden biases

Pete Costanza

“I think that the United States has systematized oppression, in all different ways whether you’re a women, whether you’re a person with a disability, whether you have a certain skin color,” said Child Development Instructor Janice Townsend. “I think we all have our hidden biases we are not even aware of and we are acting in a way that perpetuates the system.”

Just before the semester started about 90 Los Medanos College staff members were asked to investigate their own hidden biases at an all-day “Looking in-Looking out” focused Flex workshop Jan. 10 that is a result of an ongoing college initiative on diversity.

The goals of the day were to develop an understanding of unconscious bias, provide time for self and group reflection, share practices and learn new strategies for advancing personal and institutional cultural competencies, explained Rosa Armendariz, Project Director of the Hispanic Serving Institutions Grant.

According to Armendariz in an email interview, the planning team for the Flex workshop began meeting in the fall 2012 semester. However the  issue of diversity and how to deal with it in a positive way has been in the works at the college since 2006 when LMC’s Institutional Development for Equality Access (IDEA) Committee formed.

According to the LMC website, the IDEA committee grew out of a partnership with California Tomorrow’s Campus Network. The committee’s propose is to advocate for an institutional culture that values and promotes equity and social justice. Part of IDEA’s early work involved contacting with the Center for Urban Equity (CUE), a research center at the University of Southern California which, according to CUE’s own website, is “committed to closing the racial-ethnic equity gap and improving student outcomes in education.”

The IDEA committee has met regularly since its creation, attempting to plan and effect change at LMC, and its members have taken ideas to other campus groups.

“Through our work with the IDEA Committee, reviewing our college data and student needs, the college has identified a need to figure out how to improve our campus practices, policies and climate to support our diverse and changing student population more effectively. Sometimes it is difficult to discuss race, but this seemed like a prime opportunity to reflect and build our capacity as a staff to work together,” said Armendariz.

While CUE did not have a direct role in planning the Flex workshop, LMC has been working with the organization for a few years “on a separate project reviewing data and identifying how the college could better serve our diverse students. I would say that this project with CUE helped to bring attention to the issues of equity that we talked about at Flex,” said Armendariz.

Business Professor Theodora Adkins, who sat on the planning committee for focused Flex, highlights the importance of working together to achieve equality.

“Everyone has unconscious biases. Hopefully, we will learn how to identify and uncover some of those biases, work to reprogram our minds and not let those biases prevent us from interacting with each other in healthy ways. This is a life-long process but the journey of one thousand miles begins with the first step. I think we took our first step of this thousand-mile journey and it has made us stronger.”

Stereotypes are used to classify people as inferior or different enough to restrict rights or exclude them from society. LMC has a diverse population and it seems to some that stereotyping may be happening on campus.

A recent survey entitled “Stereotyping of LMC Students” focused on how students were treated by LMC employees. Completed last semester by Jessica Kennedy, Rebeca Burgos, Vanessa Alvarenga, Luis Ruiz and Elijah Mayes of the Academy for College Excellence (ACE) program, the survey found that students either experienced or witnessed an act of discrimination within the first two months of attending LMC. Grades, appearance, race and gender were the most common ways the 117 people surveyed reported they had been mistreated. Forty-eight percent felt the way they dressed played a factor in how they were treated.

“I have had students come to me throughout my time in this office, which is about five or six years, with issues of discrimination or feeling disrespected based upon physical appearance, their gender, their age in various situations,” said Student Life Coordinator Demetria Lawrence.

Lawrence, who also helped plan the Flex workshop, tells how one Latina student who works in the Student Life Office had a teacher comment during class discussion that she probably knows a lot of migrant workers since she lives in Brentwood. The student didn’t understand the connection or how it was relevant to the discussion, said Lawrence adding that people should look into themselves and try to do better at being culturally competent.

“I think the most important thing is just acknowledging it in oneself and that it does exist and the willingness to move forward and try to work on it… do better the next day,” said Lawrence. She added that it is important to correct and own up to cultural missteps, and “going back and saying ‘you know what, when I did this I’m sorry,’ or saying ‘I hope I didn’t offend you when I said this,’ is a step in the right direction … letting people know that you care about them and who they are.”

A perceived attack or invalidation can cause students to shut down and ultimately lead to being unsuccessful in achieving higher education goals.

“I really think it’s great that we want to take this on because I think [bias] does contribute to students thinking this place isn’t for them and dropping out… we have to make people feel welcome and have them feel that they’re integral and important.” said Townsend.

Townsend, who also played a role in planning the Flex workshop, described an incident that was brought to her attention. A student of color was attempting to quickly add a class at the end of the class hour so she could leave to find other course options. However the instructor was trying to be orderly and kept telling that student to sit in her seat and wait her turn. The student got up to leave because she felt she was being discriminated against, but the instructor asked her to sit back down. When she did, she pulled her hoodie over her head as if to hide herself — or cower down.

“When you are [spoken] to that way it could just bring back a lot of past history that you have,” said Townsend, adding that it “may not be a racist thing at all. The professor started on this side of the room and moved around. But was there any other way to talk to that student so it didn’t feel so patronizing?”

LMC English Professor Michael Yeong and Karl Debro, a former LMC staff member who is currently the manager of Contra Costa college’s Gateway to College program, jointly presented a “Can We Talk” segment at the Flex workshop  and received some positive feedback from colleagues.

“I’ve heard comments from people who attended… who seem to feel that it certainly was a worthwhile flex. Others have expressed, ‘I didn’t know that’ or ‘I’m glad I was there to hear some of the things that I heard and interact with my fellow colleges around this question of race and unconscious bias’,” said Yeong.

Yeong has been teaching at LMC for 20 years and has seen the cultural landscape change over time. He explained that traditionally Caucasian males have run the hierarchies of most institutions and some now think the best way for LMC to thrive is to have leaders who reflect the student population.

“The racial make-up of the student body has changed,” said Yeong. “It changed significantly. The racial make-up of the faculty has changed, but not as much as the student population.”

Yeong added that the cultural competency conversation around campus should continue.

“This shouldn’t stop with this focused Flex,” he said. There “should be periodical events happening during the semester, maybe two more or three more. One further on into the semester and if time permits maybe one at the end of the semester.”

The continuation of this topic is also a hope of Lawrence.

“I think the institution as a whole can do more workshops and more training on the issue. Some people call it cultural competency training, sensitivity training but I think the conversation needs to happen more and more for people to unpack their own stuff,” said Lawrence. “My hope is that this is … the foundation, we can keep building from here.”

The college has recently instituted four strategic priorities that programs and departments use to plan improvement and change:

  • Increase and accelerate student program completion.
  • Build stronger relationships among faculty, staff and students to increase engagement and student success.
  • Increase and accelerate student completion of basic skills.
  • Improve the academic success of our African American students.

“The committee organizing the day felt like the flex could help the college community address the fourth one focused on African American students. As a college we should be looking at ways to improve outcomes for all of our students with particular attention to this student population,” said Armendariz.

Through its strategic priorities, LMC is committed tackling the issue of discrimination and bias. If you feel you have been mistreated there are people and places to go for help. For instance you may address the issue with the staff member in person, or you can visit the Student Life Office and fill out a formal complaint form. If the situation is an unlawful act of discrimination or sexual harassment then Senior Dean of Student Services Gail Newman is the person to see. Her office is located in the College Complex Core, Room CO-408. She can be reached by phone at 439-2181 ext. 3372 or email her at gnewman@losmedanos.edu.