by Tina Wong, Melanie Mc Dermott, Toni Lewis, and Renata Schiavo
In the United States, local governments play a key role in providing, promoting and regulating health services, economic advancement, education, land use and transportation, and safe neighborhoods with clean air and water. Even absent explicit discrimination, when that role is affected by implicit bias—the attitudes or stereotypes that unconsciously affect understanding and behavior—it leads to unequal access and unequal allocation of resources in these critical domains. The ability to vote, approvals of FHA loans, and access to quality education, greenspace and more, are just a few areas contributing to our overall health and wellbeing in which municipal bias continues to produce inequitable outcomes. Communities of color, low-income groups, people living with disabilities, LGBTQI+ groups, immigrants, and other marginalized social groups experience barriers to critical opportunities as a result. These inequitable outcomes are further reinforced by structural racism and other forms of social discrimination that exist in biased policies and practices in our local governments.
Building upon the organization’s 10 years of experience in addressing social discrimination as a key determinant of health inequities and promoting community- and stakeholder-driven solutions to confront bias in its many manifestations (e.g., systemic racism, xenophobia, sexism, bias against LBTQI+ groups, or people living in poverty or with a disability), Health Equity Initiative has been partnering with the Diversity and Equity Task Force of Sustainable Jersey to address the impact of bias in New Jersey. In this role, HEI has initiated and lead the development of an action plan and joint proposal to confront implicit bias in local government systems by addressing the needs of municipal and school officials, staff, volunteers and community members for training and guidance, as well as developing participatory planning resources to develop the language, space and tools for anti-bias work. Of great importance to this transformative process is a consultative and stakeholder engagement process that should include government officials and staff, as well as their partners and community representatives.
A non-profit organization, Sustainable Jersey, taps professional and community-based expertise through its volunteer Task Forces and local green teams to advance a holistic vision of sustainability at the local level in New Jersey. The Diversity and Equity Task Force includes leadership from Health Equity Initiative and the Newark City Sustainability Office, as well as academics and professional health and social equity facilitators.
On May 16, 2021, the Task Force found an opportunity to pilot this approach by offering an on-line training workshop on Challenging Implicit Bias: Exploring the Way Forward, as part of the Sustainable Jersey 2021 Virtual Sustainability Summit. The well-attended session, which was co-sponsored with Health Equity Initiative, was led by Tina Wong (lead facilitator) and co-facilitated by Renata Schiavo (Health Equity Initiative’s Board President), Melanie McDermott (Sustainable Jersey) and other members of the Task Force.
The workshop presented information, exercises and a guided discussion with the goal of deepening our understanding of implicit bias, how it can manifest in institutions, specifically, our local governments and schools, and how it influences their resource allocation and other decisions. The workshop also explored bias mitigation strategies and the way forward to an equitable future. Among the strategies shared at the workshop were to increase self-awareness, examine power dynamics, and consider local communities as key assets that can be mobilized to create shifts in mental models that lead to transformative systems change. One of the participants shared an intimate story about their own journey, first losing their job, and then their home. The story brought to light the inequities in the housing system in New Jersey, which is rooted in a deep history of housing injustice based on race, creed, color and other socially determined factors.
The feedback from participants included several calls to “…continue the conversation.…connect with us on how to bring this conversation back to our own communities.”
In partnership with Health Equity Initiative, the Task Force is actively exploring avenues to further this conversation and provide incentives and guidance to municipalities, which would need to offer regular anti-bias training and then use it as a springboard to self-assessment and a deliberate effort to identify and root out bias and discrimination in municipal processes.
Both Health Equity Initiative and Sustainable Jersey as well as other partnering organizations in the task force are also exploring separate and organization-specific opportunities to build upon their existing programs and attend the specific needs of the communities and constituencies they serve. For example, Sustainable Jersey is currently piloting an equity coaching curriculum in New Jersey that builds upon the organization’s commitment to providing technical assistance in the region.
As a global organization with extensive experience in capacity building and training, Health Equity Initiative is actively exploring how to expand and fund its “health equity catalyst network” of facilitators and coaches to 1) further the organization’s engagement on anti-bias specific training and 2) implement a participatory process that would strengthen the capacity of schools, youth organizations, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies across the United States and globally to train local champions and address implicit and institutional bias. If not now, when?
About the Authors
Tina Wong is a facilitator, a coach, and a strategist working at the intersections of change management and organizational effectiveness, operating through the lens of sustainability – environmental integrity, economic vitality, and social (and racial) equity). She is a Sustainability Strategy + Change Consultant and Founder of greenprint ethos. Tina partners with purpose-driven organizations to create transformative systems change for greater social change. Read about Tina here
Melanie McDermott is the Senior Researcher for Sustainable Jersey at The College of New Jersey. With degrees in interdisciplinary social science (PhD.) and forestry (MSc.), she applies research on the relationships among community, environment, and social difference to collaborative problem-solving in varied contexts, from the tropical rain forest to the New Jersey Shore. Read about Melanie here.
Antonia (Toni) Lewis, MPH, is a Community Health Strategist providing strategic guidance to grantees of New Jersey Health Initiatives, the statewide grantmaking program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. As a mentor, coach and friend, she empowers people working collectively across diverse sectors to achieve long-term equitable opportunities to be healthy. Read about Toni here.
Renata Schiavo, PhD, MA, CCL, is the founder and board president at Health Equity Initiative. She is a passionate advocate for health equity and a committed voice on the importance of addressing and removing barriers that prevent people from leading healthy and productive lives. She has significant experience on community engagement, participatory design processes, strategy development, and capacity building and training for system-change. Read her full bio.
Photo credit: Unsplash (multiple sources/authors): https://unsplash.com/collections/36gmKWJy_Kg/hei-blog
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