Erasing Institutional Bias

On Wednesday, March 27th, REAL LIFE welcomed Ashley Diaz-Mejias and Dr. Tiffany Jana to speak on their book and connect with staff and clients of REAL LIFE, as well as guests from the community. Their book, Erasing Institutional Bias: How to Create Systemic Change for Organizational Inclusion truly digs deep into racial, gender, occupational, and retribution bias in society. Jana and Mejias empower their readers to recognize that each of us have the power to challenge the bias in ourselves and in the structures around us.

Dr. Jana and Mejias engaged in a valuable conversation with clients and guests on why these biases still exist and how we can overcome them. One in particular that was brought up during the discussion is retribution bias, one that we see all too often, is the tendency to prefer punishment over relationships and rehabilitation efforts. REAL LIFE (and so many others) is all too familiar with this, unfortunately. Not only does the U.S. incarcerate more people than any other country on the planet, but the systems and societal norms are not friendly to citizens reentering society post incarceration. Even after serving their sentence, there are still numerous barriers and obstacles as people try to reenter society and the workforce. Overcoming these obstacles is the priority of REAL LIFE. We see how conscious and unconscious biases of criminal background, race, class, and gender manifest into obstacles that prevent people, especially those who were formerly incarcerated or recovering from addiction, from getting fair employment and housing, among so many other things. It is vital that we, as a society, work hard to reduce the negative stigmas and stereotypes that are associated with recovering individuals, and also work hard to reduce biases in ourselves and the systems around us.

How do we do this exactly? We can all admit it is difficult enough to reduce biases in powerful systems around us, let alone recognize the unconscious biases we have within ourselves. Dr. Jana, a Diversity, equity and inclusion practitioner, spoke on several steps to reduce and ultimately remove bias in a system. First, we must set a clear goal of what we want changed or accomplished in that system. Next, we must lead this operation with data-whether that be quantitative or data collected from real stories. After accurately diagnosing the system, we can deconstruct the system and eliminate subjective processes. Once the system is reconstructed with objectivity, we must implement accountability measures. Dr. Jana emphasized how important accountability is, because as humans, we all mess up. Rather than dwelling on mistakes and shortcomings, we must have measures in place that show us how to correct those wrongs.

It is ultimately one of the hardest tasks to recognize and reduce your own unconscious bias. As humans, we are all biased due to our upbringing and the environments we live and work in. Mejias offered a way to reduce our biases. We can compare unconscious bias to a disease we cannot find a cure for, such as substance use disorder. We can’t cure it, but we can treat it. We must work on treating it daily. Mejias commented on how good intentions are great, but they don’t produce change. Change only occurs in spaces outside of our comfort zone. REAL LIFE emphasizes this to clients – in order to start a new way of life, we must be uncomfortable with our new space, because if we don’t become uncomfortable, then change isn’t occurring. This also goes for confronting racial or classist biases in the people around you. It is hard to confront those closest to us such as family, but it is extremely important that we have those uncomfortable conversations with our cousins or uncles about their racist, sexist or classist remarks in order for to recognize their unconscious biases.

As members of society we must stand up for injustices and be a voice for those who do not have a seat at the table, the marginalized and incarcerated. In order to improve our standard of living, we must surround ourselves with people that will uplift us and not bring us down to our low points. This too is emphasized at REAL LIFE; everyone is welcome and treated like family. Having a strong support system is necessary, and we must also encourage others to act with empathy and love, instead of hate and prejudice. Dr. Jana said it best, ”I love you. You should love you, and we should all love each other.”

You can purchase the book where books are sold, or on Amazon.