Reflections on implicit bias
by Missy Young, Board Chair, and Dara Johnson, Lead Staffer
The Horning Family Fund
Putting Racism on the Table is a six-part learning series for WRAG member philanthropic CEOs and their trustees to explore key elements of racism together. Last week, participants examined the dynamics of implicit bias with Julie Nelson, Director of the Government Alliance on Race & Equity, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. Below, Horning Family Fund Board Chair Missy Young, and lead staffer Dara Johnson, share their respective experiences with implicit bias and what the series has meant to their organization.
WRAG’s Putting Racism on the Table learning series has provided me with an opportunity to build on my personal experiences and to develop new directions in my work with the Horning Family Fund.
I was born in Washington and am the product of parents who were active in the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up in a diverse neighborhood, and had black neighbors and friends. When I was a teen, one of the best Christmas presents I ever received was two season tickets to Georgetown University basketball games. Coach John Thompson became one of my heroes – not only for his winning ways as a coach, but also because he opposed the exploitation of his black players and insisted that they get a good college education. Over the years, I have valued these experiences and have had plenty of chances to consider the causes and effects of individual and institutional racism. But participating in this series has provided me a growing and deeper understanding of systemic racism.
The Horning Family Fund has historically funded organizations that address educational inequities and improve outcomes for children in our city. About ten years ago, we decided to focus our efforts on Ward 8. And because we want to address more than the symptoms of poverty, we now fund advocacy organizations, as well.
Putting Racism on the Table has inspired our board to learn more about the roots of injustice and specifically the relationship between institutional racism and poverty. We have been challenged to act on our new knowledge. Recently, we added a question to our grant application that asks, “Does your organization participate in any racial equity training?” This question has already helped us to understand more about our grantees and how they see the context of their work. To advance our exploration and understanding of structural racism, several of our board members also plan to participate in the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s racial equity training.
On my way to last Friday’s Putting Racism on the Table session on implicit bias, I stopped for coffee at a nearby cafe and noticed that a white male was operating the cash register while the six other employees (all black) were busy doing other jobs. I wasn’t sure what to make of this. Something didn’t seem right. And though I have noticed similar situations before, I saw it differently this time – with a sense of urgency and hope that our work together as philanthropists will make a difference.
This month’s series on implicit bias caused me to reflect on my past work experience and new role at the Horning Family Fund. Prior to joining the Horning Family Fund, I served 14 years as a public school teacher and administrator in predominately black schools located in lower-income communities. I was determined to change the outcome of every child in my sphere of influence. My commitment and optimism was challenged every year as I ran into resistance from leaders, teachers, and school systems. There is no doubt that these groups wanted success for every child; yet their practices and decisions weren’t always aligned with this vision.
I recall working in multiple schools where parent engagement was mandated by the school district, but across many Title I schools (which serve lower-income communities), the budget was primarily spent on food rather than meaningful programs and supports for parents. The notion that parents in lower-income communities would only show up if a meal was provided, or that we shouldn’t invest substantial time around developing programs, was a direct reflection of how some staff members viewed our parents and their children. Some would even joke about holding meetings at a club or the local carryout, implying that’s what our parents would rather do than invest in their children. What I found most interesting about this whole experience is that the same staff members, who refused to change our parent engagement strategy, were also frustrated with the low level of parent engagement. Their biases of our parents shaped by their own experiences, as well as societal influences, caused them to retain a low expectation for parents in the community.
I’m not sharing this to highlight flaws because there were times when I had to reflect on my actions toward specific children and families. We have to recognize that having biases don’t make us bad people – we all have them. The key is to understand how our biases shape the decisions we make within our organizations. Then we can strategically implement changes that “close the gap” between our mission statements and our actions. Actions will always ring louder than our words.
As I think about my role with the foundation, this difficult and essential work toward racial equity will have to start internally. I applaud WRAG for bringing this topic to philanthropic leaders. However, if we seek to address the issues in others while denying the work that needs to happen within each of us, we will continue to perpetuate the same pattern of behavior that hinders our progress.
As we move forward as a foundation, I know we will continue to examine the change we ultimately want to make and identify how we go about making this change happen. Current and future generations are depending on us to not only fund programs, but to address the underlying causes of inequity. I know we don’t have all the answers or a finalized plan of action; nonetheless, we are at a good starting place. I’m so glad to participate in Putting Racism on the Table with our board chair and board member.
Last week, Lynne and Joe Horning and the Horning Family Fund, housed at The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, were honored with the 2016 Civic Spirit Award at the 2016 Annual Celebration of Philanthropy.