Resilience, COVID, safety net and implicit bias

Have you ever had the experience of many random thoughts, seemingly disconnected, yet somehow related, and then finally had that “a-ha” moment where you realize that it is all actually different sides of the same coin? I would like to think I am not the only person to whom this has happened at one point or another. So, this month, if you will indulge me, I would like to talk about the seemingly disconnected, yet somehow totally related topics of: COVID Vaccination, Community Resilience, a strong Safety Net, Volunteering and Donating, making grants, and Implicit Bias. And yes, for the record, these are the types of topics which keep me up at night!

Let us start with the last item on the list, since it affects all the others: Implicit Bias. I was recently shown some research and assessment tools about implicit bias that have my head spinning. If you have not heard of implicit bias, it refers to the way in which we perceive people and their behaviors based on deeply ingrained stereotypes. That is my definition, by the way, and not a clinical or scientific definition. I would guess that most of us would agree that racism and prejudice are bad traits and, further, that we generally believe that we are not as individuals “that way.” I know that I try hard to be accepting and non-judgmental when it comes to people pertaining to race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability/disability, etc. And yet, I also realize that I am a product of my society and surroundings. Things like the media, advertising, where I grew up, and how I grew up, can greatly affect my thinking about people and their behaviors.

To measure these theories, psychologists have developed tests for implicit bias. The one I took is from Harvard University (just Google “Harvard University Implicit Bias.”) The test is fascinating in how it operates. The test for racial bias, for example, forces you to quickly make associations with words that mean good or bad things, and pairs them up with faces of people who are black or white. In one series, for example, you would choose “beautiful” paired with the face of a black person, and in the next series you would choose “beautiful” paired with the face of a white person. Having to make these types of differentiating choices quickly, forces your mind at a subconscious level to do the thinking, which in turn reveals in very clear terms what types of implicit bias you might have. Without telling you my own test results, let me just say that I was not at all happy with the outcome. But I can see where the thinking might come from and I can also see how it might affect my decision making, especially for those spur of the moment types of decisions.

So, what does implicit bias have to do with grant making, volunteering, and donating? Well, actually, EVERYTHING! How do you choose where to invest your time and energy? Sometimes and for a very few people, it is based on a cerebral and intellectual analysis of the world, data, and actual needs. There are some people who are very deliberate. They take the time to assess trends, dissect service gaps, and put their energy where they can make the greatest difference or tend to the most acute situations. However, that is likely to be a very small percentage of the population. For the rest of us, we volunteer and donate to the causes which elicit an emotional response in us. And many times that emotional response comes about because of the marketing messages put forth to us. If my bias tends to favor straight, male, working class type individuals, and the nonprofit which supports homeless veterans presents its case with a portrayal of an overtly lesbian woman of color, there is a much lower likelihood that I might be inclined to contribute time or money to that organization. However, if the organization presents its pitch with a more stereotypical white male, I might be more inclined toward support if implicit bias can affect my decision making. Does not mean the organization has changed its mission. Just means that my implicit bias is doing my thinking. If we are honest with ourselves – truly honest – we must most certainly admit that our judgement is clouded by implicit bias. And this can affect everything we do and every decision we make.

As grant makers, we are also affected. In the case of United Way, our grants are made by our volunteers, in conjunction with our board and professional staff. When grant applicants come to us to present their cases, it is often in person, which means that there is a great opportunity for decisions to be made based on who is making the pitch, how they are dressed, their body language, etc. Are they on time? Are they prepared and organized? Do they appear nervous or self-confident? Truly, none of these things have necessarily anything to do with the merits of their program, but all these things can affect what gets funded and in what amount. So, we need to be very careful and self-aware in these situations, not to be drawn in by the emotion and judgement, but to be deciding based on the evidence provided.

And this brings me to my final set of unrelated, yet interconnected, thoughts: Resilience, the Safety Net, and COVID Vaccination. As a community, we have worked hard to develop a safety net which is strong and strives to keep our most vulnerable from falling through the cracks. I would say that for the most part we have done a pretty good job with this. However, because again of some of our bias, as a community, we have not necessarily invested in all the safety net where some of our most at-risk residents are. We have opportunities to build on safety net investments in the areas of mental health, substance use disorder, the disability community, and youth homelessness. These are pieces of the safety net which come with a lot of stigma. Stigma means we do not talk about it. And in turn, it is different from ourselves in profound ways. What that means is that if we cannot relate to a problem, then we are not as likely to donate to or volunteer in its support. I think it is worth asking oneself as a volunteer or donor, where can I get involved in something which is very different than myself, which is something I cannot relate to. I can guarantee you that if you are not getting involved, that you are not alone, which means that you have identified a likely gap in our safety net system. Many of us have an implicit bias as it relates to disability, for example. Is it any surprise then that an organization which supports people with disabilities might struggle for volunteers or donations?

Last on the list is COVID vaccination. How does this relate? Well, the data is becoming increasingly clear that there are disparities between different groups getting vaccinated or not. I am not referring to “vaxers” and “anti-vaxers.” That is a different story and topic. What I mean is that there are many minorities and subgroups, including immigrants and people of color, who are choosing not to get vaccinated. Our Public Health Department is doing an incredible job trying to build trust and confidence with the public and with these groups. But it is an uphill battle. If you were raised with stories and images of white male doctors experimenting on vulnerable women and people of color, then it should be no surprise that you would be skeptical when people who “look like that” are trying to convince you that a vaccine is necessary, safe, and effective. In cases like this it is very important that we can come together as a community as friends and neighbors to assure one another. Of course, there will still be people who will choose not to get vaccinated for personal reasons. The problem is when it is large groups of people that do so, not because of facts and evidence, but because of preconceived notions and implicit bias.

In summary, it is incumbent on each of us to think seriously about how implicit bias effects our actions and decision making. It is important of course that we allow emotion to comingle with rationale when making decisions, but it is also important that we are aware that our preconceived notions, however deeply buried, can also change the way we view and interact with each other and the world. Whether that means become a volunteer, donating to an organization, or getting yourself vaccinated, when we take the time to be proactive about acknowledging, recognizing, and confronting our personal biases, it makes it much easier for us to make sure that we are all moving together in a positive direction, because GREAT THINGS HAPPEN WHEN WE LIVE UNITED.

Mike Apfelberg is president of United Way of Greater Nashua.