Megan Figueroa: When I listen back to myself on the podcast, I’m like, “Oh, do I sound like that?” But I’m like, “This is what people sound like. This is how people talk.”
Carrie Gillon: Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination!
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa.
Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan Figueroa: How you doing, Carrie?
Carrie Gillon: Um, feeling pretty good. How about you?
Megan Figueroa: Good. I went a couple weeks there without any air conditioning and now I have air conditioning.
Carrie Gillon: I don’t know how you could do it! I mean, I know it’s slightly cooler in Tucson but not enough.
Megan Figueroa: No, not enough cooler. It was miserable. My poor dog found all of the different ways to lay on the tile to cool himself, the poor guy. I was like right there with him laying on the ground. Like, “This has gotta be the best way.” Now, we have air conditioning.
Carrie Gillon: Yay!
Megan Figueroa: It’s funny because – darn it, I don’t remember who it was on Twitter – but they said that they couldn’t believe two weeks ago, when we were talking about how hot it gets here, how they just couldn’t fathom it. Yes. It’s how you experience it yourself. You don’t quite understand.
Carrie Gillon: You don’t. I remember the very first day I arrived here in August. I was like, “Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?” [Laughter] I had to take the bus and go to the Social Security building so that I could get a social security number. I had to start from scratch, right? I was dying – dying!
Megan Figueroa: Anyway, I feel like right now during these times we either only have weather or COVID to talk about.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Speaking of COVID –
Megan Figueroa: Oh, segue! [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Really, really nice segue. Thank you. The Académie Française – remember, well, in our bonus episode we actually mentioned that there is a French academy that monitors the French language. The Académie Française has deemed COVID to be, I believe, masculine.
Megan Figueroa: And this is grammatical gender.
Carrie Gillon: Grammatical gender, yes, obviously. It can’t possibly be the other one, I mean – [laughter] It can’t be biological or whatever. Anyway, our former guest – two-time guest – Andrew McKenzie actually points out that – he had noted this before the Academy said anything – odd linguistic quirk, in France it’s “le Covid-19.” Then, in Quebec, it’s “la Covid-19.” It’s interesting because he points out that it’s “le Corona virus” – sorry about my accent there – because it’s “le” virus – /lə viɹəs/? I dunno. But “COVID,” because it’s an English acronym, it’s almost always “le” in France.
Megan Figueroa: “Le” is the masculine pronoun?
Carrie Gillon: Determiner, yes.
Megan Figueroa: The L-E?
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. “Le” is masculine. “La” is the feminine. So, it’s “le Covid” because almost all English acronyms are treated as masculine in France-French. But in Quebec, they have a tendency to unpack the acronyms, figure out what the French equivalent would be for the words in the acronym, and then assign the correct gender for it. So, in “COVID,” the D stands for “Disease,” and that’s “la maladie” in French. “Le Covid” in France and “la Covid” in Quebec.
Megan Figueroa: That is really interesting.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah! It’s fun.
Megan Figueroa: Is it all acronyms that are borrowed or just English ones in France that they give the –
Carrie Gillon: I don’t know. I just said, “only English,” but I don’t actually know if that’s the case.
Megan Figueroa: Huh.
Carrie Gillon: Actually, I got this wrong. Actually, the Académie Française is saying, “No! It should be feminine. It should be ‘la.’”
Megan Figueroa: What!
Carrie Gillon: Because of “la maladie.”
Megan Figueroa: Like they’re saying in Quebec?
Carrie Gillon: They’re saying the Quebecois are correct, which is kinda fun.
Megan Figueroa: Ah, even though screw academies of languages telling everyone how to speak.
Carrie Gillon: Right. But it’s kinda interesting that they’re choosing a regional dialect that they don’t often agree with. That’s kinda fun.
Megan Figueroa: Huh. Now, that’s shocking to me.
Carrie Gillon: Me too! That’s why I got it backwards in my head because I was like, “There’s no way they would agree with Quebec.”
Megan Figueroa: Or is it one way to say, “Screw you, English”?
Carrie Gillon: Maybe.
Megan Figueroa: I have no idea what it is in Spanish. Let us know. Let us know what it is in other languages.
Carrie Gillon: I would love to hear any language that makes up any kind of grammatical gender distinction or anything. Like, what if you have an animacy distinction, like Algonquin languages? Is a virus animate or inanimate?
Megan Figueroa: My heart tells me it’s animate, but my heart is not that language. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Today’s episode we talk with two women who work either for or with the Unconscious Bias Project. We talk about unconscious bias and all kinds of things. It’s really an interesting conversation.
Megan Figueroa: Enjoy.
Megan Figueroa: Today, we have with us Dr. Linet Mera, the executive director and co-founder of the Unconscious Bias Project. She is a change maker, scientist, and artist from Columbia who develops and implements diversity, equity, and inclusion-focused programs by assessing community needs, leveraging existing resources, and cultivating collaborations within and between organizations. While completing her PhD at UC San Francisco, she co-developed and ran the graduate division’s first annual interactive diversity workshop for PhD students and faculty as part of the Minority Graduate Students Organization.
We also have with us Lucretia Iruela. Lucretia is the founder of Meliora, a coaching firm for organizations and individuals. She is a senior human resources consultant and a leadership coach in multiple countries. She provides supports to executives, leaders, business owners, and entities in navigating opportunities within their professional roles. She is also a facilitator/advisor for the Unconscious Bias Project.
The Unconscious Bias Project is developing creative community-based bias reduction online programs grounded in proven methods to reduce unintentional bias, which is to be launched in May and June.
Carrie Gillon: Welcome!
Megan Figueroa: Yes, welcome! Thank you so much for being here with us.
Linet Mera: Thank you. I’m so excited to be on here. I love your podcast. It’s hilarious. [Laughter] No, seriously. You have such great people invited and I feel – I dunno – I just feel like, [gasps] oh my gosh! I dunno. I little bit star struck. Like, woah.
Megan Figueroa: Well, now you’re part of the great people that we invite onto this show. [Laughter]
Lucretia Iruela: Thank you. Thank you.
Megan Figueroa: Actually, UBP ran two awesome workshops with my Vocal Fry clips at the California Welfare Directors Association last year, which is really cool. Will you just say a little bit about that? What was the purpose of it?
Linet Mera: The purpose of the clips – of why we included the clips?
Megan Figueroa: Yeah.
Linet Mera: Let me give you a short thing about the California Welfare Directors Association. This is a nonprofit that helps and supports California welfare directors, meaning everybody that runs like from child services, family services, food, welfare – all of those things. These are people that are running really big programs all over California. We’re talking about millions of Californians that we’re supporting. They have an annual meeting where they try to teach these directors the latest and greatest – get them together, do some team building, things like that. We were so happy to be invited to run a series.
We ran a series for them. We had 100-plus people panel discussion. We ran a couple regular workshops. We ran a funshop. We realized that when we’re delivering our bias reduction tools and content about bias, we were thinking really hard about how their employees are interacting with other people. If you think about it, what’s the first thing you’re gonna do if you need help? You’re gonna call somebody. It’s usually a phone call, or you have an in-person interview, and that first phone call can really make or break decisions about your welfare.
When I learned about your podcast and I started listening to it and thinking about it, I was like, “Oh my gosh! This is so important!” We haven’t really covered linguistic discrimination, that unconscious bias – implicit bias. People often talk about it as an in-person thing. You hear about cops and their split-second decision in how they interact with somebody that they suspect might have a gun that goes really wrong. It can also go really wrong in a straight up conversation.
I had a chance to talk to Carrie a little bit about what are – you know, there’re so many aspects of linguistics and linguistic discrimination. I was like, well, here’s a really easy example is how the person – say I’m a social services person. I’m fielding a call from somebody that’s seeking my services. This person sounds quote-unquote “young,” right, has a lot of vocal fry, has the up-tilt at the end of sentences. And like, you know, this person’s not very experienced. I don’t know. Maybe they don’t really know how to look for services or something. You could make that split-second decision even if you have a script going.
We presented the vocal fry in the context of, okay, listen to this clip. Think about, who is this person? Are they younger? Are they older? Are they educated? Are they uneducated? Have they finished college? Do you think they’re competent or not? Then, we went to the next slide and then it was a picture of Megan. It was like, look at this! She has a PhD. She runs a podcast. She’s very accomplished. Just to juxtapose those two – your preconceived notion and then what you actually see.
Those active learning examples is what we love to do in our workshops – confront people with your own bias. Lots of people are like, yes, bias is bad. Bias is terrible. We don’t wanna be discriminatory. We don’t wanna be racist, sexist, or whatever-ist, right? But as soon as you catch yourself doing it, then you’re like, “Oh. Crap. I’m in this too.” We used your amazing clip for that just to have people catch themselves. It was really fun.
I beta-tested the slides with my team. They were like, “Oh, well, yeah. I realized I had that preconceived notion.” We’re the ones that are teaching this stuff. We still have those biases too. We can make those split-second decisions. But it’s catching that moment of like, “Oh, I’ve just categorized this person without knowing a single thing about them.” That is so important.
Megan Figueroa: There are some biases that harder to catch, right? Will you tell us a little bit about what unconscious bias is?
Linet Mera: If you take a step back, what is bias? “Bias” is prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another usually in a way considered to be unfair. “Unconscious bias” is when you’re having these biases, these unfair judgements, of other people or other groups without really realizing you’re doing it. A really easy example is, say, you see me leading a workshop and I’m like, “Okay, everybody. Put your pencils down” or whatever, and you’re like, “Oh, gosh. She’s so bossy. Always telling me what to do.” You really wouldn’t think that if it was a guy. You’re like, “Oh, yes. He’s such a good leader. He’s directing us properly,” right? That’s a really simple one.
It’s very easy to have because there’s stereotypes all around us that are really feeding into and building our unconscious biases against different groups. It can come from TV, movies, podcasts, radio, books, anything on the internet, your friends, your family, even strangers – like how you see other people behaving with other people. That all reinforces the really terrible stereotypes that are out there for all sorts of people. And you can be biased against your own group. I can be biased against Latina women. That is a thing that happens. Black people can be biased against black people. I mean, it’s the way it is. It’s unfortunate. But the more we’re able to recognize and catch it, the more we can actually do something about it.
Carrie Gillon: How do we measure it if we can?
Linet Mera: That’s a really good question. I’ll take a step back. Unconscious bias and the way we measured it really started with this implicit-association test. Or it didn’t start with the implicit-association test, but it blew up once the implicit-association test came around. The implicit-association test was developed by scientists Greenwald, McGhee, and Schwartz back in 1998. There’s all sorts of really great articles and reviews about it. I really encourage people to seek that out.
What they wanted to do was to try to measure, how can you know that you’re having this unconscious bias decision if people consciously don’t wanna be biased? What they try to do is to measure split-second associations people had with a different group. For example, are you associating men with science and women with liberal arts, for example? You do this really quick test. They’re really fun, actually, online tests you can take. If you could just google IAT or “implicit-association test,” there’s lots of these different tests you can take online.
Megan Figueroa: They’re pretty eye-opening.
Linet Mera: Yes, they’re really eye-opening. However – yes, usually you’ll be able to see some sort of bias regardless of who you are. There’s not that many people who don’t have some sort of bias. The controversy in the field now is that it’s not a be-all end-all type of a test. You can’t just be like, “Okay. I scored a 10,” for example – that’s not an actual measure on it – but “I scored a 10/10. I’m super biased. So, if I take some bias reduction workshops or whatever, and then I come back and, if it’s a 5/10, well, then I’m so much better.”
There’s actually a lot of noise in the test. It’s not absolutely perfect. The original authors still think it’s a good way to look a whether or not you have a tendency. They’re not like, you know, just take the number and that’s your number. It’s more like – it’s not like taking a temperature or something. It’s more like, are you trending towards one direction or the other?
There’s neuroscientists that have also tried to look at this unconscious bias or split-second bias by looking at in-group and out-group people. In-group, for example, Lucretia and I and Megan would belong to the in-group of Latina women. That would be our in-group. Then, if, for example, there was a white guy, he would be in my out-group. They’re not in my in-group. They’re trying to measure people’s empathy within their in-group or towards people in an out-group – by Dr. David Eagleman.
There is this really fun PBS video series on this that’s really interesting to look at. They found that the parts of the brain that you associate with empathy light up for people that are your in-group, but they don’t for people that are in your out-group. There are different ways to look at it. Nothing is absolutely perfect. It’s actually a really interesting field.
There’s people looking at unconscious bias. If you think about Black Lives Matter and the tragedy of so many young, black men dying because of this ingrained bias, there’s been a few studies out there where they use video games, for example, or in-person blank shots where you have to shoot with high-accuracy and speed whoever is popping out on your screen with a gun. You can show the bias there. I think this is pretty much everywhere in the news right now.
There is some controversy in the field of like, well, is it really unconscious bias or is it just overt bias but we’re just calling it unconscious to make people feel better?
Lucretia Iruela: I was working with a group that is called Inclusive Inc. They do a 360 about culture and bias in the workplace. They really give you samples of your own behavior when you are not treating people the same in the same circumstances. It’s a little bit tricky because you can really see real examples of yourself. It’s out there, and it’s a tool that some companies are utilizing.
Every time that I listen to Linet I feel that is the best of the best in terms of knowledge and expertise in this field. They like the topic. They really know the topic. The way that I utilize the really high-level definition and high-level description when I coach teams or individuals – and I coach a lot in large corporations in the Bay Area, so you imagine, you can deign that it’s very confidential. But if you think big, you will get it. It’s a filter that we have before each interaction or any interaction.
Sometimes, for me, it’s very delicate to use prejudices or prejudgment or even association, right, because immediately our brain is like, nope, that’s not me. When I use a filter – what is your filter right now before you make that comment? Because they make the comments to me and I need to deconstruct that comment. What is the comment coming from? Have you noticed your filter?
People are way more open to observe or to be more aware of themselves and their circumstances, as Linet said, what is this coming from? It’s coming from your family, your culture, your literature, your friends – what is this coming from. I like that you said it that way.
Carrie Gillon: Can you give me an example of a comment that has been given to you where you needed to have this conversation of what’s your filter?
Lucretia Iruela: A lot of times the managers, when they are really white-collar, they say sometimes to the blue-collar in a – they’re usually foreigners – “They don’t work hard. They don’t get it. They don’t understand.” You need to change the perspective. What is “working hard” for you? What is the things that you feel that they don’t get it? Are you really talking to them? Are you really listening to them? Like, “Nope. I don’t listen to them. I just tell them what to do.” I’m, “Why? Why you are not listening to them and talking to them?” Little by little, they realize “I am not the same with them. I am different.”
Linet Mera: Yeah. It’s a lot. I have to say, I’ve enjoyed working with Lucretia because she thinks so deeply about these things. Our work – the Unconscious Bias Project and the work that Lucretia does an executive coach – it’s all really about empathy, seeing things from the other person’s perspective and, how can you talk to them? If you tell somebody outright, “Hey, you’re sexist. You’re racist,” they’re not gonna listen. They immediately shut down – this has been proven.
I mean, I’m a scientist so I totally geek out on papers and data, but people have studied this a lot, especially in politics, like for canvasing. There’s some really great resources out there. If you’re listening to this and you’re the kind of person that wants to convince somebody that what they’re doing, what they’re saying, what they’re posting is wrong, you don’t start with the confrontation. You have to start with the empathy. If you search “canvasing tools,” I think there’s a whole series on YouTube about – like when we were trying to get gay marriage approved – how do we talk to voters that don’t think that gay marriage is right? How do you talk to them?
It’s really building that empathy. You don’t just say, “Hi, I’m gay. Please, vote for gay marriage.” You ask them, “Okay. What is your stance? What are you thinking?” Then, if they’re obviously against gay marriage, then you ask them like, “Oh, well, have you ever had this experience of being othered?” You just start from that basic connection. Once you can understand like, oh, yeah, it’s a situation about being othered. It’s a situation about being bullied, being unjustly accused or unfairly treated. Whether you call it a filter, or a preconceived notion, an unconscious bias, I mean, the reality is it’s systemic. It’s institutional. It’s ingrained in our culture. It’s engrained in history in so many countries, right? You start from there of shared empathy of like, oh, yeah, this is unfair. Then, people are more likely to come around.
Carrie Gillon: I have read some of that stuff. It is really interesting to see the tactics that actually do work. Because it’s true, I think, for many of us our first reaction is, “Oh my god, that’s so sexist! Oh my god, that’s so racist!” People’s defenses definitely go up – mine included. It’s just a natural thing to wanna defend yourself. It is important for us to be more strategic. In this podcast, we definitely are not strategic because we’re just yelling at people all the time.
First, Linet, why did you wanna start this? Then, Lucretia, maybe you can say why she wanted to work with you?
Linet Mera: I’m from Columbia. I grew up in five different countries. I grew up in Nigeria, France, Venezuela, the States, and Columbia, of course. As a little kid, I had no idea – I didn’t really think that people were different from me. I didn’t realize that even though in Columbia racism is so strong. I’m actually the lightest person in my family. You see my extended family and they’re all the colors. I am one of the palest ones. I now understand, right, after being in the US for a while that I’m what people consider white passing.
But that didn’t stop me from getting bullied or othered. That happened to me in middle school where I got bullied, and I was othered in Columbia, actually, because I spoke English well without a Columbian accent. I was othered for liking school. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Same.
Linet Mera: Right, right! I rank with you guys – yay! Power to the nerd. But when I landed in the US, this was still at a time – I mean, it’s still kinda like this – but it was at a time where this idea of Columbia as the center for drugs, that was all anybody knew about Columbia. The center for drugs. I arrived in the States in high school. We were in Texas so like, whoa.
One of the first things I remember ever when I told somebody I was from Columbia – and I had an American accented English because I’d just been in an American school – they were like, “Oh, does your dad deal cocaine? Can I get some?” That was a joke to them, and I was furious because I had seen in Columbia the violence. I already knew that the drug trade was really being fueled by consumers in the States. It was terrible.
When I went to college, I tried to, you know, hey, let’s get to know each other as part of international student associations. I realized what we needed is a way to talk to each other and find commonalities and share something. Actually, Texas, right, if we remember back when I was in college, which was a while ago, this was not too far after 9/11. Texas, in particular, there was a lot of anti-Muslim/anti-brown sentiment at the time. When I was in college, this really stood out when there were students that were driving up behind people at night – people with turbans – and hitting them with baseball bats in the head and driving off. It was random – not random – but hate crimes, really active violence. What we call, now, “hate crimes.” Back then it was like, “Oh, things are happening. You should just walk in groups so you’re not in danger.” That was the University’s response.
It was such a bizarre time. My friend Ryan and I came at it from we loved languages. I really love languages. We wanted to do something where people could connect with each other and not do it in this really stiff this-is-a-classroom learning environment or broad, hey, this is international culture day! Come eat foods! Which is still nice, and it has a very important place, but we were like why don’t we who know different languages teach other people languages but in away that they can actually talk them.
It was just – I mean, I could talk about this forever because I really like languages – it really became a force. We started with 100 people. It was students and teachers. Teachers were just doing this for free. We just had conversation classes, essentially, at any level. We just wanted people to be able to talk to each other and connect and learn colloquialisms and funny jokes and things that are really common for your culture or the specific language.
Lo and behold, our Farsi classes were the most popular. When we expanded the next year, we tripled. All the Farsi classes were packed. There’s a power in connecting people and including people and trying to fight against the tide of you are different from me. Yes, we are different, but we share so much. We can have so much in common. I kept on trying to do that in my PhD. You mentioned the Minority Student Graduate Organization which, unfortunately, doesn’t exist anymore but whose effects still last. Yeah. The diversity workshop that we started – again, students developed it. It wasn’t something that existed. It was really one of the first in the nation for graduate schools, which is fascinating how terrible academia is.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, yeah. We could have a whole conversation about that.
Linet Mera: Yes, I feel like we could all – another 10 podcasts about that.
Megan Figueroa: Yep.
Linet Mera: Anyway, we built the diversity workshop. It was a great starting point. Our bar was let’s have people come out of this knowing that is diversity. That was how low the bar was. You could just roll yourself over that bar it was so low. But it was somewhere to start. Yes, we have differences. Yes, we look different. But we have all these things that are shared or all these things that you shouldn’t expect when you look at me. That was really great.
Then, I resuscitated and took over the Women in Life Sciences group with a couple other graduate students. That was meant to be, how can we support women in science? Because much like in other STEM fields, you can have 50/50 parody between men and women in graduate programs but, once you look at tenure track and professor positions, it’s dismal. If you’re any sort of intersection – like a person with a disability and a woman, or a person of color and a woman, or just anything else – there’s no statistics, essentially. There’s few of us.
I did this with Women in Life Sciences and, through running it, I heard just terrible things from people that were sharing what was happening in their labs. I’d hear professors being like, “Oh, that stuff was – sexism is thing of the 70s. That’s not a thing anymore. We’ve come such a long way. It’s not a problem.” It’s like, no, it still is. I had done a lot of things from college through graduate school that were about retention and building resources for people that were coming into graduate programs, into schools. It was frustrating because there were still no broad, sweeping changes in our institutions that would really attack the inequities, really address why diversity is lacking in STEM, really start to tackle the real, ingrained systemic problems.
I went to this talk where one of the most respected professors at UCSF, she gave a talk. She’s brilliant. Her name is Dr. Carol Curchoe. She’s fabulous and she’s done so much work to help women and minorities in science. It’s amazing. She presented some data on the status of women in science in this big talk at UC Berkeley. I asked the question, I was like, “Okay. So, it still seems like we have really big problems. We need to make sweeping changes, right? How would you go about doing that?” I was ready for, like, here’s my 10-step plan. Her answer was, “It is so hard.” She’s like, “I don’t feel I have the clout to do this.”
She is so well-established. The reason I learned about UCSF was because I was in Japan and a professor in Japan was like, “This is the foremost person in microbiology. Go find her. She’s amazing.” She’s world recognized. She’s respected. She’s well loved. She’s a team player. She’s one of those few – sorry, academics – she’s one of those few academics that actually wants to play as a team and does a fantastic job doing science with that. Here she was telling me that she didn’t feel she had enough clout and that it’s better to make small changes. I was gutted. I was like, no way. We need something different. If I stay in academia, this is – I would never see change until – 15 or 30 years later I would probably be in the same boat she is saying I don’t have enough clout. I needed something different.
At the same time, a week later or something, I went to a conference on solutions to bias. Cat Adams was there. She is UBP’s co-founder. She really nucleated this idea of let’s use the science that’s out there. Sociologists have studied discrimination for years, decades even, and they’ve thought about this. We need to translate those academic solutions into something that anybody could use. Because it doesn’t matter if it’s unconscious or overt bias. The tools are really the same of what you need to do about it. Together, we were just like, we’re tired of the complaints. We’re tired of just putting a band-aid over the problem when it’s really a hemorrhage.
This is a huge problem. It’s really broad. It’s really big. We have to give people actionable, easy to apply tools and techniques and words that they can describe the problems. I didn’t even know how to describe unconscious bias until I started talking with Cat. At this time, we were a student org at Berkeley. I realized, oh, so that moment where my professor was like, “You know, I don’t think your science is good enough to take to a conference,” that’s actually his unconscious bias speaking. Because you talk to that professor and he’s like – he’s on every board on every pro-diversity, pro-inclusion thing anywhere. That is his motto – his thing. But if you looked at his track record, only men were being invited to go to conferences.
I didn’t realize that because I was like, “Oh, yeah, my science is terrible.” That’s what we’re taught as academics to do is like, oh, self-doubt. It’s baked in. I didn’t know that that was how to define that. The awkward feeling when somebody repeats the idea that you’ve just had, and they get the credit for it. That’s all coming from bias and unconscious bias and these ingrained things.
With Cat, we were like, okay, we wanna disrupt this. We wanna make this different. We don’t want it to be a dry, boring workshop. We don’t want it to be a guilt fest, right, because that’s the other way people talk about this. We want this to make people feel like they can do something about it, not sit there in the vast, like, oh my god, this is a huge problem and I will never be able to do a single thing about this. Change that and be like, hey, yes, I can have guilt. I can process I might’ve hurt somebody in the past and I can do something. I can change what I do. It can be just a tiny, different step like listening to a podcast on linguistic discrimination, watching a TV show that isn’t an entirely white, cishet, able-bodied cast. There’s just tiny differences in your actions that you can make – it’s a butterfly effect. It’s a huge ripple effect. That’s really powerful.
That’s why Cat and I have stuck together through thick and thin of our group. We started the nonprofit. Once we developed a workshop, people were like, “Can I throw you some money?” We’re like, “Wait! We’re not ready for that.” So, we started the nonprofit. We’re like, okay, well, let’s make this intentional. Let’s build these things. Let’s get this stuff out there. Let’s get professionals like Lucretia on board that have this additional, brilliant expertise in how to talk to CEOs in Palo Alto. We don’t have that, but folks like Lucretia do.
Lucretia Iruela: It’s a mixture – professional, personal – and the more I work, of course, the more I learn about myself and about the in-group community. I get in and out myself. It is all a process – a very subtle process – for me and for my clients. The first thing – and this is a little bit hard for me, to be talking as a professional and talking as a human being at this very moment, because I was searching for my clients. The other piece, right? I work with decoding, changing behaviors, deconstructing – trying for the people to find their own self-conscious and self-awareness and self-knowledge.
We work – the executive coaches – we work a little bit with neuroscience. I am, particularly, working a lot with neuroscience. I studied with the best PhD about it. I was able to change behaviors, but I was not really having a lot of answers. This is where my personal story gets in because, being a foreigner, I always need to be with the best to prove myself. Instead of stopping there like, “Well, I don’t really care what is the science or what is the data about these particular situations or behaviors or thoughts,” I start talking about it with the diversity and with the inclusion people. Believe it or not, they didn’t give me a lot of answers.
One of my mentors said, “Well, you need to really talk to these doctors in Berkeley. They have the other half of what you’re looking for.” Immediately, I called them and said, “I wanna learn from you and I think I have the practical of what you’re teaching in the long term. You facilitate and I take hands to the people for a few more months. I will make sure the change is happening and I’m really sure that they really understand, in practice, what you teach and what you facilitate.” I followed up with them. Of course, again, personally and professionally, it was a bomb.
Carrie Gillon: You say it was like a bomb. Can you explain a little?
Lucretia Iruela: This is part of the personal thing, right? I’m from Spain. I’m from Madrid. I was part of the elite. Nobody was thinking about, is she intelligent enough? Is she good enough? Nobody really questioned my money or my position or my privilege. When I came here, I was really comfortable because people are doing different things at the same time and it’s a [inaudible] [00:41:59] school. You know what you do with your time and your talent. I was the perfect fit.
But I start realizing, “But you are a minority here. You don’t really realize that.” I do not consider myself Latina – anyone in Europe – but at the same time, here, I’m part of the Latina group. I was having that debate in my own body and in my own brain. I don’t look the Latino that you think. I don’t. I look more European than you think. My Spanish is way different, right, than the other Spanish. I was like, “Why should I be in this group? I don’t even feel part of this group.”
The “bomb” was when I realized, wow, Linet, is also feeling that because she’s also part of the world, really part of this group, of the Unconscious Bias Project in Berkeley – the doctors and PhD. My whole body was very relaxed and my whole body understood, at that time, when I talked to Cat at the same time as Linet, those are my people. They have intellect. They have heart. They feel that they are part of everywhere and nowhere. That’s kind of the description of the “bomb.”
Megan Figueroa: Perhaps, because of confidentiality, you can’t tell us who you work with, but can you tell us a little bit about projects that the Unconscious Bias Project has been doing?
Linet Mera: The Unconscious Bias Project – our main offering are our workshops. We have really compacted, hour-and-a-half, interactive, empowering workshops where we give you everything from a one-on-one on, what is bias? What is conscious bias? How do I know if I have it? What can I start doing about my personal bias? What can I do to intervene in moments of bias and, depending on who our client is, we’ll put in a piece about power dynamics, which is a very important aspect of all this, or something about policy, for example. Or if you’re a teacher, how does this show up in classrooms? That’s one thing that we’ve done.
Another project that we’ve been recently working with a student org and with UC Berkeley campus is to create an awareness campaign about unconscious bias and what you can do about it using art. We’ve worked with local artists to create a gamified version of what it’s like to go through life with intersectional biases. We called it “The Dastardly Darkway,” where you have to contort your body through a dark hallway.
We have the same thing but with yarn, which is cute, and you have a buzzer at the end. We give you all these props that are meant to represent the barriers people face going through life with whatever identity other people place on them or identity that they have. We were able to run this before the pandemic, and it was really great. Getting people saying, “Well, I tripped over a bunch of yarn, but it wasn’t my fault because I had this huge ball as part of my character that randomly got assigned.” It’s like, “Well, yeah, your character was somebody with obesity due to a metabolic disorder. It wasn’t their choice to have to carry the stereotype of being fat, but they still had to deal with that through their lives.”
This is that representation. We’re literally talking about what bias means. Even if it’s a game, people are actually having these conversations. People love our workshops. We’ve been very fortunate to have people really receive them well. But they are always optional workshops. If you force somebody to do training, whether it’s sexual harassment or diversity or whatever, it’s more likely than not gonna backfire. There’s actually a Harvard Business Review study examining why do diversity programs fail. This was one of the main ones.
How do we get the people that really should be thinking about this stuff to learn about this stuff? This is where the awareness campaign came in. We made The Dastardly Darkway. We also have an interactive art installation where we have our amazing cartoonist, Theresa Oborn, illustrate moments of bias that people have shared with us. People get to interact with the art piece and say, “Yeah, I’ve seen this before,” or “This has happened to me,” or “This is the first time I’m seeing this and I didn’t know it was bias.”
We also developed what we called a “Funshop,” which is a spin on a traditional workshop where you’re creating art, essentially, at the same time that you’re learning evidence-based bias reduction tools. We actually tried it out at the California Welfare Directors Association that we were talking about earlier. It went super well. You’re using social, emotional, and physical learning of creating a drawing or creating a bead bracelet or a keychain. Then, you’re also thinking about, “Okay, this is what is unconscious bias. Here’s how I’m applying a tool.”
For example, individuating instead of stereotyping is one of the tools where we have people pair up with total strangers and we give them a series of questions they can ask each other – anything from “Hi, my name is… This is where I’m from” to spicier questions like, “This was the first time I was discriminated against” or “Here is an identity of mine that you would not necessarily know just by looking at me.” It was really powerful. People came up to us and they were like, “This person that I thought I would have nothing in common with, we literally have the same life. We have the same job in totally different counties. We have this-aged kids. We read the same book last week. We both like to knit. And we both like this type of music.” I would not have planned that better. That moment of connection is really powerful.
Unfortunately, with the pandemic, we’ve put all that on hold because we’re – all of our stuff has been in person. We’re actually embarking on, right now, it’s something that we just sort of started coming up with in the last few days is we wanna create a series of online either videos or podcasts – we’re still figuring this out – to address the racism and xenophobia that is just flaring up throughout the US and, really, internationally against Chinese people and people of Asian descendants. This is Asian Americans, Asians, Chinese, Filipinos. It doesn’t matter what country in Asia you might be from. You’re getting it. It’s awful and it’s terrible.
Everyone’s like, “Hey, we are the Unconscious Bias Project. We have this experience. We have these tools. We’ve been in these conversations. Why don’t we just put this out there and give it to people?” Ideally, very bite-sized, easy ways to digest because a pandemic is unsettling. It’s affecting all of us. It’s scary, and it’s hard, and it would be so hard to ask anybody to be like, okay, you’re on muni for whatever reason – you’re on public transit – and you see somebody say something to someone who might be Chinese – you don’t even know, right – something that’s racist. What do you say?
It’s already hard enough to speak up about this stuff without the pandemic, but you have all the stress and stuff on you. Why don’t we break it down and make it easy? This is what we do in our workshops. Let’s figure out how to do it online. We’re gonna roll this out, ideally, in April and May. It’s becoming more and more apparent that some of these really deep inequities that we have in our healthcare systems, in our welfare systems, all of these infrastructures that are being impacted by the pandemic, I feel like the time is now.
We are a nonprofit, so we are gonna have a fundraiser associated with it. We’ve never really done a ton of online content, so this will be new for us. Any amount is a really helpful amount. It’s a critical time right now. We cannot be permitting bias and discrimination to fester and continue the way it is because we need to come together. We need to – yes, we have to be apart, right, six feet apart. We need to unite. Now is the time that we should be saying something, that we should be listening to people with disabilities. Now is the time. If you weren’t before, now is the time to listen and learn and do something and intervene. We have the power. We can do it. All it takes is just one little step, one little phrase, one little, “Hey, hold on. That’s uncalled for” or “Hey, that’s not right.”
Carrie Gillon: I think that’s an excellent place to end on. That’s such a good ending.
Linet Mera: Awesome.
Megan Figueroa: It’s almost as if you’re saying to not be an asshole.
Linet Mera: Yes! [Laughter] Please, just don’t be an asshole. Just don’t be an asshole. You only need one. You don’t need to be two. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Oh my god, I love that.
Megan Figueroa: Wow.
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio. Theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @vocalfriespod. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and our website is vocalfriespod.com.