Battling implicit bias

Questions have been raised about the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a psychological test which purports to find implicit bias in individuals. Olivia Goldhill, writing for Quartz, an online business journal, reports that the IAT has a low reliability, or test-retest, score; where perfect reliability would score as 1, and strong reliability would score as 0.7-0.8, the race IAT has a reliability score of 0.44, or unacceptable. Goldhill also reports that several meta-analyses have found that the IAT is a poor predictor of behavior.

I have my own criticism of the well-known race IAT, which you can take online at the Project Implicit Web site. I took this test online, and scored as having a low to moderate bias in favor of African Americans. As much as I’d like to think I’m Mr. Egalitarian, I had a problem with the test: it required me to make fast judgments about low-resolution photos of facial characteristics, and I know myself well enough to know that I have poor facial recognition ability — I once passed my mother and younger sister on the street and only recognized them when I realized that these two women were laughing at me — so any test that requires me to recognize facial characteristics is not going to produce accurate results.Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of the actual test, I’m still skeptical of using tests for implicit bias to implement organizational change. In my experience, that’s not the way organizational change actually happens: it’s not as easy as administering a test, identifying who has implicit bias, and then watching the complete eradication of bias. If it were that easy, we already would have eradicated racism, sexism, etc.

“What the ‘Bias of Crowds’ Phenomenon Means for Corporate Diversity Efforts,” an article by Liz Kofman (a change management consultant with a doctorate in sociology), suggests a different path towards changing organizational biases that I find more pragmatic. Writing for Behavioral Scientist, an online non-profit magazine, Kofman identifies three recommendations for organizations wishing to get rid of bias.

First of all, Kofman suggests that we “focus on changing processes, not people.” In other words, forget all those training sessions where you make individuals in the organization confront their inner biases; instead, change your organizational processes to reduce chances for bias. Why don’t more organizations do this? I suspect it’s because it’s much easier to hold a workshop on implicit bias than it is to do the hard and detailed work of changing organizational processes. It’s fine to hold those workshops, and Unitarian Universalist congregations wishing to address bias should continue to offer, for example, the excellent “Beloved Conversations” class developed by Mark Hicks at Meadville/Lombard Theological School. Just don’t expect one workshop to take the place of lots of rather boring but necessary detail work.

Kofman’s second recommendation is to “prioritize process change and stick to it.” She points out that this is not easy; it takes “organizational will and discipline to implement and sustain … new processes.” Furthermore, Kofman says, an organization needs to focus on a few key process changes, making those a priority; otherwise, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with too many changes and then nothing happens. Prioritizing process changes, and sticking to them, has proved to be an insurmountable problem for most Unitarian Universalist congregations I’ve known: lay leadership changes from year to year and so priorities change from year to year; new and attractive projects arise and draw attention away from ongoing projects. It’s easier to do that high-profile capital campaign, or to add solar panels on your building, than it is to stick to the hard work of implementing new organizational processes designed to reduce racism and sexism.

And this brings us to Kofman’s third recommendation: “provide resources and incentives for change management.” Because “everyday processes influence the bias of crowds” in any organization, you need to change those everyday processes; but too often there are not resources to help people change those processes, in addition to which there’s little incentive for change. Take for example a Unitarian Universalist congregations which wishes to become less white. Clearly, one thing you’ll need to do it completely overhaul the intake process — how potential members are greeted on their first visit, the processes used to integrate newcomers into the congregational culture, and so on. All that is hard work, so one critical resource required for change will be staff time, from both paid and volunteer staff; and because staff time is a limited resource, other projects will have to received fewer staff hours. And how will you provide incentives for those staffers, particularly for the volunteer staffers? None of this is easy.

To summarize: While Implicit Association Tests might be fascinating, they are probably not particularly useful tools for implementing organizational change. Instead, congregations seriously committed to, e.g., becoming less white, should pay attention to the change management technique of process change.

Decline, or….

In a recent story posted on UU World, the house organ of the Unitarian Unviersalist Association (UUA), Chris Walton reports that “UUA membership rises for first time since 2008.” The increase is tiny, though — up only 980 members to 148,242; less than a tenth of a percent. Because this could be within the margin of error, we’ll have to wait and see if decline continues again next year; at this point it’s safest to say that at best overall membership remained flat this year.

In bad news, the ongoing decline in religious education enrollment continued: numbers of children and youth are down 2,557 to 40,269; this decline is less than one percent, but it continues a ten-year trend of decline, so that we’re down about 27% since 2009. Searching for reasons for this decline, Chris points out several possible factors: lower birth rates beginning in the mid-1990s (Chris fails to mention the additional drop in birth rates during the Great Recession); people no longer bringing their children to organized religion; and, adds Chris, “our basic model may no longer work,” citing the popular “Death of Sunday School” paper by Kimberley Sweeney.

I would add that children today are a white-minority age group while UU congregations remain dominated by white people. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine that there is a certain amount of racism that keeps young families with non-white members out of many UU congregations.

But in my opinion, financial factors are having the biggest impact on dropping religious education enrollment. First of all, the cost of nonprofit employees keeps going up (due to rising insurance costs and other factors), so congregations are less and less able to afford qualified religious education professionals. Second of all, the UUA budget has been contracting, and there simply isn’t money to develop the kind of religious education resources that we need for today’s kids — resources like videos, games, apps, etc. Third, today’s parents are used to having a wide range of choices for their children, and most congregations can only afford to offer one class per age group (or, when money is really tight, one intergenerational worship service for everybody).

In my opinion, two big forces that are pushing us into decline: demographics and finances. If you look back in history, the Great Depression offered similar challenges: people weren’t going to church as much, and there was no money; and during the Great Depression, large numbers of Unitarian and Universalist congregations closed their doors forever. I fully expect to see a growing number of Unitarian Universalist congregations close their doors forever as demographics and finances do their work.

Nevertheless, I think individual congregations can take positive action so that they don’t have to close their doors. There are obvious steps to take, none of which is rocket science, but none of which is easy. First, engage in hard-headed and realistic financial planning, and plan now what staffers and what programs you will cut first, and plan how to deal with the aftermath of those cuts — if you’re lucky you won’t have to make those cuts, but if you do have to make cuts you’ll have a rational management plan in place. Second, stifle white dominance so non-white people can find space in your congregation — and if you’re not sure how to take the first step, go read Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility. Third, figure out how to customize your key programs and ministries so you can serve people who want more than one choice on Sunday morning — not just worship services and Sunday school, but Forum and adult classes and supervised play and maybe a Navigators program and social hour with decent coffee and more.

Change is coming. We better learn how to manage it.