Forest Lake Area Schools and the YMCA have teamed up to ensure that the communities they serve are inclusive for everyone who calls them home.

The Everyone Belongs Inclusion Project was launched last year as a part of the school district's ongoing efforts to address issues of racial justice and equity. Community-wide learning sessions were held in the fall and were attended by over 100 community members. During the COVID-19 pandemic, such sessions have continued—they have just gone digital.

Throughout June and July, Forest Lake Area Schools and the YMCA Equity Innovation Center hosted a series of Zoom meetings centered on racial justice. Participants discussed current events and their impact locally through “Community Conversations,” and learned about personal biases and their effect on communities through implicit bias training sessions.

UyenThi Tran Myhre, director of equity and leadership at the YMCA Equity Innovation Center, led the implicit bias training sessions. She said that recognizing one's personal biases is important and necessary but that such self-awareness is only a part of racial justice work.

“Tackling (implicit bias) is a big piece of the puzzle, but we also want to acknowledge the systemic bias and injustice that is also at play when we are looking at how we are fighting the pandemic that is COVID-19 but also the pandemic that is the ongoing fight for racial justice,” Tran Myhre said. “I think if we're on this session today, we really do believe that another world is possible, and we have to put in that work to address our individual implicit biases and find that energy and learning and space to address systemic bias and oppression as well.”

Tran Myhre said that everyone holds biases, some conscious and others unconscious.

“Implicit bias specficially describes when we have attitudes or thoughts or feelings towards people or associate stereotypes with them without or conscious knowledge,” she explained. “These biases might be based on characteristics like race or ethnicity, class, disability, gender, even geographic location and so many more factors as well.”

These associations are deeply rooted because they begin developing in early childhood. “Then over our lifetimes, associations continue to develop and continue to refine themselves through direct and indirect messages,” Tran Myhre said. “Messages from the media … really contribute to the formation and the renewal of the biases that we all hold.”

Individual implicit biases, Tran Myhre said, are worth examining and addressing because they have broad societal implications.

“Whether that's racial discrimination in hiring, in how we do performance evaluations, housing discrimination and even perceptions of neighborhood crime, all that results in where people choose to take their business, where they choose to put down roots and settle in with a family,” she said. “Implicit bias is at play in all of that.”

Becoming aware of individual implicit biases can be difficult and uncomfortable, but it is a crucial first step in achieving racial equity, Tran Myhre said.

“Not a single one of any of us is going to be the person that can fix all of this overnight. We didn't get into this overnight. But as you think about this issue of implicit bias and you think about structural bias, also think about where your spheres of influence are and what influence you do have to make change.”

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