Senior Center Staff Learn to Recognize Their Own Unconcious Bias
Cally Ritter presented “Unconscious Bias” to two dozen employees and volunteers at the Bellingham Senior Center. Her appearance was made possible by a grant from the Massachusetts Councils on Aging.
By David Dunbar
When you Google “unconscious bias,” you will see 42,600,000 results in .49 seconds. Where to start?
At the Senior Center in Bellingham, the starting point was to bring in an expert and assemble the staff. The expert was Cally Ritter, a 25-year veteran of offering seminars, webinars, leadership and retreat services, and workshop series. The staff was about two dozen employees and volunteers that gathered for three, 90-minute training sessions over the past few weeks.
From the Google search: “Unconscious bias is when we make judgments or decisions on the basis of our prior experience, our own personal deep-seated thought patterns, assumptions or interpretations, and we are not aware that we are doing it.”
“Our training sessions are about raising awareness,” explains Ritter. “We’re opening eyes, elevating and examining the biases we hold so they don’t trip us up.”
Bias can be defined as a preference or aversion to something. It can come from life experience, family, the workplace, education, and media resulting in the view that “people who look and sound like us are okay.” And it can influence the way you connect with people at work, family members, as well as folks we see at the grocery store, on the street, at political rallies, and anywhere else.
Oftentimes, we gravitate towards people who are like us, whether it be based on appearance, background, or beliefs. “Affinity bias” is rooted in finding belonging and seeking comfort. When we have an affinity for those who are like us, we unintentionally shut out those who are different.
“If you feel like you have to walk on eggshells,” says Ritter, “don’t be guided by fear… be thoughtful, mindful, and say something in service to your relationship with the other person.”
“I’ve gotten to know myself better,” explains Senior Center volunteer Gail Milgram who attended the training sessions. “I’ve found biases I didn’t even know I had. And it was great to hear the experiences and thoughts of others in the sessions.”
“We are so grateful for Cally’s contribution to the work we are doing at the Senior Center,” says Director Josie Dutil. “I first met her as a trainer on Zoom and was impressed by her ability to make every person feel seen and heard -- the experience with her in-person was even more powerful.”
When looking for your own unconscious bias, Ritter advises examining the stereotypes you may hold. “The stories we tell ourselves before we meet a new person and oversimplified beliefs can be fueled by bias, and microaggressions result.”
“Our brains are bombarded by 11-million bits of information in any moment,” she explains. “But it can process only about 40 bits at any time.”
Be on the lookout for “fast, unconscious sifting that will create snap decisions or slow, conscious thinking that can produce a response instead of a reaction.”
“It was an amazing four and a half hours,” says Kay Page, Chair of the Council on Aging. “My mind has been opened. It was well worth it.”
A Licensed, Independent Clinical Social Worker, Ritter has a bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University and a Master of Social Work from the University of Pittsburgh, is MCAD-certified, and is a certified Motivation Factor practitioner. She is the principal of Positive Ripple Training & Consulting and can be found at www.callyritter.com You can also check out: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html for a test that can reveal your attitudes or beliefs about these topics and provide some information about yourself.