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Equity Alliance of Minnesota Program Manager Regina Seabrook discusses implicit bias earlier this month at Northfield Middle School during a community event aimed at developing a better understanding of the issue. (Photo courtesy of Northfield Public Schools)

Northfield Public Schools is employing a multi-pronged approach to tackle implicit bias.

The district hosted an implicit bias event earlier this month that drew around 50 community members. The workshop was led by Equity Alliance of Minnesota and featured Program managers Regina Seabrook and Marcellus Davis. A similar gathering was held for school staff in late August.

“I was very pleased with the attendance,” said Superintendent Matt Hillmann.

“As always, Northfielders come to these kinds of what can be difficult discussions with their opinion yet the willingness to listen to others.”

Hillmann said implicit bias is based on neurological science and sometimes centers around a negative association due to a past event with a racial group. However, he clarified that implicit biases can also include negative perceptions of media or other professional groups not racially related.

To Hillmann, examples of implicit bias include speaking Spanish to someone the person believes is Hispanic because of skin tone. Another example is assuming that a Muslim woman in a hijab is oppressed or that an Hispanic person is an undocumented immigrant. The effectiveness of measuring implicit bias is being debated and opinions vary on whether it should be measured.

Hillmann said preliminary district findings show implicit bias plays a role in society.

“As we connect the dots, we think that there is the probability that that is a hindrance, because if I feel, if there’s a bias that makes me feel like I don’t belong … human beings need to feel safe and welcome before they are ready to handle higher-level concepts,” he said.

Hillmann noted district instruction and academic intervention to students of color has not successfully closed the achievement gap.

“We have struggled to move the needle,” he said. “We have made some progress, we have had some wins, there’s no question about that. But when we still look at how far we have to go, as a district we’ve realized there has to be something more than just the instruction.”

After speaking with students and staff of color, he also became aware of negative experiences they have faced. One staff member has received two racist letters in the last 12 months.

“I’m not going to say that those incidents necessarily prompted the training, but they confirmed that we needed to look at what was the way that we could help build our own cultural competence within the community,” Hillmann said.

He added the goal of the workshop was for participants to unpack and detach their biases when interacting. The district believes it is important for people with unconscious biases to understand their perceptions to ensure they treat others properly.

Hillmann hopes by intervening on the issue the district can interrupt bias-holders from going down the continuum to explicit racism.

“There will always be explicit racists,” he said. “I wish I could say there are not, but there will be. All we need to do is create a community where there is a critical mass of people who understand how to interrupt bias so that it does not progress toward racism.”

Hillmann hopes to continue using the district’s convening power to bring community groups together and said he was pleased Mayor Rhonda Pownell and Northfield police had a presence at the event.

Hillmann attributes racist actions as sometimes being passed down from prior generations.

“The students didn’t create this problem,” he said. “This problem is created by adults.”

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115.

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