‘No Easy Fix’ When It Comes To Tackling Unconscious Bias

Story By Shari Nacson
Photos by Gabe Schaffer

“The work is amazing,” said Margaret Mitchell, CEO of the YWCA of Greater Cleveland. “It lives, both on the individual level and also on the institutional level. Both things have to be at play.”

To date, over 1200 people have participated in Cleveland’s It’s Time to Talk events. Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

The “it” under discussion is the work of helping people discover their own unconscious bias. According to Mitchell, the work of eliminating racism begins with helping people look more closely at themselves. It is only through this introspection that systemic racism can slowly and thoroughly be dismantled, she said.

To tackle this ambitious goal, Cleveland’s YWCA has spent the past four years teaching people how to have daring conversations. The first It’s Time to Talk event was in 2015. To date, over 1200 people have participated.

The model was originally piloted in Minneapolis. Heather Steranka-Petit, Manager of the YWCA’s Learning Programs, has managed It’s Time to Talk for the YWCA Greater Cleveland since 2016. Steranka-Petit likes the model because it provides structure and guidance for conversations that can feel intimidating or highly charged. There is a strong focus on creating a safe space. “All YWCAs have programming to eliminate racism,” she says. That is the organization’s mission.


New facilitators come from a range of backgrounds and complete 5 hours of training. Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

One of the unique things about It’s Time to Talk is that participants are invited to help facilitate the very workshops for which they have registered. A visit to the registration page includes options to register and to become a facilitator.

Hosting an event that relies upon a team of volunteer facilitators surfacing during the registration period would appear to be challenging. This doesn’t faze Steranka-Petit, who relies on a team she has not yet met. “People want to make a difference in the world,” she says. “They all want to make some kind of change.”

New facilitators come from a range of backgrounds and complete 5 hours of training. Veteran facilitators, like Alissa Vaughn, come back year after year, many sitting in on training as a way to mentor newbies. When asked what drew her to It’s Time to Talk, Vaughn says, “I participate in programs that have real, strong resonance and meaning for me. This program has the most power to impact and galvanize people.”


The program itself involves a morning keynote followed by two experiences: Circle Conversations and World Café. Circle Conversations are the most intense part of the day. Participants agree to ground rules and learn about the talking piece, which helps ensure that only one person speaks at a time. Facilitators encourage participants to use “I statements” and to “talk from the heart.” The initial prompt asks each participant to talk about the first time they realized that racism existed. Through mindful listening and turn-taking, hearts and minds begin to open. Prompts continue, guided by the facilitator’s sense of the group, covering personal experiences of discrimination, workplace readiness to tackle issues of unconscious bias, and racism’s impact on the greater community.

David Robinson is a seasoned facilitator. He explains that the program is designed with “proper prompts that elicit meaningful response.” The carefully chosen prompts make the experience particularly personal, so people begin thinking about how they can make an impact at work, at home, and in their neighborhoods.


Facilitators encourage participants to use “I statements” and to “talk from the heart.” Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

Kelly Schmidt, a social work graduate student, is a new facilitator. A week before training, Kelly explained why she volunteered, saying, “The idea of racial equity was a draw for me. I like the idea of being in a facilitator role, to get training. I think it will be good for me as a social worker. I’m excited to learn.”

Schmidt talked about the delicate work of being a white woman who wants to acknowledge the role of privilege — and wants to help other people and organizations do the same.


With a seasoned emphasis on best practice, the YWCA training provides an opportunity for new facilitators to simulate the Circle Conversation activity and role play. A few days after she has been trained, Schmidt says, “I feel prepared to be in conversations that I normally wouldn’t be in or might not be comfortable with.” Reflecting on the training, Schmidt says she learned the most from other people’s stories — which seems like a parallel process to what will come two weeks later.


When the day of the event finally arrives, it is a rainy and foggy Friday morning in Cleveland. The city has forgone snow for mud, but people are happy to be sans hat and gloves. The morning’s keynote by the authors of Convicted centers on a white former police officer owning his bias and abuse of power while sharing the stage — and a mentoring friendship — with one of the black men who was sentenced based on false evidence the officer provided. The authenticity and inspiration are potent as the pair talk with kindness and humor about true reparation (which requires three elements — an apology, forgiveness, and working together for the greater good).  

Soon the audience is released to go to their Circle Conversation rooms. Each name tag includes a facilitator’s name at the bottom, so participants know who they belong with. Facilitators stand in the lobby with signs to help shepherd their groups to the right places.

Schmidt’s Circle Conversation group seems small. Yet the experience is powerful, according to Martin Williams, Director of Community Mental Health at Frontline Services. This is Williams’ first time attending the event. “It was a wonderful experience,” he said.

The YWCA hopes to inspire people to bring the model back to their workplaces. Photo by Gabe Schaffer.

It’s an interesting role reversal when clinical leaders are participants in a facilitated group. Williams liked it. “Being in a circle like that creates the opportunity to eliminate any barriers,” he says. “People could be open and honest about how they were raised, the bias that they hold.” 

Reflecting afterwards, Schmidt, the novice facilitator, says the experience was meaningful. Yet she still feels stuck with a sense of inaction. “There is a helpless feeling,” she says. “It’s reality. There is no easy fix.” For his part, Williams has a desire to do more. “You’re open and want to continue the dialogue in some way,” he says. Williams channels that yearning into his work, bringing the content to a weekly directors’ meeting to see if there is a way to incorporate the model into a future training about dealing with unconscious bias.

This phenomenon — participants left yearning for more — is part of the goal. By creating a safe space and starting person-to-person, the YWCA hopes to inspire people to bring the model back to their workplaces, to expand from the individual to institutional and community levels. It starts with people owning their unconscious bias and then being able to look at institutions, Margaret Mitchell says. “There’s an area in all of our lives to be a champion of dismantling racism. We take a little corner and begin to peel it back.”


Shari Nacson is a Cleveland-based mother, editor, child development specialist and nonprofit consultant with a passion for the promotion of engaged citizenship via family and school-based service projects during early childhood.

Gabe Schaffer lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, with his wife, three kids and several chickens. He has been, among other things, a freelance photojournalist for over 15 years.

Copyright © 500 Pens. June 2018.