Our goal: to listen, talk and understand

By Deb SzaroSzaro

My Bias is Unconscious… Is Yours? That was the name of a workshop I attended recently in Washington, DC. It is also what I believe. Accepting without question that we all have biases of which we are not aware may have led to my seat on a panel in this all-day program on Nov. 2 run by EPA’s Diversity Council.

As deputy regional administrator of EPA’s New England office, I have intuitively felt that our office did a good – though never good enough – job of honoring diversity and making all employees feel respected and included.

As one of 10 panelists in a morning session, I gave an account of an African American employee in my region who shadowed me for a day.  Right in the middle of my anecdote, I realized that this account of how we operate in New England closely mirrors just the kind of culture our moderator had said is critical to addressing unconscious biases.

What is important, said Timothy Vianney Kane, associate director for inclusion initiatives at George Washington University, is creating an office and a culture where employees truly get to know one another, where they work together in an atmosphere that breeds support and acceptance.

My anecdote was about Marcus Holmes, an environmental engineer in our Superfund program who told the staff in our regional office his personal and professional story on a Diversity Panel. After that, Marcus shadowed me for a day, including to a meeting with folks from the human resources office. He listened as human resources staff talked about their respect for each other, at times moved to tears as they reflected on the feelings of loyalty and trust that had built up between them during years of working together.

Later, during an all-hands meeting about professional development, Marcus stood to tell a roomful of Region 1 employees about his shadowing experience, and jokingly said how he now wanted to work in the human resources office.

Although this story does not precisely talk to diversity, or even unconscious bias, it does directly address a culture that is critical to tackling our biases, a culture that is central to the way we try to run our office in Boston. When we get to know each other as people and hear each other’s stories, we can better understand each other. And when we know each other as human beings, not just as lawyers or scientists in another program, we are more apt to listen to each other with a ready mind and an open heart.

I know our office has come far, but there is always farther to go. I know we will not eliminate unconscious biases through a single diversity panel or even 10 all-day workshops. But as I talked and listened during this workshop in Washington DC, I felt validated in our approach here at EPA New England – an approach that firmly declares that only through a pervasive culture of embracing and respecting differences, of promoting humanity and of tackling unconscious bias head-on, can we hope to move forward to a more inclusive and accepting workplace.

This is the philosophy that this regional office excels at, and it is this philosophy that we will continue to nourish in the years ahead.


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