Buying into Bias

A community paper seeks value in Diversity Training

This year, The Local received a grant from the Independence Public Media Foundation to put our staff through Unconscious Bias training — and document the whole uncomfortable process in a series of articles (and video). Our first challenge was deciding on what kind of training, and who would facilitate?

There are a TON of Unconscious Bias trainers and organizations to choose from! Independent trainers and also some are affiliated with schools, churches or other groups. Online classes, weekend workshops, team retreats. Popular trainers fly all over the world – indeed, one of the organizations that came highly recommended to us requires clients to pay airfare & travel expenses! Surely there’s a high demandbut does it work?


Funny thing about UB/D&I training: it’s big business. “Sensitivity Training” gained popularity in the 90’s when companies turned to it as a safeguard against lawsuits. Today, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (D.E.I.) is an $8 billion dollar-a-year industry on a mission to create a culture where every member of the community is valued, respected and welcome to contribute. Or maybe it’s just selling corporate “woke” certificates

Interestingly, not one of the trainers who responded to our initial inquiries would provide specifics about the programs they offered. Seems their materials and exercises are considered proprietary information, which makes sense from a business perspective for sure. But if you’re trying to change the world, wouldn’t you want to share your message?

Cause that’s the whole point of our grant: to document our experience facing our biases, and to promote the skills we learn to work past them. It was a real surprise when the D.E.I. professionals we spoke with bristled at our project and even chastised us for even thinking of bringing cameras into the room. The idea!

It’s almost like D.E.I. training is a sacred or hallowed rite, best kept behind closed doors where everyone’s in their “safe space” — what happens in Unconscious Bias training stays in Unconscious Bias training! So we faced two immediate hurdles: 1) how to choose the right training for our needs without clear information on what is offered and 2) how to document our experience without revealing what (and how) we learned?

Frustrations compounded when we encountered articles suggesting UB/D.E.I. training has “no positive effects on the workplace.” Worse, some research shows it can cause backlash, and even have negative effects. Are you f’ing kidding me??!!

True Story: D.E.I. is a young field and the jury is still out on how, exactly, human beings can best be coaxed to recognize and combat implicit biases that limit and divide us. Despite conflicting evidence, social science provides one clear take-away: building positive connections across race and gender lines is good for all of us.

Workplaces are more profitable, solutions are more innovative, artistic expression is richer, community relations are smoother… Just because Unconscious Bias training can’t easily be quantified, doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile effort. Changing the status quo often entails a course of achievements and failures over time. You can’t force or regulate acceptance and understanding. People need organic opportunities to go “Whoops, sorry!” and really mean it.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all attack plan for unconscious bias, many experts recommend three key elements that produce long-term results:

  1. Agency Unconscious Bias training needs to be more than voluntary – ideally, participants should feel motivated and engaged. People shut down when they feel shamed and coerced.
  2. Perspective-taking When we mentally walk in someone else’s shoes, we are more likely to appreciate the specific challenges a marginalized person experiences (and subsequently alter our attitudes & conduct).
  3. Goal-setting Instead of “Don’t say this, don’t do that,” participants learn real-life skills they can commit to (like how to push back on a neighbor’s racist comments). By practicing specific behaviors, we can retrain our brains to be more open & communicative.

With these guidelines in mind, we went back to the drawing board for our Unconscious Bias project – determined to find a facilitator who could set us up for success. We also needed trainers who were into our plans to record and report on our training. All the better if they were local, too. (And hopefully sympathetic to underfunded community newspapers…)

André Robert Lee

BOOM — we got André Robert Lee, people!

Filmmaker, scholar and social justice advocate. A graduate of Germantown Friends School, where he currently teaches while also directing/producing award-winning documentaries in NYC in addition to leading Civil Rights tours across the country. We were introduced to him by Kevin Todd, a longtime Advisory Board member who came to know André through UB training at St. James School (Kevin is Director of Grad Support there).

André is also a facilitator for “The American Dream Game*” – basically, the Game of Life meets Chutes and Ladders, with players becoming characters with different identities. With every roll of the dice (and draw of a Chance card), participants move forward or are knocked backwards as inequities, stereotypes and biases impede (or propel) their way to “Success.”

The version he’s sharing with us is life-sized! We will all wear character pinnies and move through our paces on a room-sized game board. That’ll be our first session (plus homework). A week later we’ll all come back with André to wring as much as we can from our experience as individuals and as members of community media. At the end of the last session, we’re hoping to come away with some answers to the question, How can The Local take what we’ve learned even farther?

Diversity Training has moved way beyond corporate PC-coaching and virtue signaling.  This March we’re gearing up for an eye-opening journey. If you’ve got questions or concerns for us heading in, please comment below or email

BIG THANKS to André for taking us on, and also to Point Made Learning for waiving the licensing fee for The American Dream Game. *Created by Jennifer Yim, while she was a professor at the University of Michigan (and director of their Global Scholars program).  

The More You Know…

André Robert Lee would be a great story for us even if he wasn’t leading our Unconscious Bias training.


  1. Prep School Negro (revisits his experience as a scholarship kid from the ‘hood at Germantown Friends School in the 60’s/70’s with input from present-day students)
  2. I’m Not Racist, Am I? (follows a group of teens thru Deconstructing Racism training)
  3. The Election Effect (explores the impact of the 2016 election on American youth)
  4. Life Cycles on Inequality (12-part series explores how injustice shapes the lives of black men from birth to death using short films, investigative journalism and infographics)


Virtually Free, a documentary that follows two teens in a Richmond, VA detention center who participate in a program with local Virtual Reality artists to create a “virtual jail cell” exhibit that allows users to understand what incarceration looks, feels and sounds like from their perspective.


André is a former member of the Board of Directors for Ready Willing and Able: The Doe Fund, Inc., a juror for the Oscars© Student Competition, and an adviser for the Monument Lab in Philadelphia. He has served as a Reader for The Gates Millennium Scholars Program and as a speaker at The Gates Millennium Scholars Program Leadership Conferences. He’s also worked with The Ford Foundation, NBC, PBS, Miramax Films, Urbanworld, Film Movement, BET, Universal, HBO, Picturehouse, and Dreamworks.

Shout-outs to two GHS super-star teachers who changed André’s life:

Charlotte Pierce Baker, 9th grade English teacher who introduced him to Zora Heale Hurston and William Shakespeare simultaneously
Elizabeth Alexander, 11th grade English teacher who taught him the skills he needed to express himself as a writer.

Follow André for all the latest from this homegrown talent & social justice advocate.


ANNOUNCING… PhillyCAM — the City’s community-access TV and radio — will be helping us document this project and, hopefully, promote diversity, equity and inclusion to an even wider audience. Big hand for grassroots collaborations with our friends in local media!


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