Unconscious Bias in Parks and Recreation

February 1, 2017, Department, by Ava Holliday and Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin

2017 February Social Equity 410

In the past few years, we’ve seen a significant uptick in discussions on unconscious bias. It has shown up in the tech industry, in politics, in policing and, of course, in the outdoor recreation and environmental sector. In fact, we’ve heard about unconscious bias so much, I’m guessing some folks are sick of the buzzword and ready to move on. Most of the time, I’m right there with you when it comes to overused tropes; I could do without hearing, “moving the needle,” “disrupt” and “robust” ever again. But I’m not sick of unconscious bias. While it has been a concept explored at a staggering rate, the exploration is warranted.

At the Avarna Group, we support outdoor recreation and environmental organizations in becoming more socially and environmentally just. That means, we get to work with compassionate, creative and motivated individuals excited about making their organization more equitable and inclusive. Notwithstanding this commitment, these folks often feel frustrated because their DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts just aren’t working. This is where unconscious bias comes in. The framework of unconscious bias helps us uncover the mysterious gap between the best of intentions and lack of success. We lead with bias because it brings everyone into the conversation, and that’s because we all have it!

So what is unconscious bias? We share a fairly simple definition: “unconscious, subtle, involuntary assumptions or judgments we make every day based on our prior experiences and culture.” Most often, we use a large pair of sunglasses to illustrate that unconscious bias is, at its core, about the unique lenses through which we see the world, and we talk about how those lenses are shaped via our experiences, be it our upbringing, the media we consume or even our friend groups.

When we talk about bias, inevitably someone asks, “Is bias inherently bad?” No — bias simply refers to the neurobiology in all of us; it is, in fact, a survival tool that helps us quickly process the world around us. However, that doesn’t mean that we should let ourselves off the hook. Bias becomes dangerous when it’s imbued with power dynamics. Therefore, if we fail to identify, mitigate and interrupt bias that is informed by or reinforces systems of power (or more simply, the “-isms,” like racism and sexism), then our DEI efforts may also fail. In other words, despite our conscious opposition to racism, sexism, etc., we may still unconsciously be perpetuating those “–isms.”

That harmful, unconscious bias can manifest in a variety of ways, including in our parks. We generally view unconscious bias as manifesting through three lenses: in us as individuals, within our organizations and agencies, and within the park and recreation sector as a whole.

  • On an individual level, bias manifests in our own internal thoughts and beliefs, as well as in our interactions with others. We may say something to a person in a park or in our work setting that unintentionally disempowers them based on an identity. For example, we have heard from so many park users of color that subtle comments and looks have made them feel uncomfortable in parks. Some folks tend to hold stereotypes about specific communities and their relationships to parks and recreation, and those stereotypes seep out in subtle, yet impactful comments.
  • On an institutional level, we can unintentionally create programs and parks that exclude people or entire communities. Or, we may unwittingly propagate an office culture that is not welcoming to all.
  • Finally, on an industry level, looking back at the history of parks, recreation and outdoor engagement, we can see a long history of power and privilege. (See Dorceta Taylor’s book, The Rise of the Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection).

So, you may ask, “what can I do?” While there is not enough space in this article to outline all of our suggestions, here are some that rise to the top:

Mitigating individual bias:

  • Investigate your own biases by taking the Implicit Association Test.
  • Keep learning and seek to learn from authors, bloggers, activists, podcasters and speakers who are different from you.
  • Interrupt harmful bias when you see it. This can be incredibly difficult, but not saying anything means that you’re sending a signal to your colleagues, family members (kids included!) or friends that this behavior is OK.
  • When you do interrupt bias, make sure to address the person’s behavior (not their character) and the impact of this behavior (not their intent).
  • Understand that discomfort is part of the process.
  • Say “thank you” when you receive feedback and own your impact even if you don’t understand why the person was impacted at the time; it is indeed a gift and a learning opportunity.

Mitigating institutional bias:

  • Make sure your hiring practices are inclusive and equitable. 
  • Make sure your parks and programs are accessible and culturally relevant to all constituents. (Start by asking your community what they want and need!)
  • Engender a culture of feedback in your office that enables open and honest conversations.

Mitigating industry bias:

  • Investigate the indigenous presence (past and present) of the land your park occupies.
  • Incorporate indigenous presence into curriculum, park interpretation and programming.
  • Expand your understanding of “outdoor recreation.” Not everyone recreates in parks in the same way; honor all the ways individuals and communities want to connect with the outdoors.

Of course, these are just some pieces to get you started. The work of uncovering and mitigating our harmful biases is a lifelong journey. And, though it can be easy to dismiss bias and say “it’s just the way my brain works,” remember that biases can reinforce “-isms” and that with this knowledge comes an opportunity and responsibility to investigate and grapple with them. Though it may be uncomfortable, this discomfort is in service of more environmentally and socially just parks and recreation. So lean in to the discomfort and start grappling!

Ava Holliday is a Founding Partner of The Avarna Group.  Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin is a Founding Partner of The Avarna Group.