Vernā Myers Gets Candid

September 28, 2023, Feature, by Vitisia Paynich

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How this respected expert helps organizations break down barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion

At a very young age, Vernā Myers believed she had a great responsibility to make a difference and effect change in the world. And it’s that steadfast desire that carried her from childhood through adulthood as a Harvard Law School graduate. During her early career as an attorney, Myers saw firsthand systemic inequities that existed among various populations. She eventually stepped away from the legal profession and branched out on her own as an inclusion strategist, cultural innovator and founder of The Vernā Myers Company to help organizations across different industries to establish diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) best practices. In fact, Diversity Woman named Myers among one of the top 100 Black Women Executives in 2021. On Tuesday, October 10, Myers will present the Opening General Session keynote during the 2023 NRPA Annual Conference in Dallas.

Parks & Recreation magazine recently spoke with Myers, in which she reflects on her early influences, discusses overcoming implicit bias and shares how park and recreation agencies can advance DEI.

Parks & Recreation: How did your early lived experiences influence and guide your career path?

Vernā Myers: I was 8 years old when Martin Luther King [Jr.] was assassinated. It was actually the night before my eighth birthday, and I [recognized that moment] as being a really big turning point in my life because first of all…Martin Luther King had been a real hero of mine, and it was my first understanding of how serious his work was. But there was something on that day that made me feel like…this person had sacrificed his life for me, and I intend to be the person who carries out the dream — or at least fulfill…my responsibility of that dream. And from then on, I just really cared so deeply about justice, equality, opportunity and community, and [I really felt] responsible to my ancestors and the people who supported me. In particular, I really felt like…in America, the dream is to have true freedom and rights…. So, that was the starting point. It pointed me towards being a lawyer because in my mind, I thought lawyers were the ones [who] are the advocates for the rights of the people.

And then little by little being in the legal field, I started to see that there were real gaps and the law could do one of two things: it can actually allow for more freedom, more opportunity and more justice, or it can really cement advantages for those who have resources within that system in a way that perpetuates injustice and inequity. And from there, I decided I [wanted] to do something to change what people are experiencing, especially within the legal field and/or the corporate field. I was the first Black attorney in the law firm that I joined. And I thought, “There’s something really wrong here.” It was a while ago, but I was still very surprised that I was breaking the color line. [T]he people were fine and nice, but so much of what they did and how they did it really reflected only one culture. And so, I got very interested in diversity and inclusion. And then, ultimately, [I] had a number of positions that allowed me to learn more about how to create not just diverse spaces — in other words, diverse representation — but also the kinds of spaces where lots of people can come from different backgrounds and still experience respect, success, and be able to thrive and make contributions.

P&R: During your 2014 TED Talk, you spoke candidly about your own implicit biases. How do we overcome biases that we may not know we have due to our upbringing and our environment?

Myers: You have to really be committed to seeing the things that have been invisible to you because of the lens on the world — how your culture and background have shaped you. Most people don’t want to see [it] because it’s destabilizing. It makes you have to question everything you thought you knew, but there’s so much more to see than what we have been taught. And I think there is a lot of joy also…when you start to commit to paying attention and looking for your biases. And one of the ways you do that is to expand your social circle to intentionally create relationships across differences by showing up in places and meeting people who may not be in your comfort zone. Say someone invites you to a wedding…from a very different culture than you’re accustomed to. You discover that there’s so much newness and joy that you’ve been missing about other people’s cultures. But what you’re also starting [to notice] is that the thing you thought you knew about a group or culture [is] actually not true because now you’re with a large group of people from that culture and you see that there’s a lot of heterogeneity within the same group or culture.

And you start to go, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t know!” or “What else don’t I know?” You’ve got to confront your biases by exposing yourself and developing real, authentic relationships with people who you haven’t spent much time with. DEI is a contact sport. A lot of times people are thinking, “Well, I’m just going to read about that culture.” That’s fine. Please read and watch and educate yourself about other cultures, and especially your own. And maybe you do that before you say something that might be insensitive. But you’re ultimately not going to get comfortable and capable in this area, unless you also decide that you’re going to build relationships and expand where you go and who you know. And you have to be willing to be uncomfortable and sometimes make mistakes. You’re not going to be comfortable before you are uncomfortable.

P&R: How do tests like the Implicit Association Test (IAT) help us understand our personal biases? Does it help to create a roadmap to DEI?

Myers: Yes. I think the main value of the IAT is that you get out of denial. Denial is sort of the largest problem that we need to face because we hope and believe we’re good people, and we love everybody. And the IAT says, “No, we don’t. According to millions of tests and research, we prefer some people over other people without a lot of data about who they are.” And it’s not because we’re bad people, it’s because this is how our brain works; it sorts through and tries to make sense of the data we are given very quickly. It takes shortcuts, makes assumptions, categorizes and makes associations based on what it already thinks it knows. So, the IAT gives you a chance to get out of denial. The tests tell you who you are automatically leaning toward and against. And if you’re doing that as a larger organization and everyone’s taking the test and if you’re seeing patterns within your organization, you can say, “Here are some areas where we need to work on.” Even as an individual, if you take those tests…you start to say, “What do I know? Where and who did I get this information from? What else do I need to know? Who else can I talk to about this?” So, it also creates your own personal action plan.

P&R: In that same TED Talk, you shared that according to IAT data, “Fifty percent of Black people taking that test prefer white.” This reminded me of the Kenneth and Mamie Clark Doll Test from the 1940s. It’s been more than 80 years since that study. Why are we still seeing similar results today?

Myers: I think they updated that study, too, and still found similar outcomes. Bias is hard to let go of. Supposedly, you need many counter examples and experiences to your beliefs, in order to change your mind about any stereotypes you have. And…I remind people it can be stereotypes for or stereotypes against. Also, some of us do not live diverse lives. We live segregated lives. We are very focused on our comfort and our sense of safety. And so, we often surround ourselves with people who are like us. As such, we get to reinforce our sense of the world. And even when we’re with people who are different from us, we don’t see them as valuable so we don’t invest in the relationships that would allow us to actually see something different than [what] we think we already know.

The other thing I said in the TED Talk is that our perceptions of who’s brighter, smarter, prettier and more moral aren’t just stereotypes held by people who are in the majority group or the preferred group. [T]his contamination, these biases are absorbed by the group that’s being marginalized and oppressed. And so, sometimes the stereotypes are believed by these groups, too. This is called internalized oppression or bias. For example, some women [more easily can] associate men with work than they can women even though women have been in the workplace and making great contributions for decades. One interesting finding regarding the race IAT is a large percentage of white people taking the test show a preference for white people and some Black people show that preference, too. However, it has also been true that Black people taking the test showed the least amount of bias of any group, where they don’t prefer one or the other. So, that’s actually pretty interesting as well.

P&R: NRPA recognizes that implicit bias exists, which is why we are intentional about living our DEI values. However, how do park and recreation agencies stay the course when there is outward noise in the public and political realm that creates new stereotypes, reinforces old ones and sows divisions in our country to dismantle any progress that we have been making?

Myers: It’s a good question, and it’s a concern for sure. But I think that organizations like yours have to stay single-minded with regard to its North Star, which is equality, equity, justice, treating people fairly — these are principles of our country. So…the last time I looked at the Constitution, it’s still saying that we treat people equally. It is also very clear that the [country] is not becoming less diverse; it’s becoming more diverse. So, it’s impossible to serve your constituents well without having people within your organization [who] represent that diverse population. [For park and recreation agencies], it’s hard to serve people well…without having people within your organization who know [the community] well and have that lived experience, including all their interests, histories, contributions, needs and obstacles.

If you don’t understand what it takes to get to a park or what transportation is available or not available, or how people have to prioritize certain things in their lives, it’s not because you’re bad — it’s because it’s not your reality. But then you miss real opportunities to make good on your mission. And I think every organization [should] look at its mission and [ask], “What are we trying to achieve? And how well are we at achieving our mission with regard to different groups versus just the group that we’ve been accustomed to serving?”

P&R: What are the biggest barriers to creating real change within an organization or agency when it comes to hiring practices?

Myers: One is that people see hiring as a solution, but they don’t actually look at the culture that they’re hiring people into. So, they may have an opportunity to bring in a lot of people, but when those people land, they’re not finding an environment that’s conducive to their success. And so, ultimately, they either don’t succeed or they leave, which then creates a revolving door. The second issue is that we don’t look widely enough to find talent that might exist in different places because we’re used to getting people from the same place that we’ve hired folks from before. A third barrier is that we hire people who are like us because we feel like we can predict what they’re going to do. We speak a similar language; they don’t make us nervous; etc. Then we’re just replicating ourselves in the institution. And then…the major barrier is that people don’t understand that this is cultural change. We need to think long term about how we solve it. So, a lot of outreach is so important, and just putting the job description on a [job] site…is not enough. You’ve got to go out, establish relationships…and get new external partners to really help people to recognize [these jobs exist]. [You have] to say, “Hey, this is a really wonderful opportunity…and we’d like to have you as part of our organization.”

P&R: What can park and recreation agencies do to create more equity within the communities they serve?

Myers: First and foremost, it’s about getting input from the communities: “Hey, we really would like to have your input. What should we be doing? What could we be doing?” And so, that’s a community conversation, but it’s also an employee conversation. And so, [thinking] about how to serve people [who have been under-represented] really requires those people to be part of the reshaping of the culture, ways of doing things and decision making. We have to get input from them to inform and even expand our vision and mission in the world. And so, that starts inside. It’s hard to change things outside if you don’t have those queries and conversations going on inside.

Vitisia Paynich is Executive Editor and Director of Print and Online Content at NRPA.