Dist. 203 defines bias, encourages community to 'unlearn' assumptions

  • Rakeda Leaks, executive director of diversity and inclusion for Naperville Unit District 203, says even the most unconscious of biases can be unlearned -- if at first they are identified.

    Rakeda Leaks, executive director of diversity and inclusion for Naperville Unit District 203, says even the most unconscious of biases can be unlearned -- if at first they are identified. Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer/December 2019

 
 
Updated 1/23/2020 12:42 PM

Even the most unconscious of biases can be unlearned -- if at first they are identified.

That's the message Rakeda Leaks, executive director of diversity and inclusion, shared during two engagement sessions designed to help parents and the broader community in Naperville Unit District 203 learn the difference between bias and racism and work to address both.

 

Racism, Leaks said, combines power and prejudice to impose the belief that one set of characteristics is superior to another. Implicit bias, she said, involves unconsciously activated stereotypes that may give advantages to some and disadvantages to others.

After an online post by a Naperville Central High School student in November resulted in hate crimes charges, the district has been continuing to foster a more diverse and inclusive environment. The district started such efforts in recent years as demographics change.

The sessions Leaks hosted Wednesday and Thursday were not about "shame and blame," she said, but about understanding across differences, growing and learning.

Roughly 175 people -- some of them staff members -- attended the forums as part of the Focus 203 series. Participants engaged in discussions about how bias plays out in news coverage, friendships, professional networks and assumptions about the world.

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"We must be cognizant of the fact that the messages we have received throughout our lives about some groups might be limited, narrow perceptions that might be, in fact, overly negative and one-sided, or in some cases erroneous," Leaks said.

Biases are natural, human functions that can be helpful when they help quickly identify potential dangers or things that don't belong, Leaks said. Parent Daryl Wilson agreed.

"They're almost defense mechanisms," Wilson said.

But these mechanisms can be wrong, Wilson said. He said thinking of others only as the groups they represent instead of as individuals is why people can get "stuck in a cycle" of harboring incorrect or discriminatory biases.

District 203's student population of 16,500 remains 62.4% white, according to Illinois Report Card data. But the district also has 17.2% Asian students as well as 10.8% Hispanic, 4.7% black, 4.7% two or more races, 0.2% American Indian and 0.1% Pacific islander.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And the district is part of a broader city and region where issues with racism and division continue to arise.

But taking steps to identify, admit and "unlearn" biases can help, Leaks said.

First, she encouraged participants to conduct a personal "equity audit," looking for patterns among their social, personal and professional lives and seeking blind spots where bias may lie.

"Pause and be critical thinkers about what we see and what message is being conveyed," Leaks said.

Further steps could include seeking more diverse friends and increasing exposure to people who are different.

In Naperville, the conversation about implicit bias is set to continue during the next meeting of Naperville Neighbors United, a diversity group hosted by Naperville City Council member Benny White. The meeting is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Naperville Municipal Center, 400 S. Eagle St., to be facilitated by Adrienne Coleman, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora.

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