Finding Empowerment through Bias Response

UChicago campus

From March 2018

By Anne Hartman Raether

March 2018 marks the tenth anniversary of UChicago’s Bias Education and Support Team (BEST). BEST began as the Bias Response Team (BRT) and has grown in scope over the years, but its mission—to assist students affected by bias incidents—has remained the core of the department since its start.

BRT grew out of students’ requests for better resources to help them address and cope with bias incidents, which are actions directed toward a person motivated by a person’s race, color, religion, sexual orientation, or other protected class. BRT provided a compass for students, with members helping students to navigate the different University offices that could assist them with addressing these incidents.

But as the University evolved, so, too, did BRT. It was renamed BEST in 2017, with members working toward a more enhanced mission—to educate and support students affected by bias incidents and empower them to respond effectively. BEST specializes in incidents that do not amount to a policy violation, but need to be addressed nonetheless.

“In the truest sense, BEST has gone from responding to incidents by tracking those incidents and pointing students in the right direction to being able to offer meaningful support and empowering resources to those affected,” said Vickie Sides, Director of Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention.

Sides is one of fifteen BEST members, who come from offices across the University, such as Spiritual Life and UChicagoGRAD. Members meet on a monthly basis to receive training to carry out BEST’s mission; training has included workshops on gender identity, racial bias, challenges for international and undocumented students, self-care techniques, and active listening.

“Staff members are really committed to supporting a person all the way through, and hopefully finding a resolution to the bias incident that occurred,” said Belinda Cortez Vazquez, Associate Dean of Students in the University for Student Affairs and Director of Student Emergency Response Systems, and a BEST member.

After a report is submitted—which students can do online or by contacting a BEST member directly—members will offer to meet with the student to discuss the incident and resolution options. BEST members are specifically trained in restorative justice, or an attempt to address harms that occur upon an individual or a community.

“Restorative justice is not just victim-centered,” Cortez Vazquez said. “It also allows the person or community that does the harm to be encouraged to do what is right. If done well, it should be satisfying to both sides.”

One restorative justice technique BEST uses is a hearing circle, which brings students from all sides together to discuss a particular subject matter or incident. Students take turns talking, and simply voice how the matter affects them, without an argument or even back-and-forth conversation.

BEST also uses facilitated or mediated conversations, where both parties involved in the incident agree to come together to discuss a particular topic.

“There’s not always going to be total forgiveness or true reconciliation,” Cortez Vazquez said. “But there’s a movement toward a better understanding of what occurred and how to possibly avoid a similar situation in the future.”

BEST has also created workshops for groups to educate them on microagressions and how they may be affecting members of their communities.

Although pursuing a resolution can be a healing exercise, students can opt to only speak with BEST members, or simply submit a report to call attention to the incident.

“We can put funding and resources toward areas, but we can only do that if we know about a trend or a group of incidents that are targeting certain individuals,” said Lynda Daher, Assistant Dean of Students in the University for Student Affairs and Associate Director for Student Emergency Response Systems and a BEST member.

However they choose to proceed, students can find comfort in the fact that BEST members are highly skilled at addressing bias incidents and guiding students in deciding how to approach a resolution.

“We’re an ethnically diverse group,” Sides added. “We’re a group that is diverse in terms of background, social status, age, and gender. I think that we can take seriously when people have experienced bias because we have certainly been on the receiving end of that bias.”

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