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Speaker on implicit bias delivers important message in Wayne County

Newark High School English teacher Danielle Ohlson, who advises the group It’s REAL (Rights, Education, Advocacy, Leadership) at NHS believes Sodus High School Principal Arkee Allen’s four, grade-level presentations on implicit bias May 17th at NHS was a “great conversation starter” for the entire school community.

Because of his background Allen is a sought-after speaker on implicit bias. He has spoken about it at many events and school districts in the region including at the Newark Central School District staff March Superintendent’s Conference Day.

Ohlson said after hearing Allen, several staff suggested it would be a great idea to have him return and speak with students. Hence, It’s REAL invited him to do so. Open to any student regardless of race, It’s REAL focuses on cultural identity and issues facing students and communities of color. The group meets weekly to plan activities, field trips, and events such as Allen’s presentation.

“The members of It’s REAL worked closely with Mr. Allen, communicating over e-mail to arrange the logistics for the event, and then met in person to plan the details of the presentation’s content,” Ohlson said.

On May 17th, Allen shared gripping glimpses into his growing up dirt poor in a dysfunctional home in “the murder capital of Rochester” where teddy bear memorials poignantly dotted the bleak landscape “where persons were found dead” and where statistically, odds of young African-American men like himself living long and/or succeeding in life were heavily stacked against them.

Allen’s father died when he was six. He recalled with sadness about the unfortunate deaths of two of his siblings and thankfully, how another brother survived being shot several times.

He expressed gratitude for the life-changing impact of his loving mother; a caring Big Brother mentor Art Alvut from Fairport, who over the years has become like a brother; how attending West Irondequoit High School through the Urban Suburban program and his involvement in the WIHS wrestling program ultimately led to his attending and graduating from Columbia University on a wrestling scholarship; an idea he initially vehemently resisted.

While Allen said his young life was obviously not easy, he told students adversity made him “better and more resilient.”

Using a personal illustration about implicit bias, Allen recalled being pulled over by police years ago when he and three white classmates from West Irondequoit were riding in a Jeep. While his classmates were calmly questioned by police outside the vehicle, he sat quietly inside waiting for them to speak with him. When they finally did, they shouted orders, roughed him up, pushed him to the ground and one of the officers put a gun to his head while screaming questions at him. Allen had no idea why, but later found out police were looking for teenagers who met their description, that had been involved in a grocery store robbery.

Allen stressed implicit bias is NOT just about race, but is a preference for or against someone, a group of people or something that operates at a subconscious level and we are not aware we have them. It is triggered automatically through rapid association of people/groups/objects and our attitudes and stereotypes about them. He said implicit bias runs contrary to our stated beliefs and attitudes. In other words, we can say we believe something and truly believe it, but behave in opposite ways.

“When you call somebody a racist, it cuts the conversation off and you can’t get anywhere,’’ he told the group of sophomores. “You have now created an enemy rather than someone you can work with.”

“He presented foundational information about the concept of implicit bias and included multiple opportunities for active audience participation, including a question and answer session, and an online survey that produced real-time results so that audience members could immediately see and analyze the data,” Ohlson explained. “Audience feedback about the presentation was overwhelmingly positive.”

“That was the best presentation we had all year,” said NHS senior Alessio Muto. “I really got a lot out of what he (Mr. Allen) had to say. Particularly about how we need to stop calling people racist, because it’s counterproductive. It just divides people.”

“Thank you for bringing him (Mr. Allen) here,” said ninth grader Paris Morris. “Implicit bias is a really important topic.”

Sophomore and It’s REAL member Elijah Griffin said:” I really liked the quote Mr. Allen used by Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.’ Also, when you call someone racist, it’s just adding on to the hatred that’s already in the conversation. It just adds on to the negativity. I think what he (Mr. Allen) was telling us is to think before you speak because you might end the conversation before you get to know the whole story.”

Billie Jo Ross, a special education science teacher at NHS, who worked with Allen when he taught math at West Irondequoit High School, was delighted he could speak with students and staff at NHS.

“This is a great opportunity for our school community to listen, ask questions and develop a deeper understanding of the implicit biases we all have. Mr. Allen has a wealth of knowledge and broad life experiences that can help others understand that every person has more than 1 story.”

“Over the past couple of years I have had the pleasure of getting to know Mr. Allen as he and I collaborate through our regional principals group,” NHS Principal Tom Roote said. “For the most part, we have shared ideas on course offerings and trending student issues like vaping. My positive perceptions of Arkee advanced quickly when I heard him speak at the most recent Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration in Lyons. He was the keynote speaker. He has an incredible story to share that reminds us to not get lost in a ‘single story.’ Instead, we need to consider ‘other’ stories as we seek to shape a true understanding of the world around us. Arkee is a true treasure to our region given his willingness to be vulnerable and to share his wisdom made up of some newsworthy experiences that are both positive and, in a few instances, devastating. He is an incredibly resilient leader in our region and we were lucky to connect our students and staff to his work this year!”

Based on feedback, Ohlson and It’s REAL want Allen to come back to NHS and “continue the conversation.”