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'To Be Welcoming' curriculum offers tools to counteract bias

June 16, 2020

Free Starbucks online courses, developed at ASU, strive to foster empathy, understanding

Editor’s note:  This story is being highlighted in ASU Now’s year in review. Read more top stories from 2020.

The current protests over police killings and racial injustice has left many people with a hunger to learn more about inequality and to try to do better. America’s best-seller lists and TV shows are addressing the tragic results of racism.

Two years ago, Starbucks asked Arizona State University to develop an online curriculum for all Starbucks employees that is intended to drive reflection and conversation on the topic of bias. 

Now Starbucks is making those courses available to the public at no cost.

The curriculum, a set of 15 modules, is called “To Be Welcoming” and was rolled out in September 2019. 

The interactive courses were created by ASU faculty experts to share research and information that can help people to think about how they view the world and to consider how other people experience it. 

“We’re encouraging people to ask questions and as an educational institution, that’s the heart of what we do,” said Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, director of the Center for Indian Education and President’s Professor in the School of Social Transformation. He led the project for ASU.

“The hope is for people to think about things from a perspective of curiosity and wonder, and try to understand how other people might feel and to be able to engage in conversations that aren’t always easy,” said Brayboy, who is special adviser to ASU President Michael Crow for American Indian affairs.

ASU and Starbucks have a long-standing partnership that began in 2014, with the inception of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, a first-of-its-kind program with 100% tuition coverage for all U.S. retail Starbucks partners admitted to ASU to complete their first bachelor’s degree. As of May 2020, more than 4,500 Starbucks partners graduated through the program, with over 16,000 currently working toward their degree with ASU. 

In May 2018, Starbucks closed its doors across United States for an afternoon, so partners could participate in anti-bias training. The afternoon closure was in response to an incident in April that same year, when a Starbucks manager in Philadelphia called the police over two black men who were waiting in a store. That episode led to accusations of racism, which prompted the companywide training. But Starbucks decided to do more and reached out to ASU to create “To Be Welcoming.”

To Be Welcoming logo

Everyone who works at Starbucks can take “To Be Welcoming”, although it’s not required. Each module includes several sections with videos, interactive exercises, quizzes, a glossary and resources for further study. Everyone starts with the “foundational” course, which covers key elements of the curriculum that apply to all courses, and then may take the remaining 14 courses in any order.

The curriculum covers a wide range of biases that can be experienced by different groups of people: gender, race, age, disability, religion, nationality, sexuality, class, political culture, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Hispanic/Latino, black/African American, Arab/Middle Eastern and Asian American/Pacific Islander.

“The foundational course defines what dialogue is and some areas that prevent us from having it productively,” Brayboy said.

For example, “political correctness” is discussed as a term that often is used to avoid meaningful conversation about ways that groups of people are excluded or oppressed.

The topic of bias can be uncomfortable, said Ersula Ore, who reviewed and helped create the coursework on racism. Ore is the Lincoln Professor of Ethics in the School of Social Transformation and associate professor of African and African American studies and rhetoric at ASU.

“These are hard conversations to have,” she said. “Part of it is that students don’t know what to say and are scared to say anything because they don’t want to be ‘tripped up’ and ultimately perceived to be guilty of bias.

“My job as a reviewer was to anticipate the audience, and to consider the questions and issues that individuals might stumble over as they completed modules. For instance, What is a microaggression? What is the difference between the terms racism and prejudice?”

In one of the course videos, Ore discusses how past acts of racism are directly related to contemporary racism.

“There’s a level of detail you have to provide in order for the audience to be grounded, and I help them to make that connection,” she said.

The courses were reviewed several times. After the ASU faculty experts created the content, it was reviewed by other experts at ASU, and then sent to peer experts at other institutions. The goal was for the classes to be clear, concise and accessible to a broad range of people — and not written too academically.

It also was reviewed by faculty and administrators who are ideologically conservative, including Matt Salmon, vice president for government affairs at ASU.

“There’s a perception out there by a lot of conservatives that universities are monolithic in their thinking and that it’s just liberal ideology and there isn’t any tolerance for other viewpoints,” said Salmon, who is a former five-term U.S. congressman. 

“This process showed me that that’s just bunk. At this university, there’s a real desire not to just put out a product but to get it right.”

Salmon said the revision process was open and collaborative, much like the way people must confront sensitive issues of bias.

“It will take open-mindedness and willingness to say things that might feel offensive,” he said.

“But if you tiptoe on eggshells, you’ll never get to the bottom of it.”

The coursework encourages personal reflection. For example, the foundational module includes a journaling exercise in which participants are asked to write about a time they felt personally affected by national hatred, or, if they never were affected that way, the reasons why not.

It was a challenge for ASU faculty members to boil down their broad expertise into modules that can be completed in less than an hour, according to Jessica Solyom, associate research professor in the School of Social Transformation at ASU, who studies diversity, belonging and justice. She co-curated the content with Brayboy.

“For example, we have 30 minutes to talk about American Indians and Alaskan Natives, but there are over 570 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. with an abundance of different indigenous languages, histories and challenges,” Solyom said.

“We would not have been doing right by the communities we were writing about if we didn’t acknowledge the diversity within the group and offer further opportunities for learning and engagement on that.”

So while the coursework in each module can be completed in less than an hour, students can access many more resources to thoroughly explore each topic.

One key component of “To Be Welcoming” leads learners to think beyond individual acts of racism, like what happened to the men in Philadelphia. The foundational module discusses a “bias quadrant” — bias by individuals that is conscious or unconscious and bias that is systemic, at the government or institutional level, that is conscious or unconscious.

“Often, when corporations talk about bias, they focus the conversations and the potential solutions at the individual level. But bias is so much more complex than that,” Solyom said.

“How do our individual-level biases contribute to systems that also silence or discriminate against particular communities or groups?”

Another important concept is intersectionality — how people’s lives are shaped by more than one identity. For example, black women have different experiences than white women and black men.

Mako Fitts Ward, a clinical assistant professor and faculty head of ASU’s African and African American Studies program, is an expert in the study of intersectionality.  

“The courses are grounded in an intersectional approach to engaging bias and microaggressions, in all of their forms. If you’re taking the course on gender you can’t only address gender with no discussion of how race, sexuality and other identity groups impact the experiences faced by different people,” said Ward, who worked closely with Marlon M. Bailey, an associate professor of women and gender studies, on the content. 

“The videos are an important aspect of the series. We wanted them to be inclusive and to reflect the voices and perspectives of women across all groups in terms of class, workplace experience, sexual identity, race, ethnicity and culture,” she said. 

The goal is for everyone to see themselves. 

“People will find content that allows them to see their own experiences represented and by people from different backgrounds who reflect those experiences,” Ward said.

Karen Taliaferro, an assistant professor in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, reviewed and contributed to the course on national origin. She hopes that students reflect on what it means for Americans to be “one nation.”

“We are a unique country, historically speaking, because we were never made up of one ethnic group or immigrants from one nation only,” she said.

“So our country is very much what we Americans — coming from our rich array of ethnic and geographical backgrounds — make of it, together.”

Taliaferro wants students to see the inherent dignity and value of people they disagree with. And she’s hopeful. 

“I hope that they see some real good in our country that we can continue to build on,” she said.

“There is no denying that as a society, we face very real, and serious, challenges, but I think that those aspects of our country in which we can and should take real pride are often disguised behind headlines that tend to divide us. 

“I hope that this project will help us all build on those more promising aspects, and do so in ways that reflect empathy and respect for our neighbors.”

Learn more about the "To Be Welcoming" curriculum or take a course

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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To be social online, or to be social in person?

Athena Aktipis says in-person social interaction is a fundamental human need.
Season 2 of ASU prof Athena Aktipis' "Zombified" podcast is out now.
June 16, 2020

Athena Aktipis and colleagues explore benefits, propose methods to encourage face-to-face interaction in new study

Before the threat of the novel coronavirus sent us all home to shelter in place this spring, limiting our face-to-face interactions to just a few members of our immediate household (if we were that lucky), it seemed to many that humans as a species had begun to take for granted the myriad opportunities for in-person connection in favor of scrolling through social media and other entertainment via our smartphones.

ASU Associate Professor of psychology Athena Aktipis wanted to know if there was a way to get people to put down their phones and engage with the environment around them and the person sitting next to them. In a paper on the subject, Aktipis and colleagues explore the classic coordination problem from game theory: the stag hunt game.

According to the theory, individuals can either choose to work by themselves, hunting small game like rabbits, or they can choose to work together and potentially garner a larger payoff in the form of a stag. In this modern manifestation of the stag hunt game, scrolling through social media instead of engaging with people physically near you is like choosing to hunt rabbits on your own.

“We call it scrolling for metaphorical rabbits,” Aktipis said. “Essentially, with a stag hunt game, you can only get the bigger payoffs if you coordinate.”

This problem and ways to solve it, including developing an app that allows social contacts to opt in to a coordinated technology blackout, is discussed in the article by Aktipis and her collaborators, Roger Whitaker of Cardiff University in Wales, and ASU psychology graduate student Jessica Ayers.

ASU Now spoke with Aktipis about the study’s findings, revealing advice that is useful both for those who are eager to get back to socializing in person (hopefully at a safe distance and while wearing a mask), as well as those who are choosing to take it slow but might need some help setting aside their smartphone to have a real conversation with members of their quaran-team.

Question: If, in this modern manifestation of the stag hunt game dilemma, the smaller reward is the satisfaction you feel from scrolling through social media, what is the bigger reward of putting down your phone and engaging in face-to-face conversation?

Answer: This is something that is somewhat subjective, and I’ve had some interesting conversations with people about this. The minority would rather be on their phone than talking with their friend or spouse sitting next to them. But I think for a lot of us, having that very human interaction where we make eye contact, listen to each other’s voices, see each other’s facial expressions and are able to understand each other in a more nuanced way is something that really helps us to feel more human and more connected and supported in whatever it is that we’re experiencing. And if we just go with the safe option of being on our devices, we miss out on that.

Q: As a solution, you and your colleagues suggest an app that would allow social contacts to opt in to a coordinated technology blackout. Tell me more about that.

A: We’re working on developing that now. But I think right now, given the current situation, maybe there’s a unique chance to look at how it would work in smaller-scale situations, because people aren’t interacting with hundreds of people a day anymore; they’re interacting with their roommates or their families or the cashiers at grocery stores.

Q: Has the pandemic made you rethink any of the aspects of your study?

A: It’s kind of an exciting time, despite it being really a huge challenge for all of us as a society. But I think that there are certain parts of the changes that we’re undergoing that we’ll be able to actually take as an opportunity to reflect on what we value and how we want to live our lives intentionally in relation to other people and what role we want social media and smart devices to be playing in our social lives. Especially since that role is expanding now with the need to social distance. There are lots of benefits to being able to utilize technology for our social interaction. What we need to think about now is how much of it do we want to be scrolling through feeds versus having real conversations.

Q: As technology advances, we’re not just getting pings from our phones; we’re getting a buzz on our wrist or a sudden announcement from Alexa in the middle of our favorite song. What kind of challenges do you foresee there?

A: If instead of a smart device in your pocket, you have a watch on your person — or even an implant in your retina — as you go more and more invasive with the technology, the decision point for whether we want to keep interacting with the things around us or be tied to a feed coming in electronically is going to become much more important. Each of us will have to decide if we want to be tethered to people or to Google news alerts. And we’ll need to make those decisions intentionally, because if you just leave all your notifications on, your consciousness just gets flooded with all sorts of things you might not even value or prioritize.

Q: What do you think the need to shelter in place has revealed about humans' preferences regarding social interaction? And do you think those preferences will change?

A: I think the current situation has revealed an underlying preference for in-person interaction that maybe people didn’t consciously realize. When you take away the possibility of getting together with friends in person, you realize there’s something really valuable about that. And I don’t think that will ever go away no matter how advanced technology becomes. There’s just something fundamental about being in each others' physical presence. You can get a decent amount of that from the phone or other correspondence; people have had long-distance relationships from the beginning of recorded history. But almost always, those relationships intended to move toward a place where they could eventually get together in person. Fundamentally as humans, we are a very social species. We need social connections to feel normal. And I think right now, there is an opportunity for us to connect with the people who are closest to us in a deeper way.

Q: What else is going on in your life that you’d like to share?

A: The second season of my podcast Zombified is out now. In the final episode (which came out March 10), I talk with author and science communicator David Quammen about the origins of viral diseases and the stories behind how pandemics start and spread. He was so prescient about it, it was kind of creepy but also really cool. And then in between Season 2 and 3, we’re planning on doing a bunch of mini episodes about how life is changing with the pandemic.

Top photo: Screenshot of a video explaining the stag hunt game theory from the Cooperation and Conflict Lab. Video produced by Robert Ewing.