Director’s Blog 6/26/19

Director’s Blog June 26, 2019
By Ian Billick, PhD

It’s Gay Pride Week at RMBL. Some friends of Jennie and I recently moved from Gunnison Valley because they struggled to be accepted as gay men. Not only were they very active in the community, but they were uniquely positioned to have a lasting impact.

Social capital, the friendships and ties that pull us together, are what make communities strong. Knowing how Gunnison Valley works, I have no doubt that the lack of acceptance has made everybody poorer, not in some abstract way, but in tangible ways that will touch everybody who will be in Gunnison for years to come.

RMBL actively works to be an inclusive community, whether we are talking gender orientation, socioeconomic background, or cultural heritage. What matters to us is the person, not the labels that society tries to use to put/keep people in boxes. We do this because it makes the science better, our community stronger, and our lives richer. It’s easy to say we want to be inclusive, but what does that actually look like? We have made progress diversifying our undergraduate program, but less success attracting senior researchers from diverse backgrounds.

Inclusivity and the way we wield power are inherently intertwined. Limiting the action of individuals is a deeply fraught enterprise. There is a great deal of research that decision‐making is irrational and full of implicit bias (I constantly recommend Jonathan Haidt’s book the Righteous Mind). Even when we have the best of intentions, it is easy for implicit bias to creep in, or for power structures to have disproportionate impacts on marginalized individuals.

At RMBL we put a focus on making good things happen and less on telling people what they should do. We provide opportunities and model behaviors (e.g., orientation hikes). When we do make limit people’s freedom (e.g., making Gothic a smoke‐free campus), we move slowly and ground the analysis in how one person’s decision has negative impacts on others (e.g., second hand smoke).

It’s fast and easy to require what we consider good behavior. But humbleness is in order. Maybe we don’t always have the best definition of “good”. Furthermore, my intuition is that a rules‐based approach to “good” behavior, while necessary at times, may not drive the fundamental changes we are looking for. We are evolved to learn from modeling behavior observed from others. Shaping behavior through handbooks is a relatively recent development in human evolution.

RMBL’s Diversity Committee is analyzing a potential code of behavior. I did a quick review of RMBL’s documents and found at least 7 instances where we establish behavioral expectations, from an equal opportunity statement in the Articles of Incorporation to our handbook that lays out a whole series of guidelines. Despite the volume (incoherence??) of the documents, I would guess important elements are missing. Our approach to behavioral expectations could be more concise, complete, and coherent. As the discussion over behavioral expectations progresses, it will need to be inclusive, thoughtful, and based in what research tells us.

Feel free to share your thoughts with me and I’m happy to put you in touch with the group analyzing RMBL’s behavioral expectations. If you are interested, stay tuned for when they are ready to broaden the conversation.

If you have other subjects you would like to see me address, don’t hesitate to reach out.