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How Virtual Reality Training Can Help Combat Racial Bias

Even unintentional racial bias can have long-lasting impact, particularly when making decisions about kids in the foster care system. Training via virtual reality can help eliminate those biases in the field.

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Achieving a just, inclusive society takes hard work and deep soul-searching by institutions, their leaders and employees, whether they operate within government, academia, the nonprofit world or the private sector. To advance that goal, it is critical that we address issues around racial equity head-on, including in training initiatives where possible. That’s not always an easy or comfortable process, but with proper consideration and guidance, it can be done, and in this respect we see growing promise for virtual reality (VR) as a learning tool. 

Here is an example of how it works as a racial bias training tool. Caseworkers in government child welfare agencies don a VR headset to virtually visit and interview a family — played by actors — with the intent of determining whether a child should be placed in foster care. The group of learners is divided into two cohorts who participate in nearly identical simulated home scenarios. The characters in each story speak the same words and the story lines are identical, except for the family’s race. 

After their VR immersion experience, the two cohorts get together to discuss their interactions, how their reactions might have influenced the responses from interviewees and whether they think the child should be placed in foster care. Examining the interactions helps the caseworkers explore how the race of the family may have subtly, or not so subtly, influenced their conclusions about the child’s safety and the necessity for foster care. 

VR as a caseworker training tool can generate judgement-free, near-real-time feedback on how bias can show up in an important facet of casework. For state government child welfare agencies, such insights and data can provide macro-level information about how bias affects caseworker decision-making.

By putting people in these immersive environments, we are pushing the ball forward on training for professionals who interact with people of different backgrounds and races on a daily basis and often make decisions that can profoundly affect lives, such as a caseworker assessing whether foster care is appropriate or a bank lending officer deciding whether to grant a business loan. Training for employees in such positions is crucial, and technology is opening new opportunities in this regard. 

How can organizations ensure they are fostering an inclusive, bias-free environment? Having a diverse workforce and diverse leadership, along with opportunities for advancement, is an essential step to promote mutual understanding and appreciation of our cultural differences. VR is emerging as a valuable tool to help address racial bias that in many instances may be unconscious or unintended.

These immersive learning platforms help state government agencies train child welfare caseworkers to better understand biases that may affect their decisions as they consider what is best for a child facing a difficult family situation. A frequent caseworker task is to determine whether a child would be better off in foster care or with family. The reality: Black and brown children disproportionately end up in foster care, with profound psychological impacts. In 2018, Black youth represented 14 percent of all children in the U.S. but 23 percent of those in foster care, according to the Field Center at the University of Pennsylvania

Addressing these disparities is a top priority for child welfare advocates, and a daunting task for the highly decentralized child welfare system. That’s where VR can make a real difference, by engaging caseworkers in a natural flow of conversation during training that’s rarely possible in the real world. Most importantly, these programs immerse learners in an environment where they can confront their own biases and preconceptions, without judgment or repercussions. It also serves to overcome one of the biggest stumbling blocks in achieving racial equity: the lack of sufficient data. 

VR as a training tool also can help leaders and employees build skills to drive cultural change, one conversation at a time. While our focus has been on child welfare caseworkers, VR is a highly flexible medium that can be used to foster diversity, equity and inclusion in many other public-sector settings. It could be used to help policymakers see how bias plays a role in public policy decisions; as a community policing training tool; and to address bias in education where Black students are much more likely to be suspended.

The first step for any organization striving to address racial bias is to recognize that daily, unintentional reactions, such as in everyday speech, can have systemic impact. VR is an engaging training tool to help individuals identify preconceptions and analyze how they might have responded differently in a fraught situation. 

It is exciting that this new learning tool and approach is emerging to help public institutions address racial bias in decisions and actions that can impact generations, and we see great potential for development of many varied new applications to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion programs across a wide front of public- and private-sector activity. 

Michael McAfee is president and CEO of PolicyLink, and served on an advisory panel for the AVEnueS racial bias training. AVEnueS offers a VR learning tool and curriculum, built on Promise VR technology, for cultural and racial bias training and learning exercises. Molly Tierney leads Accenture’s child welfare practice.