Oklahoma inventor seeks to reduce bias 

Ian Okuden stands with his invention, called B.R.I.D.G.E. in his garage in Yukon, Okla. on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. The invention is intended to reduce implicit biases, specifically in law enforcement. (Cara Johnson).
  • Ian Okuden stands with his invention, called B.R.I.D.G.E. in his garage in Yukon, Okla. on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. The invention is intended to reduce implicit biases, specifically in law enforcement. (Cara Johnson).

On a sunny day in May, Ian Okuden pointed people in the direction of the Bias Reducing Implemental Device to Grow Empathy, which often goes by its acronym BRIDGE, in a church parking lot in northeast Oklahoma City.

As participants of Police and Community Trust Initiative took turns inside BRIDGE, a gray box the size of a telephone booth, they were exposed to a training exercise geared toward participants recognizing their hidden prejudice or their implicit bias. As soon as the door shuts, three screens transmit an instantaneous short but disturbing video.

“It’s a very stressful and threatening environment,” explained Okuden, an Oklahoma native and Cambridge-trained educator who first became fascinated with the concept of implicit bias in how it relates to the classroom. “More importantly, it is an experience such as a victim of racism. The idea is to put you in their shoes, to actually give you the experiences as to what that kind of pressure and emotion is like. That stimulates the region of the brain responsible for empathy.”

As the inventor of BRIDGE, Okuden joins a long list of social scientists and researchers trying to wipe out implicit bias, which is a term used to describe the attitudes toward people or stereotypes we associate with them without our conscious knowledge. While implicit bias training and workshops are not new concepts, Okuden’s BRIDGE is a unique approach. Once the monitors go dark and the room is quiet, participants exit to watch a video filmed of them moments earlier.

“You see how you personally responded to a racist attack,” Okuden said. “This is the very imprint. After you experience that violent episode of racism, you can see your reaction to it. You can see the shock, anger, sadness or other responses to it.”

BRIDGE has consumed the life of Okuden for the past four years. First, he connected with neuroscientists who studied how the brain makes implicit associations along the lines of race, gender, class, age and other areas. From his own experiences in Oklahoma and as a teacher in Japan, Okuden recognized implicit bias in nearly every group of people. It is a real problem in society and is at the core of issues like law enforcement and racial profiling, women being paid less than their male counterparts and black students being suspended at a higher rate than their white peers.

Okuden’s implicit bias training concept became BRIDGE, which is a patented invention. The prototype version focuses on race but could expand in the future with versions focused on gender, nationality and disability, to name a few.

Over the last few months, Okuden has been testing and refining BRIDGE. He has tried it with community members, college students and even YWCA Oklahoma City’s management staff.

Next, he wants to test it with police.

Local potential

Following last summer’s growing national discord over law enforcement and race, implicit bias emerged as the new buzzword in law enforcement circles.

Many law enforcement agencies have asked their officers to undergo training about explicit and implicit biases that can govern their decision-making. While officers are trained to use appropriate measures to protect lives and their own personal safety, the concept of implicit bias suggests in moments requiring split-second decisions, officers can’t fall back on their personal biases. However, training might be able to diminish officers’ implicit biases by identifying and curtailing behaviors that arise from subconscious assumptions.

The launch of BRIDGE in Oklahoma is linked to the troubling headlines and studies about fatal officer-involved shootings in the Sooner State, Okuden said. Oklahoma law enforcement officers shot and killed 32 people at a rate of 4.4 per million in 2015. The Washington Post reported Oklahoma’s rate was double the rate of the next highest states.

Okuden, who was raised in Oklahoma and completed a bachelor’s program at the University of Oklahoma, had the impression that the state’s law enforcement leaders were continuously training officers and seeking innovative solutions for 21st-century policing. BRIDGE, Okuden believes, could be one of those innovative solutions. At the May 13th Police and Community Trust Initiative community forum, Okuden made contact with six law enforcement leaders, including Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty and Midwest City Police Chief Brandon Clabes.

“What we are trying to do is empower officers with the knowledge and the understanding of their individual implicit bias,” Okuden said. “The hope is that the awareness also gives officers more control over their thoughts during crises.”

Local reaction

As co-founder of Ending Violence Everywhere, a coalition demanding change in the culture of violence, Sara Bana was intrigued by BRIDGE and Okuden’s efforts. The coalition’s leaders say the device, even in its testing stage, has added a constructive layer to local conversations on race and policing. It has also made an impact on community members exposed to the device.

“I believe it is empowering to have such insight and awareness of our own individual biases,” Bana said. “I truly believe this knowledge and awareness can help each of us on an individual level with managing faulty impressions or perceptions.”

Before participants enter BRIDGE, Okuden instructs them to take the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a reaction-time test that assesses racial bias. It’s a widely used test available at no charge through Harvard University’s website. At the end of the test, individuals are shown if they have a preference for white people over black, black people over white or no discernible preference. After completing BRIDGE, participants once again take the IAT to record the impact of BRIDGE.

“I had a very emotional response,” explained Brandon Pasley, YWCA’s senior director of specialized training. “I was really surprised, and this is coming from someone with social justice issues on their radar. I train people all day every day about how men kill women, but I had a momentary vicarious trauma. I thought it was very effective.”

Okuden explained BRIDGE was built on the belief that implicit bias is a problem that can be overcome when people recognize it. Beyond awareness, people must be motivated to change. Following further testing and more data collection, he hopes BRIDGE can be a solution to ending implicit bias and its implications for Oklahoma communities.

“Experiencing BRIDGE is not just a matter of what you see, but what you hear and what you are feeling at the time,” Okuden said. “I would say altogether, it is an immersion experience.”

Print headline: Immersive experience: A local man takes on implicit bias through invention with the goal of impacting Oklahoma law enforcement.

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