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Peeling back the layers of unconscious bias

Live Actor Simulation invites participants to reflect on impact and realities of anti-Black racism
By: Antoinette Mercurio
December 10, 2020
A man sits on a window ledge writing on a pad of paper

Community members across Ryerson participated in the Reflect and Resist: Exploring Anti-Black Racism Through Live Actor Simulations workshop this past summer and fall. Photo by Christina Morillo, external link from Pexels, external link.

CW: This story contains information and discussion about police brutality, violence and trauma.

What do you think you’d say to someone who experienced a tragic loss?

Would you empathize with them? How would you hold space for them? What if that person was Black - would your feelings change?

That’s the premise of Reflect and Resist: Exploring Anti-Black Racism Through Live Actor Simulations, a two-part workshop that was offered by Live Actor Simulation at Ryerson (LAS@R) over the summer and fall terms. The workshop uses Simulation 207: Fallout After Violence, which draws on the real life incident of Andrew Loku who suffered injustice at the hands of police in 2015, to facilitate discussion and reflection on anti-Black racism. 

“The shift to remote learning has been difficult for the many folks across campus that are huge advocates for learning through place-based experiences,” said Anita Abraham, director of Experiential Learning (EL). “When we send our students out on experiential learning opportunities, they are exposed to the realities and disparities of the systems we live in. So when we started seeing the largest protests of our time, in the midst of the greatest health pandemic of our time, I started to think about how the EL Hub can continue to support our community in these remote times, to prepare our students for the world we have in this moment.

“Karen [Arthurton] had just spoken so powerfully on a different panel we'd hosted and I reached out to her to see if we could ideate together about what our team could do to further the conversation of how we support instructors to address anti-Black racism in the classroom.”  

Simulation 207 has been used in programs across campus but has primarily been used in social work and child and youth care courses. After attending a different EL event, School of Social Work contract lecturer Karen Arthurton brought the idea of using this simulation in a workshop to the LAS@R team.

“This simulation is so multi-dimensional. It deals with anti-Black racism, it deals with trauma, it deals with grief and loss. It deals with the narratives of young people, racial profiling, carding,” Arthurton said. “And it also ties into the social work curriculum in terms of looking at power and oppression. It offers so many important conversations and teachings.”

While the simulation concept is the same each time it’s done, the experience of it varies from group to group. During the workshops, participants from across various faculties including the Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science and Ted Rogers School of Management had the opportunity to reflect on how this simulation might be used or adapted to enhance curriculum. Arthurton says every participant brings their own style to the interaction and the post-simulation discussion, group work and reflection paper students complete allows for further introspection on the subject. 

Engagement from the heart 

Arthurton came up with the name of the workshop, Reflect and Resist. For Arthurton, the two go hand in hand.

“Reflection is the essence of this. Looking at who we are. How do we interrogate our unconscious bias? All of that hard, messy work must happen in order for us to be stronger social workers to reduce harm,” she said. “And if we're going to move forward in a better, healthier way, we need to reflect. I find that when I'm teaching, and  look at how folks are impacted, we are simultaneously looking at sites of the resistance. While groups (Black, Indigenous, people of colour, queer and trans) are impacted by oppression, disproportionality in relation to violence, there's simultaneous resistance happening. So for me, as borrowed by various authors, I would say the act of critical reflection is also an act of resistance. The more we know ourselves and our roles and responsibilities, and reflect on that, the more we can engage in everyday acts of resistance.

“I always want to look at resistance, at survivorship, at resilience. I want to look at the ways in which change is coming and is happening, so we can hold on to hope because I do believe that we are making some movement.”

Arthurton links the process of reflection and resistance to peeling an onion. She visualizes that the layers are our years of conditioning: what we’ve learned from our families/guardians; the media; our values; social location/subject position and more. Once those are uncovered, at the centre of it is our hearts, and from there we can approach important conversations from a place of love and openness. 

“The onion gets messy and it makes us cry but you’re actually benefiting from a beautiful, reflective journey,” she said. “We don’t talk enough about love. But now I do in my classes often encouraging students ‘Get out of your head and speak from your heart.’”

Collaboration is key to success of simulation

Geoff Kolomayz, trainer on the LAS@R team, helps coordinate simulations with Arthurton, social work professors and faculty across campus. Katherine Turner also coordinates simulations and is LAS@R’s writer and facilitator. The team works closely to deliver a simulation that’s thoughtful, effective and impactful. Kolomayz reflects that working on Reflect and Resist has opened his eyes to the reality of anti-Black racism and how it manifests on a systemic and individual level.

“To hear the stories from the simulators sharing personal experiences that they're able to draw on to enrich the character has brought to light the prevalence of anti-Black racism. That this is something Black, Indigenous and people of colour face frequently,” he said.

Kolomayz shares that feedback has been consistently positive about the simulation. While a loose script is provided to the simulator (actor) to move the simulation from point A to B, as Kolomayz says, it’s the journey in the middle that reveals the real story and learnings to take from it.

“It's an interesting process, how the simulator and professor or facilitator work jointly in order to pass the learning down to a student. It’s a very collaborative process,” he said. “Our simulations bring ‘case studies’ to life so you can learn how to deal with it in real time. That experience translates to every aspect of life. It's a transferable skill across the board, how to connect interpersonally with somebody.”

A two-part session of Reflect and Resist was recorded earlier this year. Visit the Ryecast website to watch part one and part two

LAS@R augments classroom learning by engaging students in scenarios which reflect situations or circumstances students may encounter outside the classroom. Live actor simulations are created collaboratively with faculty to meet specific learning outcomes and help students develop a real time understanding of the dynamics of  face-to-face interactions. There is a catalogue of more than 100 simulations to choose from.

LAS@R’s service comes from within Ryerson’s Experiential Learning hub, which is part of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. Since Ryerson has switched to remote learning, the team has adapted to hosting virtual simulations.

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