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19 AW leadership continues discussion with Airmen, addresses unconscious-bias

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Tech. Sgt. Zerrick Haymond, 19th Security Forces Squadron Defender, shares his experience with unconscious bias at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, recently. The 19th Airlift Wing leadership team hosted an open dialogue for Airmen of all ranks to share their stories of unconscious bias experiences. (U.S. Air Force illustration by Senior Airman Kristine M. Gruwell)

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. — Nationwide protests highlighting racial inequities led 19th Airlift Wing leadership to open a dialogue on unconscious bias within the Air Force and United States recently.

This dialogue began when the 19th Airlift Wing facilitated training and an open discussion with command teams led by Risha Grant, an internationally renowned diversity, inclusion and bias expert, June 3.

The conversation continued with the 19th Airlift Wing commander and command chief meeting with Airmen of all ranks to hear their thoughts and provide an opportunity for Airmen to share their stories.

“Only when we stop to truly hear people’s stories and let them give voice to their feelings will we be able to work together to make a real difference,” said Col. John Schutte, 19th Airlift Wing commander. “We must have these tough conversations to foster an ongoing, productive dialogue that allows Airmen of all ranks to feel connected, valued and understood.”

One of the first to share his story was Tech. Sgt. Zerrick Haymond, a 19th Security Forces Squadron defender.    

“Knowing the commander wants to hear from us gives me hope because it’s a conversation that needs to be had,” Haymond said. “I can see the shift happening. I can see it with the younger generation protesting to stand up for what’s right, regardless of their background. That’s equality.”

Haymond had a weapon pointed directly at him, with his young son in the car, after being pulled over during a vacation. Police officers had falsely identified his car as being owned by a dangerous individual.

Haymond believes the drawn-gun approach was caused by the police officer’s unconscious bias.

Because Airman come from different walks of life, the open dialogue in a safe space led to a broader understanding of the issues Airmen face.  

“Airmen in my squadron opened up about being bi-racial, and while they were growing up they had to constantly adapt to where they were and who they were with,” said Master Sgt. David Simmons, 19th Communications Squadron first sergeant. “They told me they didn’t fit in with either side of their identity and it was a struggle to not be ‘Black’ enough or ‘Puerto Rican’ enough. This opened the door to some unique discussion points that allowed us to learn something about each other.”

Airmen at all ranks had the chance to share their stories and advice on how to continue this conversation. They recognize it can be a difficult one to have, but they know it is necessary to move toward a strong culture of inclusiveness.

“The military should be leading the change because we are fighting for freedom,” Haymond said. “At the end of the day, we have to stand up for what’s right. The general population looks up to the military, so as role models we need stop wrongful judgments right in their tracks.”

Wing leadership acknowledges that discussion is only the first step toward discovering and resolving racial inequities in our Air Force.

“Our plan is to take what we learn from these discussions and move quickly on any actionable items, while continuing to learn from one other,” Schutte explained. “Weeding out and identifying unconscious biases is an important component of our efforts to forge a culture of trust, empowerment, and accountability, infused with the warrior ethos.  Our Airmen and our Nation deserve nothing less.”

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