Shafer Leadership Academy Brings Bias Training to New Castle and Henry County

By Kate H. Elliott

New Castle City Councilman Aaron Dicken has long understood bias, yet he joined nearly 70 of his fellow county leaders and businesses owners during a virtual workshop about bias and micro-aggressions.

“Everyone can grow, no matter where they are,” Dicken said. “Given the climate of what’s going on around the country, this training is relevant. If one were to have conversations with marginalized parts of our community, they would learn that these issues and this knowledge isn’t just applicable in Oakland, California, but in New Castle, Indiana, as well.”

Muncie nonprofit Shafer Leadership Academy offered the workshop in early December as part of its suite of leadership training for people of all ages, backgrounds and interests. Melinda Messineo, chair of Ball State University’s department of psychological science, led the session titled, “Understanding and Responding to Implicit Bias and Micro-Aggressions,” which explored unconscious biases, its origins and tools and strategies for positive outcomes.

“People have described that the training has been a game changer for them,” said Messineo, a nationally-recognized teacher, who has delivered the presentation to hundreds. “We remove the lens of ‘good’ versus “bad” which opens up the conversation to ‘how can I be the best version of me?’ The skills we train for are easy to use and impactful. People tell me that they were able to implement the strategies immediately and felt more confident in their interactions.”

Messineo said social scientists have come to realize that everyone is biased, as part of how the brain processes information. Because these automatic patterns of thinking happen on an unconscious level, she added, people often don’t realize it. “Unconscious cognitive processes, informed by our experiences and culture, shape our perceptions,” she said. “The more we understand about these processes, the more inclusive we can be.”

The 90-minute training focused on providing participants with proactive everyday strategies for positive outcomes. Dicken said that since the training, he has become more aware of his unconscious biases. Having daughters, he said, has encouraged Dicken to “think about females in positions where I may automatically think of a male in that role,” among other biases.

Henry City Councilwoman Betsy Mills also applied the training to her life shortly after the experience.

“This week at a hospital, I interacted with an employee, and I reminded myself not to assume their title, position or anything about them before we talked,” she shared. “Having the training fresh in mind empowered me to interact with this person in a way that avoided any assumptions, and we had a fabulous and more open conversation because of it.”

The training, Mills said, reminded her that “we all have diversity” in that each person has a unique story, and those differences are strengths, she said. Aside from the obvious demographic types of diversity, Mills said the training focused on the importance of considering and welcoming diversity of thought, background and experience.

“We need to focus on harnessing those attributes in group-decision making because they make us stronger,” said Mills, who also serves on the Board of Governors for the Richard G. Lugar Excellence in Public Service Series and on the board of the Indianapolis Chapter of the America’s Future Foundation. “I’m thrilled that many of my colleagues in Henry County government saw the benefit of this training, and I am confident it will help us to continue fairly representing all citizens in our county and working with our constituents in responsible and respectful ways.”

The New Castle-Henry County Economic Development Corporation sponsored the training, which was funded in part by the Henry County Community Foundation. Penny York, director of special projects for the corporation, wrote the grant to provide the training. The region has a lot of different types of labor, she said, and diversity in the workforce brings better outcomes.

“The training was wonderful and gave all of us more tools in our toolbox as we work toward understanding and tolerance,” she said. “Melinda was so easy to listen to and talk with, and she put things in an approachable way that was relatable. She challenged us to be more intentional about the things we say and do, and we’re all better for it.”

York said the corporation plans to hold in-person bias trainings in the future. Mills and Dicken said they will likely show up again. There’s always more to learn, they agreed.

“It’s important for me to show my constituents that, and make them feel like, they are included in our thinking and actions,” said Dicken, a life and health account manager for McGowan Benefits Group. “Bias is not curable, and we’re all just on a continuum. There is always something to learn and there is always some way to grow, even if it is just serving as an awareness checkpoint.”

Go to for an overview of its programs, scholarships, and impact on the community. Connect with SLA on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or call the office at 765-748-0403.

Mitch Issacs at Shafer Leadership Academy gave back half of the fees that the presenter charged for the workshop as a donation to a non-profit, The Christian Love Help Center. In this photo, Penny York of the EDC and Aaron Dicken of the New Castle City Council are presenting a check for $1,495.00 to Sandy Coatie Jones who represented The Christian Love Help Center.

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