Annual Reporting (2012-2013): the Arts and Craft of Facilitation

Upon checking out my LinkedIn profile from last year, someone recently told me candidly that I scan as ‘high risk.’

I LOL’d.

On one hand, yeah: even in the midst of unemployment, I’d been cavalier with my engagement of this social network for professionals.

But on the other hand, also yeah: ‘high risk’ sounds about right.

The work I do involves risk-taking. At the core of my work is the asking of questions, and the questions I ask sometimes pose a risk to the honest answerer. The risk of speaking inconvenient truths. The risks of commitment that come with some truths. I try to be straight with people when I work with them: we’re gonna venture into uncertainty, and things could get weird.

But if your true objective is to change things, how can you afford to not take risks?

Of course, on the other side of risk is reward — the payoff. A better future. I usually suspect that the true risk of stepping towards a different future is less terrifying than it appears in the mirror. (And once or twice, I’ve even paid in full for the risks I’ve taken; these suspicions survived intact.) The best way to manage these risks, or at least the perception of them, is through strong relationships with others who share your vision and join together in venturing into the unknown. As the possible new future and its associated risk becomes more real, it takes more work to establish and sustain those relationships. This is the work that I do, or at least aspire to.

I often refer to this work as ‘organizing,’ or ‘facilitation,’ or ‘development.’ It’s an unusual line of work to specialize in. It shouldn’t be. 

To many in the worlds of organizing and organizations, facilitation seems like a luxury. A good thing to have but one that can be foregone when resources are tight — which they usually are, so. In my experience, positive change doesn’t tend happen without it. Without intentional engagement with the perception of risk — against which diverse interests will compete with each other and obscure their shared interests — the default is inaction. Or decisions to go it alone. In the long run, inaction or going it alone are often the truly risky paths to take.

But there’s rarely enough facilitation to meet the need, so over the past couple of years, I’ve taken some steps to learn this as a craft. As I (increasingly belatedly) wrap up this Bi-Annual Report, I want to highlight a few of the best learning experiences I’ve had here.

Earlier here, I mentioned the CooperationWorks! cooperative business development trainings. The work of developing cooperatives is primarily facilitative: a cooperative developer helps a group of people get on the same page and plan a course of action, consulting with researchers and advisors etc along the way. In this training, we practiced generative facilitation methods like World Cafe (break down a complex issue into different topics, divide into groups to ‘go deep’ on a given topic, then rotate around so that a kind of accumulative knowledge develops across a set of issues).

For me, the most rewarding part of the training was Harry Webne-Behrman’s session — a challenging and rewarding talk on working with conflict in groups. It was centered around ‘Harry’s Postulates,’ which he shared as such:

  • We are not alone.
  • We need and define one another.
  • If we can foster interdependent relationships, we enhance our individual capacities to exert meaningful leverage on the systems in which we live and work.
  • If we can create and sustain infrastructures that enhance the role of such relationships, networks will form that can advance the productive resources of systems.
  • If such relationships are guided by Integrity, Trust, Transparency, and Generosity – they can have a disproportionately positive influence on the world.


Boom. Like a mathematical proof for social change.

Now, it’s one thing to read the formula — quite another to translate it into action. A couple of other trainings I undertook with Training for Change (which I recommend to anyone interested in doing social justice work) gave me the opportunity to explore both the internal and external challenges of that translation.

The first TfC training I took was Whites Confronting Racism.

This was a long weekend that brought its participants along on a harrowing excursion into the shit, so to speak. Our group was all-white, intentionally, as our mission was to assume responsibility, as white people, for the work of challenging white supremacy. The trainers demonstrated a self-reflective approach to experiential learning: sharing their own stories of witnessing racism at work, in their communities, in themselves. As we all shared stories, we observed and named patterns, inspecting them individually and as a group.

A key theme of this weekend was the tiered nature of racism. We drew concentric circles to visualize these tiers. In the large outer ring there is systemic racism (the legal, economic, and cultural forces that explicitly or, more often today, implicitly privilege whiteness over people of color). Within that ring, institutional racism (the structural and social aspects of organizations that promote whiteness, even if they technically don’t discriminate against others). Then, interpersonal racism (as in fear, condescension and other prejudice expressed between people, etc — this is what many people might think of when they think of ‘racism’). And there at the center, internalized racism (mental acceptance of negative stereotypes and cynical assumptions that may go unexpressed but still color our way of looking at each other and the systems at large). i

There are various kinds of subtle and obscure interplay between these tiers, and developing an analysis thereof is critically important for anyone who wishes to work towards equity in community. Sometimes some racist bullshit goes down but it’s not clear who, exactly, is responsible for it. So, what’s to be done? Best know how to listen carefully, how to reflect, and how to name that which you seek to rectify.

The other TfC training that I took was a general skill-building training for social justice trainers. Less emotionally intensive than Whites Confronting Racism, it still ran like a workout. This course took us through the experiential learning cycle — observe, reflect, apply, evaluate — as we observed facilitators facilitating us, and reflected upon what worked and why, before applying what we’d observed, and evaluating the outcome. Effective! This cycle was inscribed fractally into the very structure of the training, which tapped a certain collective knowledge among a group with wildly different levels of experience.

I especially appreciated one segment in this course that I think is an important counterbalance to that which we learned in Whites Confronting Racism. This was an exploration of the dynamics between the mainstream and the margins in a group. We obviously came into the discussion through the context of racism, but then we stepped back and applied it to our own selves with or without the context of race. Reflecting upon our childhoods, we asked: when were times that we personally experienced life on the margins? ii How did it feel? What was lost, through marginalization?

The profound thing about this section was the way our trainers observed that this mainstream/margin dynamic is pretty much inherent to any group. In groups, like clusters with like, and becomes more alike. Those who are not alike drift (or are pushed) to the margin. Understanding this, we can at once have a foundational understanding of why racism exists, how the roots of oppression actually lie even deeper than race, and finally, what can be done about it. The key is the recognition that there is value in the margins, as equally valid as that of the mainstream. Value that would go untapped by like-with-like, to the detriment of the whole group. (Not least of the values to be found in the margin are observant perspectives on the mainstream that would often be missed by those who are within it.) A facilitator’s job, then, is to feel for the margins, and tend to them — protect them if necessary, promote them when possible.

Many other people have helped me learn how to navigate these dynamics over the last two years.

I’ve had the great privilege of sitting in on trainings (and couch-surfing in the spare bedroom) with Movement Matters here in DC. David and Marta coax brilliance from their groups through an approach that seems almost casual in one moment, then suddenly zen in the next. I’m inspired by Movement Matters’ ability to delicately walk a group through complex terrain, synthesizing diverse sources of information on one hand and teasing apart divergent issues with another. I’ve audibly gasped in the course of their power-mapping exercises, and I thought that was a unique experience, until I heard others in another session gasp themselves.

I’ve also had the great luck to huddle under the wing of Christine Prefontaine at Facilitating Change, who displays great skill for navigating between the thick world of institutions and the fertile world of networks. My great thanks to Christine for reminding me that this work is labor, and labor rightfully demands its value.

Of all, however, no lesson sticks with me more than a brief chat I had with Bill Patrie, a cooperative developer from North Dakota whose name I’d already heard many times in my brief travels through the cooperative development world. At one point last year, I found myself next to Bill and jumped at the chance to describe to him my trepidation at the complicated aspects of enterprise planning that is necessary for a successful cooperative — work that requires a certain amount of expertise in law, accounting, management, etc. This stuff is intimidating enough for me, so how can I expect people with less time (and probably less education) to be able to figure it out?

His response was, basically, that if you get a group of people with shared interests in the room, they will eventually be able to find all the answers they need — and your role in that process is actually simple.

“Minutes and agenda,” Bill told me. “That’s pretty much the gist of it.”

Suss out what needs to be discussed; make sure everyone gets a chance to speak their truth; take good notes, and make sure everyone gets them; repeat. Given time, safe space, and a sense of solidarity, people will figure it out.


Click back to the introduction to this Annual Report here. 

16. March 2014 by
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