Some things you do (not) need to know before you start your journey as an all-star social justice facilitator

All-Star Facilitator Series

This is an one of the many lessons in our All-Star Facilitator Series, designed to help social justice educators improve their skills. Click here to see the rest of the posts, or if you have an idea for a lesson get involved. Note: this series spun off into our book, Unlocking the Magic of Facilitation — where we expand on some of these lessons, and include others.

There is this thing about standing in the front of the room.  It can feel terrifying, like you don’t know what you’re doing, and why did you volunteer to do this in the first place when you don’t know any of this stuff!  People are looking at you as the expert, the big cheese, the pro-at-all-things-LGBTQ.

The thing that we don’t say or admit enough is that we’re not the expert.  I’m not now.  I know I sure as shiitake mushrooms wasn’t when I started facilitating Safe Zone workshops my 2nd year at college.  Not by a long shot. Not by a 5K.

What I think is super neat about social justice is that I believe I become more credible as a facilitator by owning what I don’t know.  This isn’t universal, some people respect me less or find me less credible for saying I don’t know something, but I firmly believe it makes me far more effective as a facilitator.  Why?

When You Say You Don’t Know Things…

A few wonderful things happen:

You don’t have to fake that you do know something!  That is a lot of weight off your shoulders, back, chest — your whole self.  You don’t have to spend energy acting or trying to give an answer that you’re not really sure about.

You give others permission to be wrong.  I don’t know a better way to inspire other people to say, “I don’t know,” than to say it myself.  Imperfect role modeling is something you shouldn’t underestimate.

There’s this great koan about knowledge that always comes to mind here: half of a safe zone workshop is helping people learn, but the other half is helping them feel safe unlearning.

You role model this social justice stuff as a process.  Learning about gender, sexuality, and social justice stuff is a journey.  I often picture it like a track where just you feel like you’re coming back to the end, you’re back at the beginning, having to re-learn, re-engage, re-start down a new leg of the track or a new part of your journey.  It is important for participants to see that the journey isn’t over for your either and we still all have a lot to learn!

The Things You Do Need To Know

There are things that I believe that are important to consider and prepare for before facilitating a workshop (which is why we started made this handy dandy list LINK. Additionally, I would add that there are some things that would be best to know before standing up in the front of the room:

Know how it feels to be a participant. It is incredibly important to your ability to connect with participants to have been a participant.  Rather than distancing yourself from that experience, try to draw on your participant experience throughout the workshop.  Identify with what they are saying, mistakes they are possibly making, or trouble they are having grasping the concept (we’ve all been there!).  You cannot fake the knowledge of what is it is like to be on the other side of the table, embrace that inner beginner.

Know your vocab. Vocabulary and terminology can often be the place that most people get stuck.  Some seek out Safe Zones or other sj workshops to ensure they got their terminology down.  I highly recommend you feel like you’ve got a good handle on both the formal definitions of the words as well as the different contexts in which they are used.

Know your answers to your own questions. Sure, it sounds simple, but speaking from experience I know it can sometimes be tempting to ask questions that you’re really not sure how to answer.  Tryyy not to do that for the simple fact that if you are met with crickets, it will look mighty awkward if you are not to be able to answer the question either.

Know your triggers. It’s tough to know if something will trigger you until it happens, so this list will develop over time, but if you know what is likely to get your blood boiling before it happens, you’ll be more likely to keep your cool when/if it does.

Know what you’re going to mini-lecture on. Some people include mini lectures in their workshops (for example, in our curriculum we consider the genderbread person to be a mini lecture).  It is totally okay, as long as you know beforehand what topics you’re going to lecture about, and are able to clearly communicate the concept in that way.  Personally, it took me a full year of facilitation and trainings before I was comfortable and confident doing a mini lecture on trans* issues (which at that time lacked the * – check this out if you wanna know more).  Feel good about what you’re going to present before you take on  expert role moments like mini lectures.

Safe Zone workshops, like many — okay like almost all — other things in life take practice.  You’re going to be better five workshops from now than you are right now. And that’s a good thing! Consider these “gotta know” pieces, get to prepping, and then get on out there. We know you can do it, and we are here to help when you need us!