How facilitation and social justice are like peanut butter and educational jelly

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 are a lot of nouns to choose from to describe your position in the front of the room, head of the table, organizer of the google hangout etc.  I think that Safe Zone workshops and social justice workshops in general are best served not by teachers or lecturers, but by facilitators.

A facilitator is a bit like a captain of a ship.  When I facilitate I see my role as attempting to corral a lot of moving parts to keep moving forward.  There isn’t necessarily one right path, there are a lot of different ways to get to where we are headed and I, like the participants, am along for the ride. I’m not in complete control but I’m willing to take the blame if things go badly and I know that if things go well that I am only part of what made that magic happen. This fits the goals of Safe Zone workshops quite nicely and is really a wonderful metaphor for how I strive to be in all my social justice work.

A teacher indicates an exchange of ideas from one person TO the other.  This exchange also has an element of power in it. Teacher knows best and students are only there to receive the information.  While there are undoubtedly moments in Safe Zone workshops and social justice work where you slip into teacher mode, where you give a little speech or talk for a while on a single subject without an exchange between you and the participants, these moments are always limiting to both parties.  The participants don’t feel as involved or as engaged, and you aren’t able to gauge where they are and how they are receiving or processing the information.  Limiting these moments of teaching and working towards moments of facilitation will allow for a more constant exchange of ideas.

A lecturer says all their stuff before they hear yours.  This is handy when you need to get all the information out there prior to having a dialogue back and forth.  I do mini-lectures (5 minutes or less) in my workshops about gender identity vs. sex, about trans* individuals, about biphobia, and often these are new concepts so I want to get everything out there on the table before we start dissecting it.  However, if you go into full on lecturer mode for a 2 hour workshop, I promise you, you’re going to lose some folks to the zzZZZzzz’s.

Safe Zones and social justice workshops really behoove participant interaction because people being actively engaged in their own learning and unlearning process makes it a whole lot more fun.  They can also make up their own mind and explore those new options with others when they’re given a chance to articulate and figure those options out.

A Few Ways to Ensure You’re Staying in Facilitator Mode

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and let the winds blow your ship off course. Here are a few techniques you can use throughout a workshop to avoid accidentally teaching or lecturing too much:

Guide but be willing to go with the flow.  Some people set an agenda for their workshops, I was introduced to the idea of setting a flow (by becky martinez) and ever since I’ve really embraced that idea.  With thinking of it as a flow I think of my list of activities etc as almost a rhythm that the workshop could follow but that if we veer off and go somewhere else that’s ok too and I build that expectation in right up front.

Ask questions (with curiosity).  As a facilitator is it important to challenge (and support) people’s learning.  When someone shares a thought, ask them to go deeper, explain where that idea came from or what they’re getting out of it now that they’ve shared it with the group.  Be curious about what people are saying, get those conversations going.

Check in with the group.  It is super important to read your group, to be able to respond appropriately to the energy, knowledge, and emotions in the room.  Checking in, asking where people are at on this concept, does anyone need more time, does anyone not get that definition is important.  (And asking questions in the negative like does anyone not get that def allows you really hear the people who don’t.)

State your intentions when you shift gears.If you’re going to do a mini-lecture about a topic for a few minutes, tell the group. “I’m going to take a couple minutes to run you through the difference between gender identity, expression, and sex. After, we’ll have a discussion where I’ll ask you to examine your own gender.” After the mini-lecture, let the group know you’re reverting back to facilitation mode, “That’s it for the lecture. Now let’s discuss. What’re your thoughts?”

Don’t just leave time for processing. GIVE time for processing.  As you become more and more confident as a facilitator and feel comfortable leading discussions and going back and forth in that dialogue give more and more time for processing the activities.  The learning is in the reflection and it is important to not leave processing as an after thought but to prioritize it from the start.  (I myself aim to give processing 50% of the time or more in the workshop.

Hopefully these tips will keep you safely sailing the facilitation seas in your next workshop. Remember, there is nothing inherently wrong about lecturing or teaching, and both have their place in a safe zone workshop, but facilitation puts more control in the hands of your crew to get as much out of your time together as possible.