The following tips were developed for Be The Change!, a project for Unitarian Universalist (UU) youth in multiculturalism, anti-racism and building beloved community, but can be used for facilitating discussions in a variety of identity-related areas.
Facilitation is a challenging service to provide any group, and facilitating group discussions about loaded and personal topics like race and racism carry particular challenges. There are some common pitfalls that many facilitators of such conversations encounter, so we want to lift up some best practices for facilitating conversations about identity and oppression for you to be aware of and give some thought to beforehand.
Being an “expert” is not your role
It is very tempting in conversations about identity and dominant cultures for a facilitator to take on the role of “expert.” This most often comes up when a group experiences conflict or questions. However, serving as an “expert” or an authority on particular topics is not your role and is ultimately not effective.
What is effective is helping members of the group stay in tune with their covenant and explore questions from a place of curiosity rather than defensiveness or fear. It is not your job to provide answers to questions that come up or “correct” people when you disagree with their perspective or the place they are currently at.
Create space rather than taking up space
It is particularly important for you to have a high level of awareness around which voices in the room are loudest and which voices are quietest or silent. You can help keep balance by reminding group members that if they have been speaking a lot they might consider focusing on listening for a while, and if they haven’t yet spoken they might consider giving voice to their thoughts.
This also applies to you. Your primary role should be to be of service to the group and to your co-facilitator. If possible, keep personal sharing and opinions you offer to a minimum and focus your comments on helping group members explore their thoughts and feelings and stay in tune with their covenant.
Help keep the covenant
Possibly your most important role as a facilitator is to help the group stay in touch with their covenant. Discuss with your co-facilitator in advance how you both would feel most comfortable addressing breaches of covenant that arise—from small to major. For example, one of you could be in charge of keeping an eye on certain covenant items.
Discuss whether there are particular people in the group that you know might be more prone to conflict, or might be more prone to not engage with the conversation. Problem-solve a little in advance about how you can exercise compassion toward these folks and help them be a part of the group in the healthiest way possible.
Brainstorm phrases with your co-facilitator that you can use to help the group keep key covenant items, being mindful that your job is not to “police” people and keep them from behaving “wrongly,” but rather to help group members remember how they want to be with each other.
Help all participants feel heard, seen, and valued
Conversations about identity, culture, ethnicity and justice issues can get very personal and emotional for everyone involved. Different people will have very different emotions and reactions, often depending directly on their identity and experience. Some people will get louder and/or react defensively or aggressively. Some people will withdraw and become silent.
As facilitator, you carry a responsibility to help every member of the group feel that their experience is real and valued, especially those who are struggling the most. Participants may struggle from a place of profound privilege and lack of awareness, or they may struggle from a place of profound marginalization and pain. It can be very difficult to find compassion for someone you or other group members find jarring or offensive, but it is really important to do so, and to demonstrate that compassionate approach for the entire group.
Part of your challenge is discerning how to most effectively help each person. Sometimes all that will be needed is encouraging a person to share and affirm that what they’ve shared makes sense. Other times you may want to ask a chaplain, your co-facilitator, or someone else to speak with a particular person privately.
Speak from your own experience and help others do the same
The practice of speaking solely from one’s own experience, rather than becoming representative of all people of a particular identity, is vital in this work. It is always better to speak personally rather than generally, especially when talking about identity and experience. For example, instead of saying “people of color don’t hang out with white folks,” you might say, “in my high school I’ve noticed that the students of color and the white students tend to eat lunch at totally separate lunch tables.”
Be mindful of generalizations based on identity or experience, in yourself and in others in the group, and gently (a) help people remember to speak only from their own experience, and (b) help participants to not expect that anyone else can represent a whole group either (for example, not turning to a person of color in the room and asking them to speak for how all people of color feel about a particular subject).
Discomfort is okay
Talking about identity and justice is not always comfortable. It is important to remember and sometimes affirm for the group that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable, and that feelings of discomfort can point us toward something in ourselves that needs our attention.
Your role is not to avoid unpleasantness or discomfort or “fix” any that come up in the group; rather, you can help the group sit with discomfort and bring an attitude of curiosity to it rather than defensiveness and fear. Rather than attempting to “smooth over” discomfort, you and your co-facilitator may need to collectively decide to deviate from the agenda at times in order to take care of the needs of the group.
Set aside time for self-care
Facilitating conversations around identity and justice issues can be personally taxing and may bring up particularly strong thoughts and emotions for you. In addition to setting aside time to check in and process with your co-facilitator before and after each session, take time for self-care also.
Find a practice that helps you feel centered and/or helps you reconnect with your own goals as a facilitator, and get into a habit around it. This could be journaling, spending time with an animal companion, doing yoga, being outside, or simply breathing deeply for two or three minutes. Also, make sure you are well-rested and well-fed before each session.