Liberation facilitation

In the facilitator and trainers’ circles we inhabit here in the UK there’s an ongoing conversation on facilitating diversity in groups and movements and supporting those same groups and movements with training to help them deal with difference in all it’s forms. Fortunately it’s more than just a conversation – it’s a living experiment with some successes and some failures and some forums for sharing both.

Various training collectives are offering such training drawing on different sources of information and inspiration and using various names. Some refer to it as “anti-oppression” work, some as “power and privilege” training, others “diversity” training and so on. A lot of the learning seems to be coming from the States or from the States via Australia – organisations such as Training for Change and The Change Agency.

Twice in recent weeks I’ve heard it referred to as “liberation” work – first on the People & Planet website and then again whilst working with Liverpool Guild of Students. A student connection…. I’ve always liked the idea of liberation struggles – whether women’s lib, animal liberation or whatever. They go beyond the notion of mere ‘rights’ campaigns to something deeper, more inherent, profound and not dependent on the permission of other people/species. And in the thinking and feeling of  liberation is the notion of interdependence – that we’re all entwined in the same struggle and that none of us will be fully liberated until we’re all liberated.

For me this allows us to transcend the hierarchy of oppression that much of the power and privilege conversation seems to reinforce – everyone scrabbling to point up the pyramid and blame someone more oppressive than they are, without seeing how divisive and ultimately oppressive that is in itself. It’s more subtle, more connected, deeper, and ultimately more compassionate, co-operative and less violent.

I spoke with Gill for half an hour or so recently and recorded that call. We hope to have an audio file uploaded soon once we figure out whether we need to edit it down to a more manageable size or not. One of the questions she asked as we stopped recording was what happened to the training that was around in the UK 20-30 years ago which, from what I’ve heard and seen, was more in tune with liberation. Good question, and one we’ll explore on the blog in due course. As always we’d like to hear your experience, thoughts and feelings. You know where we are.

In the meantime, here’s to Liberation facilitation in all its forms.



Conformity and consensus

Just worked through Dave Pollard’s Links for the Month. TheraminTrees YouTube video (a touch under 10 minutes long) summarising studies on group conformity stood out from some other amazing resources. Probably because I’ve been pondering this stuff of late, including in my recent post on certainty:

If you don’t have time to watch, here’s a taste of the author’s conclusions from his review of the studies that show a real tendency to conform to group views:

“Being part of a group doesn’t mean agreeing with every part of that group. We should always feel able to voice legitimate criticisms with any group…. When we stop feeling able to do that we give those groups a status and an authority that they don’t deserve and that they actually don’t possess. If a group can’t handle legitimate dissent it’s not a group I want to be part of”

Immediately the possible impacts on consensus decision-making are apparent. How do we move towards a shared group decision without eradicating minority opinions and dissent? How do we embrace those views and weave them into our decision-making? If we manage this how do we avoid co-option – by which I mean bringing them into the majority fold in order to exert some level of control over them? Hard questions with many, many examples of failure to illustrate the need to ask them.

Dave’s blogged about consensus as a force for the status quo in the past, and this research adds weight to his thinking, even though I’m stubbornly holding out in the belief that whilst it may often be like that it’s not a default setting of consensus decision-making itself, just how groups (choose to) use it. At the time I wrote:

The interesting aspect of this conversation for me is how radicals can come together and be conservative when gathered collectively to make a decision. Consensus tends to attract folk looking for an alternative to the status quo, disillusioned with mainstream models of power and decision-making. You could argue that they’re folk looking for radical change. So if Dave is right (and I’m sure he’s not the only one to have observed this trait in groups using consensus) what happens? Why do we default to conservatism?

Maybe the studies quoted in the video answer that question.

This week I met with my Leicester-based Rhizome colleagues. Given we live in and around the same city we don’t meet often enough, and it’s always refreshing when we do. Much of our conversation relates to this post – how we as Rhizome need to explore the diversity that 10 different facilitators with very different backgrounds and approached represent, embrace it and root ourselves firmly in it. When we do that we’re in a much better position to support other groups effectively. We need to model the struggle to have shared values but differing visions of the future which disable so many groups. The inability of people to reconcile their differences seems to be a major contributing factor to conformity. Eventually “the other” (whatever or whoever that might be) is alienated, made unwelcome, or forced to conform for the group to move forwards because there’s an expectation of a very narrow shared vision.

We’ll continue to share our journey into co-operation without conformity with you. Please share yours with us.

Autism and the social change group: Part 2

After the workshop I participated in at the end of March, I’ve continued a dialogue with Caroline from Insider Autism Training.

We spoke about ways in which the training could have been made more experiential. That led us to the question of “experiencing what?”. Experiencing autism is clearly not possible, and we agreed that there’s something distasteful about asking NTs (neuro-typicals as we’re known in autistic circles) to ‘pretend’ to be autistic. That’s not to say that there aren’t experiential activities that can help raise awareness. More on that below. The conversation homed in on 2 themes – experiencing alienation and empathy and led us to talk about diversity rather than solutions.

Everyone has some experience of alienation – feeling out of their depth socially or culturally, even if just fleetingly, for example that first day in a new job or at a new school, or travelling in a foreign country, or the first Christmas spent with a partner’s family. We can tap into those experiences to give people a sense of the difficulty faced by those on the autistic spectrum in reading the unwritten social signals others are fluent in. In doing so we can begin to get a feeling for the experience of the autistic. Of course this sort of fleeting alienation is not the same thing that those on the autistic spectrum experience. It’s not even close. NTs have the luxury of knowing that the new school/new job scenario is the cause of their anxiety.

Caroline has been playing with other activities:

“I ran a workshop the other day where I divided the  participants in groups of about 5 with where one of the group was sat with their back to the group, they then had to discuss a topic as a group. The aim was for the person with their back turned to experience some of what it is like to miss out on body language and the others to notice how differently they treated someone they knew without body language – it worked brilliantly –  the turned round person’s description of their experience (“I didn’t know when to say something”, “I could not judge pauses”, “I felt ignored”) matched almost exactly the difficulties autistic people have articulated about being in groups. The rest of the group confessed to being aware that they were ignoring the turned around person, or even referring to them as if they were not there, but that awareness did not enable them to change their behaviour”

Empathy is harder. Whilst it might be laudable to work towards NTs experiencing empathy with the autistic, empathy is itself a contentious issue in autistic circles. Talking about empathy and autism rings alarm bells because there is a widely held (and largely incorrect ) belief that autistic people are empathy-deficient. I’m assured that things are much more complex than this and that many autistics are over-empathic.

The temptation for many facilitators is then to try and ‘fix’ the problem when they encounter it in groups. But solutions are not easy and it might be best to try instead to hone awareness. There are some behaviours typical of autism that can exasperate others in a group. And whilst it’s not impossible for autistics to learn and modify their behaviour it’s not going to happen in the course of a 90 minute meeting. Nor should the modification of behaviour be one-way. The NT community has a lot of work to do.

That’s not to say there are no solutions. In the workshop we heard how for some autistics there’s a real need to express their thinking immediately, and patiently waiting isn’t realistic. One suggestion from a participant on the autistic spectrum was to find ways to allow people to write down their thoughts in the moment, and then bring them in when the flow of the conversation permits – a parking space flipchart, a stack of notepaper or post-it notes.
But thinking in terms of solutions could be a distraction from the real issue – tolerance of difference and diversity.

Caroline reminded me of the terminology “neurodiversity”. We’re familiar with other, more visible forms of diversity such as gender, race, physical ability, but there are invisible forms of diversity and autism is just one. It may be that we can’t ‘fix’ behaviours that cause neuro-typicals annoyance. Even to think that way labels those behaviours as ‘wrong’ in some way. What we can do is try to strengthen our tolerance and give neurodiversity the same credence and respect we would any other diversity issue.
Let’s finish on a short piece from Caroline which neatly brings some of these themes together:

“I heard a story from Ann about training a group committed to encouraging diversity.  Anne noticed a group member, Richard, behaved in ways that led Ann to suspect he was autistic.  Anne was surprised to see how the other members of the group cut Richard absolutely no slack.  It would not be exaggerating to say they shunned and excluded him.  The rolled their eyes when he spoke, did not acknowledge or respond to his contributions, but just continued the discussion as if he had not spoken.
Anne saw that Richard was dedicated to the work of the group, made reasonable points and desperately wanted to be included. Yet he was being exclude by a group of decent people who were vocal about how committed they were to diversity.  Anne could see that Richard could be irritating, he talked in a monotone, repeated points he had already made, picked up on tiny mistakes made by others and sometimes  interrupted others.
Anne felt very uneasy with the situation but was unsure how to address it.  She did not feel she could it would be helpful to state her take on the situation “It seems to me you have an autistic person here – this is an opportunity to respond appropriately and celebrate the diversity you already have within your group”.  If she voiced her perception of the situation in this way Anne would have been potentially shaming Richard, and adding to, rather than ameliorating his sense of alienation.
The reaction of the group to Richard begs the question of what they think they want to encourage by encouraging diversity.  Do they understand that diversity is more than window dressing, goes deeper than looking exotic but brings with it the need to engage with real differences and real difficulties.
Engaging with the challenge Richard’s way of relating brought to the group could have resulted in an examination of working methods.  A more explicit structure to meetings, the use of a “talking stick , a protocol whereby nobody could speak twice until everybody had had the chance to speak once and a summing up that acknowledged all contributions might well have helped.  It might have enabled Richard to be a more constructive group member and increased clarity about how the group was functioning.   Difference and diversity can bring a seam of richness to our endeavours, but for this to happen we need to be willing to question and continually adjust our ways of working, and engage with differences that are more than skin deep.”

More of Caroline’s writing can be found on her website. Many thanks to her for the sharing that has enriched this post.

Autism and the social change group

I spent the afternoon in a workshop on autism and social change groups. The trainers were all on the autistic spectrum (diagnosed or undiagnosed), as were several other participants. The rest was a motley crew of activists and activist facilitators like myself – or NT’s as I now know that we’re known (neuro-typicals). As well as the first hand experience we were able to tap, one benefit of trainers who were on the spectrum was seeing the significant differences in the way their autism presented itself to the group – a clear message that autism defies stereotypes or assumptions.

The big down side of the workshop was simply that it was too short. We were given a good theoretical introduction to autism, helpfully peppered with anecdotes and examples. We had a chance to work through a couple of scenarios and discuss group responses to difference. We touched on solutions to including those on the autism spectrum without alienating others in the group. What was missing was an opportunity to practice and embed the learning through experience.

One obvious piece of learning from the first half of the session was that the many implicit social rules that most of us take for granted are a source of significant stress for those on the autistic spectrum, many of whom simply don’t have an innate understanding of the cues and etiquette of social situations. Translate this to social change groups: What assumptions do we make? What processes, in jokes, roles and responsibilities are implicit? Time to make these things explicit if we’re serious about accessibility to those on the autistic spectrum. And if we make ‘rules’ explicit there’s a need to stick to them. Rules that are changed or broken lead to confusion. But being explicit about the rules doesn’t need to be difficult or lead to conflict. It was observed that it is possible (and necessary) to be explicit and polite.

The workshop raised other issues which sadly we didn’t have time to explore and resolve. Many of them, to me, are issues to do with diversity and not autism in particular

Once again I saw hints of the view common in activist/activist facilitation circles that hand signals are a panacea, a way of ensuring that we could guarantee equality of participation. We’ve critiqued hand signals before. Whilst, on balance, I advocate their use, without the co-operative values that underpin them, and without a genuine commitment to diversity, they don’t do all that we claim they do. I worry that it’s too simple to promote them as a solution to including autistic group members and helping avoid the alienation that “different” behaviour can cause (both in the person of difference, and in those struggling to deal with that difference). Yes, hand signals might provide a structure that reassures the autistic. But they’re a rule that we often need to break. It’s far too simple to say “we’ll take your contributions in the order you stick up your hands” or “If you put up your hand you will be heard”. What if the first ten hands that go up are all male? Do we really wait that long to break the rule and include a female perspective? What if I put my hand up for the 5th time? Do you really guarantee I’ll be heard when there are other people putting up their hands for the 1st time?

There was also a slight tendency to ‘dump’ the bridging of the gap between NTs and autistics on the facilitator rather than leaving the whole group better equipped, more tolerant and more understanding of diversity.

Another interesting conversation was about building group cohesion. This was the challenge set to the group: how to build and maintain group cohesion in a group containing someone on the autistic spectrum? Activist groups use socialising (fraught with implicit rules) as their main mechanism for establishing and maintaining group cohesion. But what if that doesn’t work for you? The alternative suggested in the group conversation was to build cohesion as part of the ‘work’ of the group. Another topic we didn’t have time to explore fully.

An interesting afternoon – more questions raised than answered, but that’s how it should be.

The trainers had elicited some thoughts from folk on the autistic spectrum who were involved in social change groups. Here’s one of the responses:

I was in various local groups in environmental issues… for many years I kept “trying harder”, thinking I would eventually fit in and/or be taken seriously. I wrote studies and tried to work with everyone. I wasn’t trying to please anyone in particular; just had my eye on the overall goals that seemed rational to me – justice, safety, etc. I quit when I found out about autism and realized I was different on a much more fundamental level that I had previously thought…

Other pre-workshop reading was also valuable, and I include it here. Happy reading.