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.



Middle class standard time and meeting facilitation

I finally plucked up the courage to update all the feeds in my feed reader. Of the 1000 or so new posts (it’s been a while), most are destined to gather dust or be deleted unread. Andrew Willis Garcés happens to be near the top of the pile, but don’t let that fact deter you from the excellent quality of his writing.

So, I’ve just read Recognizing Middle Class Standard Time (MST) and enjoyed it enough to click through to the original post Are You on Middle Class Standard Time?. Let’s just say I’m not going to share my results from the MST self-diagnosis quiz in the former post. But I will share his Principles for Abundance from the latter post – a useful reminder of what many of us already know, but don’t always practice:

Because working class cultures are much more diverse than middle class culture (a result of the middle class value on conformity), there isn’t, in my mind, a Working Class Standard Time – it varies greatly depending on the cultural context. But there are principles that have helped me facilitate from abundance rather than scarcity of time.

Model Working with Abundance instead of adding unneeded urgency or anxiety by referencing a short timeframe, I try to set a tone that communicates the value of pacing ourselves, acting deliberately and maintaining an awareness of the group’s overall quality of participation

Use Check-Ins – “It feels to me like we’re rushing through. My experience is that groups don’t make the best decisions when they’re in a hurry. Let’s take a minute to check-in about that. It’s true that we’ve set ambitious goals for ourselves, but it might not be the end of the world if we need to revise our timeline for reaching them.”

Build-In Long Breaks – all the conferences planned by working class people I’ve been to have included multi-hour lunch breaks or social time. It’s right there in the agenda

Don’t “Stretch” – if you think it might be a little too much in too little time, it probably is – don’t push it

Be Prepared to Narrow Your Goals – if I’m leading a workshop or meeting for a group I’m not familiar with, even if I’ve developed the agenda with people from that group, I assume that they  may need more time than we’ve allotted, and I come with a sense of which items we’ll drop if we get crunched for time



Mainstreams, privileges and exclusion in radical groups

The folk over at German based trainingskollektiv have written a detailed reflection on the week-long ‘Facilitating Change’ event which took place earlier this year. They’ve called it Mainstreams, privileges and exclusion in radical groups and just translated it into English. It’s worth a read and you don’t need to have been there to find some value in their words. As one of the event’s facilitation team it’s a relief to see learning continuing and being shared.

For those of you who prefer reading off-screen, or with a few illustrations to complement the text, they’ve even taken the time to publish it as a pdf.

Let us know your thoughts,


The Facilitator’s Dilemma

In Rhizome we have recently been sharing with each other the work we have done and how we felt about it. Common to us all of course is working with, facilitating, training, supporting groups of people. Some groups have many tensions unexpressed within them , power struggles, individuals feeling excluded or disregarded, mistrust, misunderstood or vague objectives leading to ineffective meetings and decision making and sometimes explosions of personal emotions which shatter the supposed task to pieces and all one can do is forget the task and start working on building group trust and respect .

As an external facilitator, brought in to help with a decision or a sticking point in a strategy development process, or to help define and clarify roles and responsibilities, it’s often obvious that the group has not spent enough time getting to know each other, exploring what they want or need, some members are marginalised and the group is dysfunctional.  I liked Cruxcatlyst’s article on this issue, When Groups Go Bad, recommending Jamie Oliver among other good suggestions, and also her piece on dealing with black hats!

Nothing helpful is going to happen while people’s defences are raised or they are in attack mode. Their adrenals are fired up and they are in ‘fight’ mode. Others will go into ‘flight’ mode, withdrawing from a hostile situation either through non-participation, or physically leaving.

By all means, allow a group, or factions within it, to vent about the situation. Right at the start of the session, let them get it off their chests – they won’t be taking anything else in while they are silently aggravated anyway. Then ask the group if they are willing to put that in a metaphorical jar on a shelf just for the time being, while the group works towards the outcome sought.

Be aware of which ego states various people in the room might have moved into (and of your own state), and use nonviolent communication techniques to guide your verbal and non-verbal responses.

And, as an external facilitator, it’s really hard to move away from the task that you’ve been brought in to do to what really needs doing and especially if there is not enough time allotted.  But the one cannot be successfully achieved without the other. A quandary, one which I struggled with recently, ending up giving more time to the people aspect and less to the task. Although this was something of a disappointment for the group, they did feel  they had got to understand each other better and agreed to take the task on to another meeting. Not much of a catalytic intervention, and another occasion when offering on-going support to the development of the group’s health was what I really wanted to do! This is the constant dilemma – to accept with caveats the parameters set by the client, even though you know it will not work, or to hold out for more time and more focus on the group itself before even contemplating starting a decision-making process.



Group culture and fracture lines

It’s an interesting question for facilitators – how much do you challenge an organisation or group’s existing culture, or how much do you simply reflect it back to them?  It’s a question I’ve been asking myself again in recent months, a reflective process aided by the peer review and co-facilitating we try to do in Rhizome.

If the group wants to talk in greater depth than time allows, to catch up when they don’t see each other enough though they work in the same organisation or network, with breaks expanding to swallow the day, if they want to problematise issues at every opportunity, or keep jumping around talking about different issues all at the same time, where do the boundaries lie in our facilitation role?  It’s not the first time I’ve come across this issue, and won’t be the last.

Despite a facilitator’s best strategies – careful structuring of the time, summarising periodically throughout where the group is at and where it still needs to go, reflecting from time to time if people come back from breaks late or talk at interesting tangents, sometimes group culture like a river will take the easiest route.  It can be uncomfortable knowing in advance that at the end of a session we will run into people’s dissatisfaction at not having fulfilled all their group or personal objectives.

So where does responsibility finally lie?  That’ll partly depend on the style of the facilitator, which can depend on the day and on the negotiated relationship with the group.  It can also be addressed in preparatory negotiations with the key contacts, as long as it’s made clear to the group during the session that you’ve been instructed to challenge their culture; negotiating whole group consent can help in this regard.

Sometimes it clearly helps groups to shake things up a bit – if people are used to hiding behind tables and laptops, why not a circle of chairs?  What warm-ups can you usefully utilise that will help people to step beyond their comfort zones, but not in a way that makes them feel unsafe or that they’re likely to plain reject.  You sometimes have to feel around the boundaries, and experience helps this process.  Thinking about how it’s possible to create a safe learning environment thus helping people try things out that might feel uncomfortable is a good distinction to reflect on.

This distinction was very clear at the recent Power and Privilege Training for Trainers weekend, led by George Lakey, formerly of Training for Change and the Movement for a New Society.  TfC are big on creating ‘containers‘, letting conflict bubble up so that it can be addressed – which is often not the same as resolved.  However, it didn’t go so well – in addition to cultural clashes and issues around the role of the facilitator, quite some people present where left feeling unsafe.  This feeling of lack of safety negatively impacted on the level of participation of some attendees; for others, they left the training feeling unsafe – shaken and stirred.  Not good – more on this in the future from your intrepid Rhizome facilitators who were there.


complex, conceptual and contentious

Adam and I co-facilitated a two day workshop with an international NGO about it’s future shape and governance. Two proposals were on the table. As we talked about them a tsunami of thoughts, reflections, ideas and contentions emerged. We scribbled furiously and summarised often and the group began to understand a shape to the discussions. This helped us to form ideas around themes. We’d already abandoned our client-agreed process plan and were now in emergent territory. But remembering the mantra of listen, reflect and clarify, the group nudged it’s way to a clear picture of what needed to be done to resolve the matter. We got to a resolution on some key matters and a wealth of emerging possibilities on how things might be implemented and what needs to happen next.

Aside from having to improvise, we also faced –

the challenge of a multi-lingual group (we worked in English, but contributions were made, and interpreted, in Spanish);

a range of involvement in the development of the proposals, from those who’d been involved for nearly two years to those coming with fresh eyes (as one participant’s research showed – …allowing for open discussion of differences, regardless of how time consuming… – is a sign of a healthy NGO);

a mixture of understandings and response modes, from detailed observations to those focussing on the big picture and keen to get on (I think we noticed and adapted to this variety of inputs);

the use of a block which wasn’t really a block (the participant resolved his block in his contribution);

a super-heated airless room far too small for the number of people;

the need to acknowledge privileged positions, be it on gender (the room was male dominated), geography (the global North was over-represented); language (it’s much, much harder to work in your second or third language);

the need to air what is happening now and what has happened with regard to people’s understanding of relations amongst the network, before any chance was had of shaping the future (late-ish manifestations of trust issues, which thankfully had some time to be aired);

and being brought in at a very late stage in the game when patterns and dynamics are pretty embedded, and some outcomes fairly inevitable.

I think they have more work to do, but am glad to have worked on something that made me really think on my feet and appreciate having a co-facilitator with me.

Dealing with power

Anti-oppression training and large-group work
An advanced training for trainers with George Lakey, Manchester, UK. 20-22 July 2012

Legendary US activist trainer George Lakey is making a rare visit to the UK, where he helped to train a generation of nonviolence trainers in 1970. As well as increasing the number of training and facilitation tools that participants can use effectively, George will be helping us to deal with diversity, power and privilege within training and large-group facilitation and decision-making. He will be helping participants examine how conflict develops in activist groups around issues of oppression (to do with race, age, class, disability, sexuality, gender or other forms of discrimination) and how to turn these conflicts into opportunities for liberatory steps. This is a unique opportunity to draw on 50 years of activism and training with one of the most experienced cross-cultural activist trainers in the world.

This training has been organised by Milan Rai, co-editor of Peace News, as part of George Lakey’s Peace News speaking tour of the UK, and supported by Rhizome. Peace News is seeking the greatest possible diversity of participants in the training, and people from the widest spectrum of radical social change activism and community organising.   

If you would like to participate, please read the notes below, fill in the application form and submit it to by 30 April 2012.

This training is aimed at people who are experienced activist trainers (nonviolence, direct action, facilitation, consensus decision-making and so on) or who have helped facilitate large-scale activist or radical community organising group processes (Climate Camp, Occupy, G8 and so on). 
Participants are expected to be actively planning to engage in activist training or large-scale facilitation in the next two years. After you submit your application form, someone from the organising group will phone you to talk through some of the issues.

The charge for the weekend is £30-£70 on a sliding scale for income. Peace News does not want to exclude anyone on the grounds of cost, so please do contact us if the charge for the weekend, or the travel expenses involved are a barrier to participation: 020 7278 3344; 07980 748 555;

Download Application form

Facilitating from privilege

I’ve commented before that training around power and privilege in groups and society has been gathering momentum in activist circles here in the UK. We’re lagging sadly behind our peers in the States and elsewhere, but at least it’s happening.

I’ve been consciously building elements of this work into my group-work trainings for a while now, as have other Rhizome folk. But I’m left with a question about the privilege that many of us social action facilitators have as individuals. And yes, that most definitely includes white, male, heterosexual, middle class, educated me. The simple fact of the matter is that if we (I) are honest many of us have still got a very long way to go on our own journeys of exposing, understanding and acting on our own privilege. And yet we’re simultaneously trying to support other activists to do the same. Ordinarily, with any other training, I’d see that as potentially powerful thing – walking side by side in the journey. The problems arise when I reflect on some of the work I’ve done with other facilitators or alone.

Yes it’s done some good. Groups have learnt and shifted. Individuals in groups have learnt and shifted. And I have most certainly learnt and, hopefully, shifted. But I’m aware that some cruel ironies have occurred: that when working on margins and mainstreams I’ve sometimes unconsciously failed to adequately support the margins; that when working on power and privilege I’ve sometimes left the least privileged feeling the most vulnerable or, at best, equally as shaken up as the most privileged. Why? Because in designing and facilitating this work in I’ve inevitably done so through my privileged filters and experience which are more attuned to how the work will impact on people like me – the privileged.

I’ve frequently thought and said that a good facilitator doesn’t need to be an expert in the topic a group is working on, just in creating a space that helps the group to learn from its own experience. Nothing too profound there – many of you reading this will share that view. But with work around privilege I find myself a little more wary. Are the risks of us privileged facilitators blundering about with a subject like this too high? Yes, I learn each and every time, but I can learn as a participant, a trainee. Facilitating others isn’t, and never should be, therapy for me.

In the immediate future I’ll keep working on and with power, privilege, rank, margins and mainstreams. I’ll endeavour to tread as sensitively as  I can. But I think I’ll also be looking around for those from/with whom ‘the movement’ can learn better.

One such opportunity should happen this July, when Training for Change’s George Lakey runs a weekend skillshare around this very topic. More on that when the details are confirmed.

Process, power and privilege in the Occupy movement

Ivan Boothe has written an excellent post on the Fellowship of Reconciliation website. He talks about the cornerstones of the process used by the growing occupy movement in the States such as the people’s mic, consensus decision-making, and general assemblies – useful stuff about the purpose and problems associated with them, including some insights for facilitators and organisers.

He also talks about the racism and classism of the movement, caused in part by these very processes, and offers an analysis of its causes. Here’s a snippet, but there’s plenty more:

In an ideal community, participants would collectively decide how to debate and pass proposals, and would learn from one another about how that process operates. In most cases, however, differences in experience lead to some people having more familiarity and comfort with things like consensus and spokescouncils. Since those “some people” are usually white college-educated activists, community organizers with decades of experience among working class neighborhoods and people of color can feel culturally marginalized.

Organizers often want to undermine the traditional hierarchy of leader-oriented movements. Without adequate transparency, however, this quickly becomes the “tyranny of structurelessness,” in which existing ties between individuals become unofficial — and therefore unaccountable — decision-making structures in which others find impossible to participate.

An unfamiliar process combined with poor facilitation, poor communication, and the inevitable rush of activist planning leads to a unaware but pervasive racism and classism that makes the setup feel far more oppressive than majoritarian voting systems with which people are familiar.

He also talks of the rarely acknowledged privilege that allows people to engage in the Occupy movement:

“Occupy” encampments take an enormous amount of privilege. The privilege to take time off — from family, work or school — and participate in an overwhelming and sometimes confusing community. The privilege to, in some cases, risk arrest simply by participating. But more than anything, the privilege to debate things like “an ideal community” in the midst of life-or-death struggles going on on the ground.

I guess that applies to bloggers too!

Nonviolence for a Change

From September 2011 to June 2012 Turning the Tide in collaboration with Huddersfield Quakers and other local peace and social justice groups are hosting a series of workshop called ‘Nonviolence for a Change.’ This is a training programme for people with some experience of working with others to address injustices and make changes.

Dates and Themes for the Huddersfield 2011 – 2012 course

  • 24 September 2011: Nonviolence, a dangerous idea
  • 15 October: Playing with power 1: Understanding the system
  • 19 November: Playing with power 2: Changing the system
  • 17 December: Campaigners do it together! How we make change
  • 21 January 2012: Don’t just sit there! Exploring direct action
  • 17- 19 February: Is everybody happy? Tools for effective group work (This session is residential and for year-group only – see beolw)
  • 17 March: The living revolution: building the alternative
  • 21 April: Inner and outer: spirituality and activism
  • 18 – 20 May: We can do that! Empowerment for social change (This session is residential and for year-group only)
  • 16 June: Celebrating nonviolence

Year-long or Drop-in

As in previous years, you can sign up for the whole course, or just dip into the sessions that interest you. This course tends to be oversubscribed and we anticipate a similar response for the 2011-2012 course. So get in touch as soon as you can if you’d like to participate either in the whole course or particular workshops.

Fees and application process

Year-course: Participation on the course is via application due by 10 August 2011. The fee is £350 for the year; £35 per workshop, and concessions and payment plan options are available. February and May residential are for the year-group only.

One-day: Spaces for one-day participants are limited, so please get in touch to put your name on the one-day list as soon as possible. We get in touch before the workshop to confirm that you are still able to come and take care of some administrative business.

For more applications materials and more information see our website, or email: or, or call: 020 7663 1061 & 1064

Power and privilege

Platform emailed to give us a heads up about their new power & privilege training. This kind of work has been going on in the US and elsewhere in activist circles for a long time. It’s building momentum here in the UK and Platform’s work is a welcome step on the way. I look forward to reading their agenda and ruthlessly raiding it for use in our own work!