Facilitate local, change global…

The last couple of training sessions I’ve facilitated have both been local. They’ve also been with groups I’ve worked for before: Transition Leicester’s Footpaths project and the local Steiner school interest group.

I’ve spent a good number of years running round the country working with a large number of diverse groups. That’s been a fantastic experience. It feels like a positive contribution to have made, and of course I’ve learnt loads. I’ve rarely made significant local connections. But increasingly my work is about community-building and the irony of not being active within my own geographical community has become too much to sustain.

So a week ago I ran a morning’s skillshare with 2 of the Steiner interest group’s core group, coaching them through a deepening of understanding of the role of facilitation in groups including the realisation that ‘the facilitator’ doesn’t need to do all the facilitation. We covered a lot of ground in quite a short time in what felt like quite a lively session. It helped that both Tamsin and Susan were very eager to learn and have a genuine commitment to making the group’s processes participatory and equitable.

And this weekend I co-facilitated a second training for Footpaths project facilitators. We’d learnt a lot since the first one last year. The agenda was more spacious and also more focused on the facilitation of change. After all the volunteer facilitators are working with a group to make behavioural changes in order to make ecological change. So we spent a little time looking at the stages of change drawing on a model developed out of work with addiction. The extra space we created allowed us to look at the rank and privilege material we had to heavily edit last time around, although we changed the language this time (to inclusion and diversity). It was a thought and emotion-provoking session that took people into their discomfort zones, but it was valuable stuff and gave everyone a taste of the strong feelings that such material can inspire. Of course the practice sessions, in which participants facilitated for each other, were full of learning for everyone.

If there were an underlying theme I’d say it was consciously taking the group into an uncomfortable but fertile space. This is at the forefront of my mind having recently spent a weekend exploring Training for Change’s direct education approach, one important aspect of which is building  a strong ‘container’ for groups – that is creating and holding a space in which it’s safe to be uncomfortable and to take risks. Given the task of the Footpaths groups being comfortable working with discomfort seems important. They’re working with challenging material both about changing personal behaviour for the greater good but also about working together to make change in communities. Neither is easy or comfortable.

My co-facilitator, Emily, took the evaluations home with her. Once she’s done I’ll get my turn. Then I’ll share them with you.

Warm ups, comfort zones, and corporate raiders

In the process of planning yesterday’s Steiner school meeting I worked with the existing  core group and they in turn shared the plan with a couple of other folk involved in the meeting. One or two revisions came back to me. Nothing unusual there except that, if I’m honest, one of them frustrated me slightly. There was  request to cut out the 10 minute warm up altogether. The reason given? That icebreakers sounded too corporate and might leave people feeling uncomfortable.

For me the warm up was essential – this was a public meeting one aim of which was to leave people, many of whom would never have met each other before, feeling able to volunteer to get involved in an ambitious project. Rather than making people uncomfortable, my thinking was that some form of warming up was necessary to create enough comfort for later conversations to be meaningful, and for people to begin to get a sense of themselves as part of a community.

It was also a meeting about a model of education that has concepts such as creativity and learning through experience and movement at its heart. It seemed appropriate to draw on that within the meeting.

OK, so some of you are reading and simultaneously reflecting on icebreaker experiences that would have sent you running a mile feeling decidedly less comfortable than when you arrived. Of course there are some icebreakers , many icebreakers, out there that would make all but the most outgoing drama student cringe and look for excuses to leave. I could happily live without having to pretend to be an animal waking up in the jungle, making appropriate movements and sounds, ever again (if that’s your favourite icebreaker, my apologies, but please take a long hard look at it before using it with a group of strangers….).

My personal preference is for gentle activities that encourage people to have spoken to at least one other person before the time is up and to have begun to reflect on the purpose of the meeting. If they involve movement, so much the better – and by movement I usually mean some sort of sedate mingling not a round of It’s a Knockout. Of course some groups can tolerate, and want, more game-playing, more physical challenge. So be it.

To cut a warm up altogether, however tempting, is a false economy. To my mind it enhances the quality of all that follows. However, in this instance it’s exactly what we did. And it serves as a very useful reminder that when working with a new group, network, or client there’s a need to warm them up to what we do as a facilitators and to our personal style. These folk don’t know me well enough simply to take my word for it. They have their own experience of warm ups in one half of the scale and the word of a relative stranger in the other. So, note to self, more to be done to break the ice before and during the agenda planning stage!

As for warm ups as too corporate…. facilitation is facilitation, and if it works for activist groups it’s going to work for corporate teams too. Tailored to context, of course. Who did the first icebreaker, corporate team or community group? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know, and it doesn’t matter. I regularly raid more ‘corporate’ facilitation toolboxes such as MindTools for ideas, take what works for the groups I’m working with and discard the rest.

The many faces of activism

I’m not long back in from facilitating a 2 hour ‘information meeting’ for the Steiner School Leicestershire Interest Group. As meetings go it was relatively straightforward – no crucial decisions to make, no deeply embedded history of conflict and so on. The group’s very recent, and I got into conversation with them about building their awareness of their group dynamic nice and early to avoid it setting in stone.There was already a high level of awareness which gives hope that this group may thrive.

One thing led to another and I volunteered to facilitate the meeting. The brief involved all the usual things about getting the task done in the allocated time (the task being giving people a chance to find out more about Steiner education, to get up to date with the project to open a Steiner school in Leicestershire, and crucially to have an opportunity to get involved). The more demanding bit was to do this without reinforcing the existing group dynamics of the project – a core group of 4 families doing all the work. But with a sincere and open approach it wasn’t that hard. The meeting went well and new volunteers came forward to offer skills, time and resources. There was also the option to make tentative offers – in other words an offer that was dependent on receiving appropriate support, mentoring and skill sharing. It would have been nice to see more offers, but as many people still haven’t decided whether the school is for them that’s not too surprising. I’ve shared some of the evaluation comments below this post.

For a moment I considered whether this was really Rhizome work, not that I don’t facilitate outside of Rhizome. No, the question was “Is it really activism?”. I think the answer has to be ‘yes’. For some of these parents it’s all about building a better world for their children. Quite literally – a creative, humane educational experience that build world-changing values and attitudes in the next generation. This, as well as having had a baby in the last year reminds me that there are so many more faces of activism than the ones many of us are familiar with. It’s not all petitions, banners, marches and ‘lock-ons‘. There are countless folk out there working away to build alternative social structures. So here’s a few to interest and inspire:

The Association of Radical Midwives is a resource to allow women (and their partners) the empowering birth that many aspire to but few get.

There’s also a growing homebirth and freebirth movement. Despite recent media campaigns here in the UK to undermine the strong reputation for the safety of homebirth.

I’ve always been inspired by the midwives of the Farm, an US commune that started out as a hippy convoy snaking its way across the USA on a journey long enough that several babies were born en route. The women of the Farm became self-taught midwives (well, with a little help from supportive doctors along the way) and have gone on to challenge a lot of current birthing assumptions, such as the need for significant medical intervention in a breech birth. This DIY approach to life has a lot in common with other elements of activism.

And of course then there’s the home education movement and the related but lesser known unschooling movement, vegan parenting and so much more.

And that’s just the early years – hundreds of people pioneering ways of living that fulfil their ideological view of the world. Activism? I think so.

Pick any other aspect of life and dig around and there will be an activist ‘scene’. You get up in the morning and there’s folk campaigning for different daylight saving hours. You eat breakfast – foodmiles, localism, organic, veganic. You go out – transport, local amenities and so on…

It’s both humbling and inspiring to think that by the time you turn on your computer (open source software, corporate domination, conflict minerals….) to start your day’s work as an activist or someone building the capacity of activists you’ve already connected with this much activism.