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.