Partial to a bit of facilitation?

Facilitation, as it’s usually conceived of, leans towards an ‘All Lives Matter’ approach, with all the problems that entails. By that I mean that facilitators are often trying to be so scrupulously fair that they end up perpetuating unhealthy power dynamics in groups.

Fairness often plays out, for example, as ensuring that everyone has the same opportunity to speak in a group setting. And that opportunity often equates loosely to the notion of an equal amount of time to speak. This is held up as an example of good, impartial facilitation.

In some cases it’s not the chance to speak, it’s the offer of that chance. If the offer is made, if it’s made with good intention, and if the facilitator can hold the space open so that if the offer is taken up then it can actually happen, as facilitators we’ve done our job. Right?

Wrong. Both of these examples lack an analysis of prevailing social power structures. For example and equal chance to speak does not mean an equal chance to be heard. Some voices are simply discounted or downgraded as a matter of course whilst others are powerfully amplified by current social norms. The voice of the powerful is present in every conversation even if they themselves are not bodily present because it dictates values, social mores, the law, and so much more. And is the offer of a chance to speak enough to make all marginal voices feel safe enough to accept the offer? I don’t think so. That takes clear and sustained partiality from the facilitators – definite, uncomplicated signals that the facilitator has the back of the marginalised.

In other words what we need is ‘Black Lives Matter’ facilitation – facilitating directly and purposefully to hear the most marginal voice at any given moment. This isn’t ‘neutral’ facilitation. At Rhizome we talk of multipartiality not impartiality. And, no, that doesn’t mean ‘All lives matter’ facilitation. It means standing with whomever in the margin of the group at any time, amplifying their voice not just so they have an equal time to speak but so that they are heard. That might mean vastly unequal lengths of time to speak. Or facilitating for a quality of listening that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

But the margins in a group are fluid. Whilst some folks spend most of their lives firmly in the margins of society and the groups we facilitate, there can be surprising shifts. A multipartial facilitator may be standing with the oppressed at one moment and the oppressor the next. Why? Because the oppressors need our support, our care, our attention to help them to listen deeply whilst they’re reacting to being called out because of their actions, behaviours, values. No-one listens well when they’re on the defensive. Sometimes it falls to the facilitator to stand with the person or group that’s called out, not because we share their views but so they feel supported and safe enough to listen, reflect and, hopefully, change.

And of course margins exist within the margins – witness the ‘Black Trans Lives Matter‘ movement of transgender folk feeling alienated from and by ‘Black Lives Matter’. Another example is illustrated by this powerful apology made by African Australian Nyadol Nyuon to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders [starts 10:47].

One moment we support the mainstream of the margin (!) and the next we stand with those who call on that margin to address their own oppressive practices. That’s multipartiality – liberation facilitation at its best!

Of course the practice isn’t easy. Every facilitator carries so much often unseen and unknown prejudice, judgement and assumption that hearing and seeing the most marginal, let alone standing with them, is hard. It’s harder still because of our natural human desire to be on the inside of any community we work with when the practice of multipartiality asks us to step outside – away from the safety of belonging and into a role of challenge – for us and for others.

We will each make many mistakes (as I have done in the writing of this post), but that’s an essential part of facilitating for liberation and real equality. The risks to us as facilitators are (usually) nothing compared to the risks faced by the margins we seek to support.