The Art of Equity and Justice Facilitation
Rosetta Eun Ryong Lee,
Emily Alicia Affolter,
Armina Khwaja Macmillan,
and Cara Margherio
The racial injustices in our society have become increasingly pronounced during the pandemic. And in our institutions, we have witnessed a rising awareness and interest in anti-racism work—as well as anti-oppression work more broadly. As social justice advocates, we are heartened by opportunities to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) knowledge and equip school leaders with the tools to fight for racial justice. But we worry about what can happen when schools rush to take action to bring in trainers and schedule workshops without considering what will be most effective for their specific school communities.
In our work as social justice practitioners who have been part of and led such DEIJ trainings, we have experienced trainings that were done hastily or without proper preparation and witnessed the pain and misunderstandings that resulted. This type of intervention must be thoughtfully and intentionally organized in order to be impactful; school leaders must have a clear understanding of what makes for an effective training and what to look for in a facilitator to offer a meaningful DEIJ experience.
It is critical to understand how backgrounds and social identities inform how facilitators show up in their work. In our facilitation work, it is important for us to own our identities and positionalities because they inform how we each view and experience the world. We are a cadre of individuals with complex intersecting identities and experiences, all of which impact our work. We collectively have dominant and nondominant identities as they pertain to race, ethnicity, affinity orientation, gender identity, age, religion, and professional experience.
School leaders who want to engage their communities in effective anti-racism and anti-oppression work—whether they are planning to engage professional facilitators and trainers or tapping in-school champions to lead the work—should consider three key areas.
Consider the topics to be explored with participants and the knowledge base required to facilitate learning regarding these topics. It is important to reflect not only on our knowledge, but also consider how we learned it. The ways in which a person has come to learn something will impact their understanding of that topic. For example, it’s one thing to learn about racism in the United States toward African American men from a critical theory class versus living that experience.
Think back to when you were in an effective DEIJ training: In what ways did the facilitator seem knowledgeable about DEIJ? How did the facilitator’s content relate to the identities, experiences, and knowledge of everyone in the room? Ideally, a DEIJ facilitator should have knowledge of a particular topic above and beyond what is explored within the group experience. Here are some questions on which to reflect:
Next, consider identities, both the facilitator’s and those of your participants. Our identities shape
- In what areas is the facilitator particularly experienced and educated? Where are their knowledge gaps? Is there something in which they once felt knowledgeable but now need to reeducate themselves on?
- How did the facilitator come to know this content, and how does that relate to other people’s ways of knowing?
how we view and relate to the world around us.
We must also consider the audience and where they are in terms of their exploration of these topics. Often, learning experiences cater to the people who have the furthest to travel in their growth and development. Conceptually this makes sense, as it is hard to move an entire group forward on a topic when some are so very far behind. Yet we are hesitant to always address the needs of those who have not explored their own identities and privileges, often those from dominant identities, while insisting that those from nondominant identities wait to continue in the process.
- How do a facilitator’s identities inform the content they are delivering? How do their identities interact with the identities of those in the room? How do these dynamics impact how the content is received?
- To what extent is the content relevant and applicable to participants based on their identities? What DEIJ work have these participants engaged with before?
- On which stage of anti-oppression awareness and knowledge will facilitators focus their energy? Do they have an understanding of whom that advantages and a rationale that supports the focus?
Facilitation is the art of processing experiences, and there are innumerable skills, techniques, and talents that a facilitator employs to do this effectively. For most participants, it’s difficult to perceive all of the things that an effective facilitator is doing to create a valuable learning experience. From intentionally introducing activities and drawing out learning and reflection to managing conflict and tension, an effective facilitator is constantly ensuring that a group experience is moving in a manner aligned with the group’s goals. Now, consider adding to this recipe the content of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice activities—topics that are complex, sensitive, and often uncomfortable for individuals to explore. Facilitators must recognize the sensitivity of the topic, invite vulnerability, and guide people through this exploration in a manner that is supportive. This is no small task.
Think back to when you were in an effective DEIJ training: What do you remember about how the facilitator engaged the participants? What activities stood out to you? How did the facilitator navigate both the feelings of individuals and the dynamics of the group? You might recall a facilitator who seemed so tuned into the group needs that their presence felt both invisible and encompassing. For DEIJ facilitators like this, much of that ability begins with first exploring their own identity and biases.
For each group experience, detailed and thoughtful preparation is required to create a space for both individuals and the collective to explore difficult topics. This process can include many elements, such as learning about the group beforehand, determining the progression of activities, and considering how to orient the room (virtual or in-person).
- How might the facilitator’s biases show up during facilitation, and how might they respond in these circumstances? What are their biases around the expression of different emotions, and how are they influenced by who is expressing that emotion?
- How might the facilitator’s identities interact with the identities of participants? How might participants’ prior knowledge impact the process and delivery of the experience?
Oftentimes in group experiences, tension and conflict arise to some degree. It’s the facilitator’s duty to ensure that participants feel supported while also holding the group and individuals accountable. Much of what facilitators do to maintain healthy emotional space comes through in their intentional modeling.
- How might facilitators design the space to maximize accessibility and interaction and set the tone in a manner that flattens the hierarchy?
- What activities (such as role-plays, case studies, fishbowls) and processing modalities (such as discussions, journaling, pair shares) should they select? How do facilitators choose activities that invite authenticity and vulnerability without relying on the individual expression of stories of oppression? How do they stay open to the range of possible outcomes of these activities?
- In what ways can the facilitator interrupt dominant culture norms and affirm nondominant culture norms?
Facilitators may refine their processing skills through self-reflection and feedback from colleagues, mentors, and participants on their technique and approach. It takes time and practice for DEIJ facilitators to be able to create a process that supports all participants in the experience.
- In what ways do they introduce their presence as firm, empathic, and responsive? How might they model productive emotional processing and conflict? How do they honor emotional expression while also protecting others from the potential harm of this expression?
- What is their relationship with feedback and conflict? How do they receive feedback in the moment and in front of the participants? How do they model humility and learning in both a collective space and in one-on-one settings?
An anti-oppression facilitator serves as a role model for the group, allowing group members to witness what it looks like to enact the values and practices of equity and justice. This might be interpreted to mean that they get everything right, but, often, being a role model includes acknowledging when you get something wrong.
Think back to when you were in an effective DEIJ training. How did the facilitator invite participation without forcing it? How did they honor the most vulnerable members of the community? To what extent did their language and activities reflect the values they were espousing? Facilitators must be attentive to the experiences of each participant, with the goal of showing people what it looks like to enact the values being taught.
One of the most significant ways facilitators can demonstrate alignment is through making relationships with their own biases known. This might look like challenging yours and others’ beliefs in the moment.
- How is the facilitator upholding or breaking down white supremacy, patriarchy, and other systems of oppression? What practices can they demonstrate that actively cultivate equitable and just learning spaces?
Language can be a useful way to reflect alignment with DEIJ values to participants. It is a facilitator’s responsibility to be aware of the language used to ensure oppressive practices are not present in a facilitated space.
- How do facilitators actively question what they believe is “appropriate engagement” to minimize cultural bias or policing of behaviors? What are their processes for checking interpretations and assumptions?
- How can they encourage self-care but not checking out? What are the ways they foster honest and authentic engagement while challenging participants to experience growth?
Many DEIJ activities invite people to be vulnerable and share their life experiences as they relate to both their privileged and marginalized identities. We encourage you to be wary of some of these activities and consider whether all people are being cared for through the duration of these experiences.
- How do facilitators reframe the conversation from a deficit ideology (fix-the-person language like achievement gap, poor communities, political disengagement, etc.) to a systemic and human equity ideology (fix-the-system language like opportunity gap, under-resourced communities, voter disenfranchisement, etc.)?
Lastly, perhaps the most important element of alignment with DEIJ values is how facilitators work on their own growth. Their colleagues, mentors, and participants are each their teachers with gifts and insights to offer.
- Are facilitators setting up a situation where some are learning at the expense of others? Is the learning hinging on people with marginalized identities telling their stories? Are we prioritizing the awakening of people with privileged identities over the growth and capacity-building of people with marginalized identities?
- Who or what keeps facilitators accountable to equitable and anti-oppressive practices? Are they engaging regularly as a learner of DEIJ-facilitated conversations?
There are myriad factors to consider—beyond these lists—and we must remain open to critical thinking, continuous learning and unlearning, welcoming accountability, and educating ourselves. We hope you continue to reflect on how facilitators can embody the DEIJ values your institution espouses.