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Reflections on Power: In the Role of a Facilitator & the Body of a White Woman

john-dewey-reflection-quote-16vbfv9I recently facilitated a session where someone shared in the closing reflections that they felt dehumanized. For anyone to feel dehumanized by my actions is, for me, a fail. When I mess up, it’s imperative for me to own it, learn from the experience, act differently in the future, and make amends as best as I am able. My hope is that this public reflection will help me integrate what I am learning and potentially be valuable for people reading this (as I know I am one of many who carries the identities of a facilitator and a white woman). I am committed to facilitating with integrity and humility. Reflecting in depth on the feedback I receive is an essential part of my commitment. What follows is my perceptions and analysis. I’m sure that there is more to see from the perspective of other people who were present.

Perceptions About Power that I had Walking into this Session

When I am facilitating a group, I always hold power in the room. I guide where a group goes or doesn’t go. I hold the actual or symbolic microphone, making decisions about whose voices are heard or not heard. I take up space. I am the center of attention at times. I have influence over what is or isn’t happening in the room. Sometimes I use my power in ways that are contrary to how a person in the room would like the time to be spent. I take very seriously this facilitator’s position of power and influence and strive to use it to make equitable spaces where people are respected and able learn from each other.

problem-of-whitenessI am a white person and a White Woman. I share these identities with many other people that have historically and still currently hold social power simply because we are white. We act in all kinds of ways, intentionally or unknowingly, that hold us as superior and others as inferior. We have and still do cause trauma and harm towards people of color. Historically (and currently), white folks and White Women had the power of being listened to and believed, our word would be taken as the true word when in relationship with people who did not have as much social power as someone who looks like me. I would be listened to while others weren’t. And many, many folks who looked like me used that power to not only get what we wanted and control other people, but to actually harm other people. When I show up in a room, I am showing up as myself in that moment, and I am also showing up in the image of other people who looked like me and were allowed to be abusive, harmful, and inconsiderate, to name just a few things, towards people who did not look like me.

When I’m facilitating (and in life), sometimes people will be responding to my direct actions. Sometimes people will be responding to my actions that resemble those of people who looked like me in the past.

Another identity that I can embody is that of a White School Teacher, an archetype that has historically been abusive with its power (along with the education system at large). 80% of teachers in public schools in the United States are white and it is well researched that white teachers and the education system that white folks have created have not been fair, kind, honest, or effective in educating students of color (and some might argue all students).

As a white facilitator, particularly when working in a multi-racial setting, I must be hyper aware of my whiteness and all the ways that I am using or releasing my power and even the ways that those who looked like me have used and abused our power in the past.

What I learned in the Experience I Facilitated

  • Knowing all of that above — There was a 15-minute section of time where I forgot that I was white. I was centered on the task of facilitating a process and learning experience. I slipped into the role of a teacher. I used my power as the facilitator to teach the group something that I thought was important for them to learn. I did not realize that when I was the facilitator interrupting participants (an act that felt appropriate for what I was teaching in the moment), I was also a white woman, perhaps a white teacher, interrupting and shutting down people of color — a behavior that is very common for white people to do. In hindsight, I think if I had been holding in my awareness that I was white in that tense moment, I would have used my facilitator power in a way that did not replicate patterns of white folks using our power to oppress and silence people of color. But I forgot that I was white (a privilege and pattern that happens often for us white folks). It was a harsh reminder about how much diligence it takes to consciously disrupt habits of whiteness that are alive in me. I’ve grown up in a world that allows me to not know what it means to be white, but to just exist as “a person.” That ignorance is unacceptable if I am facilitating multi-racial groups and working towards racial justice and healing.
  • As a facilitation team, we were teaching something that the group did not give us consent to teach. This is contrary to how I like to operate, how I believe education is effective, and to my own sense of respect for learners. But I did not realize I was living that until it was too late.
  • I am reflecting on the wounds people carry from up to 25 years of schooling with white teachers that were abusive with their power. When I am facilitating and “teaching” something, how often might I be summoning up past experiences of trauma or mistrust from the white teachers of someone’s childhood?
  • I am also reflecting on — what could it have looked like for someone to interrupt and name the ways my whiteness was showing up and influencing the moment?

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What Happened — The Facilitated Experience

A social justice fellowship hired 3 consultants (a multi-racial team) to guide the Fellows (majority people of color) in a process to co-design the rest of their programming and curriculum with an allocated amount of money to work with. We facilitated:

  • Pre-session: 1-on-1 interviews
  • Session 1: Connecting, understanding the mission, the kind of learning environment that they want to experience and create
  • Session 2: Relationships with money, capitalism and collectively shaping a power analysis of what they want to amplify, interrupt and innovate
  • Session 3: Collective Decision-making process and begin designing

Session 3 is the session I’m reflecting on here. Our goal was to give the Fellows an overview of a collective decision-making process and then facilitate them through the process, highlighting the process in action along the way so that they could take over the facilitation and facilitate themselves as our contract ended after session 3. In session 1 we asked if anyone had experience with a collective decision-making process. No one raised their hand so we proceeded with the assumption that we would be offering them a process that would be new to them, something for them to experience first hand and then they could choose to use or not use it. We chose a consent-based decision-making process as the tool that we would offer.

Some mistakes that I and we made:

  • We did not explicitly get consent from the Fellows to teach them and guide them through the particular consent decision-making process.
  • Before we began practicing and using the process, I was assigned the role of explaining the process. We had created a handout and I explained the elements of the handout. My approach was very didactic teaching. In session 1, the majority of the Fellows indicated that they did not like learning in a lecture type environment. At least one Fellow indicated that they did like more traditional teaching styles sometimes. I was not listening to their request to learn by doing, but was instead taking 45 minutes to teach and explain.
  • I used my power as the facilitator and the assumptions that I had made that they were open to receiving the process and forced them to participate in the process, at times interrupting an organic flow so that I could fit their organic reactions into the process and highlight for them how to follow the steps. While I knew why I was making those choices, they did not and I think it felt like me inserting my power to control the process in the way I wanted it to go, disregarding their wishes and efforts towards shared leadership.
  • When I was using my power as a facilitator to interrupt people while they were talking and connect what they were saying to the process, not only was I forcing participation into something they didn’t consent to, I was also wearing my white skin, in a position of power, and interrupting people of color and exerting my power over people of color.

Some comments made in the closing reflections that particularly stood out to me:

  • Over-explaining is a form of Anti-Blackness
  • To point out process feels dehumanizing
  • Trust us that the work you’ve done is effective and we’ve got this
  • It felt like we were being blocked by the facilitation

I apologized for the mistakes I could see in the closing circle and I will continue to listen for ways that I can make amends for any harm that I caused. And, I think the best way for me to repair from these mistakes is to be diligent in myself about not replicating the same mistakes. I know as a white woman, my whiteness will continue to be revealed to me, and my inability to see how I am part of the problem or perpetuating problems will be illuminated. My prayers are that I keep learning, unlearning and embodying my growth and that I cause as little harm as possible. I know that I am on this journey of racial healing and racial justice for the long haul and I pray that I show up with humility and integrity, contributing in places where my presence is of value and is not a disruption to healing and justice.

P.s. This article was shared with me as a follow-up to this group: Consensus is a means, not an end.

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Solutions: Listen to the Stories. Invest.

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 9.42.53 AMSolutions: Listen to the stories of those who are most impacted by inequity. Invest in organizations that are informed by and lead by those who are most impacted.

In Asheville: Word on the Street/La Voz de los Jovenes is one of those organizations.

“I’ve been wanting a place where youth can just be themselves,” said 14-year-old Serenity Lewis

“It’s kinda helping youth of color get their voice out within the community. We’ve all noticed there’s a problem, and we want to go at it and fix it, or try to.” – Quantasia Williams, 18 years old

Listen to this segment about them on public radio.



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Earthseed Series with adrienne maree brown

Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 10.07.02 PMSo much goodness in this podcast about Octavia Butler, her books, particularly the Earthseed Series, Emergent Strategy and fierce guidance for liberation movement work. Continued gratitude to Adrienne Maree Brown.

Key Questions in the podcast:

  • Who was Octavia Butler?
  • What are the lessons of Acorn, the post-apocalyptic community that was created in Parables?
  • What does it mean to shape chaos?
  • How do these books teach us about resilience? survival? Love?
  • What can people do to practice radical compassion and empathy?
  • What does it mean to practice humility and create space for everyone when it might also mean that we let in potentially harmful people?
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Indigenous Youth Leaders & Man Camps

These indigenous youth are badass. So much important information here. Their analysis, leadership and journalism is powerful and clear. They have updates about Keystone as well as other significant things to be aware of. Worth listening to all 27 minutes.

Do you know any farmers in Nebraska?

Keystone XL Pipeline Update from the NoKXL Gathering 2017 in Kul Wicasa Territory -Lower Brule, SD.
Youth voices from:
Seeding Sovereignty
Indigenous Environmental Network
International Indigenous Youth Council – Denver Chapter

I did not know about “man camps” until these videos and their correlation with missing Native women. This is disgusting and unfortunately extremely easy to imagine a sex trafficking industry and violence surrounding temporary housing for oil workers. More about Man Camps.


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Restorative Justice with Juvenile Cases


“Our system has proven woefully inadequate, so we can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing.” Said Jimmy Hung Chief Prosecutor for Juvenile courts in King County (Seattle, Washington). He doesn’t see evidence that jailing them changes anything. He’s most concerned about a system that funnels teenagers through detention and sees most leave no better than when they arrived — sometimes far worse.”

Last week I got to catch up with an old friend and someone whom I deeply respect and am honored to learn from and with, Saroeum Phoung. Honestly, he blew my mind as he shared about the incredible work they are doing in King county… on a systemic level and impacting the lives of thousands of people. Below is more from the articles:

Prosecutor Hung and his colleagues in King County took a risk and began implementing Peacemaking Circles, a form of restorative justice, for both misdemeanor and felony juvenile cases, working with lead consultant (and phenomenal human being) Saroeum Phoung from Pointonenorth Consulting LLC.

“The peacemaking process promises a clean start in return for hard conversations, intensive self-reflection, empathy-building and public amends.

“What people don’t realize is that this restorative justice work is harder than going to jail!” – Saroeum Phoung.

Getting the teen to connect his victim’s experience with his own feelings for family had been an essential goal for peace-circle leader Saroeum Phoung.

“There’s a solid amount of kids that this won’t work for — kids who think ‘I’m a gangbanger, and that’s all,’ ” said Vincente, now 18, who was a senior at Ingraham High School when he threatened another student, over social media, with a semi-automatic weapon.

Vincente met with the mother of his victim.

“I saw a lot of my mom in her, and I really began to understand what my actions had done to their whole family,” he said. “I thought it was just going to be why I’m a bad kid, but it turned out to be about fixing my family, too, getting at the root of why I was struggling. That’s really what it’s about.”

“If we can see kids enter the system and actually come out better on the other end,” Hung said. “That’s what we should be striving for.”

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Rosh Hashanah and Being Alert to the Raw Truths

Yesterday was Rosh Hashanah. Thanks to Phyllis Utley I was able to attend services. The Rabbi spoke of the symbolism of blowing the shofar (a ram’s horn). Its sound is raw and piercing. It sounds pained, like crying. It is also a triumphant sound of joy and celebration.

She told us that it’s meant to remind us to pay attention and be alert to the raw truths happening around us. To listen to people when they tell their own stories.

To hear the cries of those who are suffering. To hear the mothers wailing for their lost children, even if their children are your enemy.

In her sermon, she connected this to the need for us to hear the declarations that Black Lives Matter and the accounts of how Palestinian people are suffering. We must listen to their stories in their own words. We must allow ourselves to hear and feel their cries.

I had thought I would write more about this sermon, but life took another turn. Here is a letter that she read fully during her sermon.

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Can We Dialogue?

Here is a facebook conversation I had with my cousin. I welcome your feedback on my approach for trying to learn more and also share my own perspective. May we find ways to dialogue across our differences. May we be open to hearing each other. May we be open to allowing our own perspectives to change. May the goodness in our hearts be the compass that guides us forward.

Ashley posted: Students walking out in NYC… Because their country just walked out on them by voting in Betsy DeVos?

Cousin: From what I have heard and understood over the last few years, people r screaming for a change in the school system. Now a change has been offered. I don’t get it.

Ashley:  As someone who has been very active in cultivating change in schools, I deeply value people who have experience with those directly impacted being the ones leading change. Someone who has not been an educator, has not attended or sent her own children to public schools, has not worked with the populations of students that are most impacted within our public school systems is not someone who I trust to lead change.

Cousin: Maybe someone outside the box is necessary to lead the change. Have the experienced leaders in the past done anything to help the schools? Not from what I’m hearing.

Ashley: Besides the fact that she is outside the box, what makes you think that she is a good choice for this role?

Cousin: She’s been an advocate for charter schools, school choice and voucher programs in Detroit. She’s on the board of Alliance for school choice. She heads the All children matter pac. She’s on the board of Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Ashley: I realize that these are her credentials and affiliations. I’m wondering what specific things that she’s done in any of those roles do you think will influence positive change in public education for all children?

Cousin: Ashley we will have to wait and see what the plans are. It can’t be any worse than it now. Everyone wants change. Give her a shot and see. Obama had no government experience at all. Just a community organizer. And the majority of the US have him a chance and all his supporters think he did a fantastic job.

Ashley: Cousin, one of the things that you and I have in common is that we both want to see change. As I’ve mentioned to you many times, I don’t fit within the box you try to place me in that is about Democrats or Republicans. I’m not someone who thinks Obama did a fantastic job in everything nor was I a die-hard Hillary fan. I work every single day to actively be a part of creating change in my community and country to bring about more awareness and understanding about our differences and to work towards a future that is actually fair, just, respectful, compassionate for all people. I don’t believe government was doing a great job in public schools leading up to this moment. And I don’t believe that someone like DeVos is the change that will actually make public schools start working. What I believe in more than any of these billionaires being appointed or politicians who are die-hards for their party line rather than thoughtful to the issues is PEOPLE. When it boils down to it, the question is how many decent hearted people will go out of their comfortable life to care about those that are most vulnerable, most impacted by public schools loosing huge amounts of funding, disabled students not being protected, immigrant students not being adequately taught and protected, and Black students being tracked to prison? For me, I can’t just wait and see and let more people suffer. I feel a responsibility to care for and be a part of this change. I don’t trust someone like DeVos whose family has given millions of dollars to politicians. And I very much do trust the community organizers in the world. They are the ones that have historically been responsible for influencing the most social change. If you’re not familiar with the impact community organizers have had on our country, I highly encourage some reading in that realm.

Ashley: A post from a friend of mine: I’ve been holding my tongue, but Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education was a never-taught-in-a-classroom, privatizing education, high stakes testing champion*. Betsy is just more of the same… that appointment is actually the least troubling since it continues the trajectory Bush and Obama put us on since NCLB. So, I gotta say for all those who threw their everything into opposing DeVos, I hope you call your Senators to oppose Sessions this morning, an avowed white supremacist racist who may become our next Attorney General. Now THAT is terrifying and unprecedented.

Cousin: I appreciate and respect u for fighting for what u feel strongly for and against. I just get the feeling that anyone who didn’t vote for trump will be unhappy with whomever he chooses to fill his cabinet. As your friend stated above, Arnie Duncan had no experience but yet he served as secretary. I’m sure there was opposition from the republicans but not in the way it’s happening now. People who voted for trump wanted big change and that’s what’s happening. I can tell u that the Milwaukee public schools need massive change. But then talking to teachers who have taught there say it’s very hard to keep the students going because they get no help or encouragement from home. I’m not saying this is happening to all kids, but it is a large percentage here. The graduation rate is very low in the inner city. We can’t expect the teachers to raise our children. We r the ones who have to be the advocates for the children which I am doing for my kids. And which u r doing for the children who have no voice and I respect u for that.

Ashley: People who voted for Obama wanted big change as well. And many feel discouraged at the end of 8 years as the kind of change we hoped for didn’t happen. Many of those people chose not to vote at all this election because neither Trump nor Clinton provided evidence of that change. I believe that folks who want change have a lot in common with each other and what we need to be doing is critically thinking for ourselves, asking ourselves and our peers hard questions about what will really bring about the change we want, and finding ways to work together outside of political affiliation to make that change happen.

I don’t support protesting because its popular, nor do I support accepting what Trump and his people say is true just because they say it. I think that what we are seeing in the protests and resistance is many people who are done believing politicians who make big promises that they will solve our problems but really they are acting for their own benefit and in the best interests of those who pay for their political career. Folks are realizing that the system isn’t working. What Trump is proposing and the people he is appointing to lead change have a track record of being Nationalist, discriminatory, racist and sexist. They have a long history of using corporate money to garner profit over supporting the rights of people. I think that those of us who want change don’t want to see this kind of abuse from the elite with power. That is what Trump supporters voted against. Absolutely, there are serious problems in inner city public schools and the solutions are complex. Understanding the home lives of children is definitely a big part of solutions. It’d be a whole nother post for me to talk about schools and change in that realm. Thank you for the dialogue here, cousin.

Ashley: Hey Cousin, One more thing keeps circling around my head. I believe you and I had a conversation about choosing the lesser of 2 evils prior to election. On my end, that meant voting for Clinton and preparing what my plan of action was going to be to resist and push back against her policies that I heavily disagreed with. I would love to see where there are Republicans who voted for the lesser of two evils in Trump and are pushing against aspects of this administrations decisions that they don’t agree with. If you see this, are living this, please share things with me. I heard so many people make that statement during the election and I’m so curious how those folks are navigating now.

Also, a year or 2 or 3 or 4 from now, I am totally willing to recognize and celebrate if our country has undergone positive changes and the majority of public schools are getting quality education that matches their needs, the people I see being violated against and discriminated against are feeling protected and included in our governance and law enforcement, the inequities in access to jobs and healthcare are dramatically limited, etc. And I pray with all my heart, that folks like you who support Trump and his administration will be equally as open to recognizing and resisting if we actually are moving into a fascist regime. I have a very diverse community of friends and I see when people are being targeted by law enforcement and legal attacks. I pray that people who don’t have as diverse of communities will listen when folks are calling out for help and will not stand by when rights are being taken away. I pray that our country won’t repeat a Nazi Germany era. From the research I have done myself, I do see it as a possibility. On that note, if you or friends of yours have links to articles that you respect about Bannon, I welcome those as well. He is one of the people I am most concerned about his influence on the direction our country is headed.

Cousin: Yes I know a lot of people who voted for trump because they didn’t want to vote for hillary and he was the only option. I also know a lot of people who voted for trump because they liked his ideas, policies etc. I will have chats with these folks and let u know what their thoughts r about him and what is going on so far with the admin. I’m glad to hear u say that u will recognize good things that could come from this president. And I hope that the sweeping changes enacted do help all people of this country. I am absolutely against fascism and would stand up against it. I will keep an eye on Bannon too. I am finding it difficult to keep an open mind towards democrats with all the anti trump protests and riots. It’s clouding my judgement. Sorry to say.

Ashley: Thank you cousin. I invite you to be careful about where you get your media from and who is telling you the stories of what is behind the protests. I know very few people who are only anti-Trump protesting. Most I know are standing up for specific causes and actions that they are for or against. Part of fascist techniques is to pit sides against one another and create a media narrative that is stated as absolute truth. If we can’t think for ourselves and talk to each other, then people are much easier to control and rule. If folks are made to think that Democrats are protesting violently and for no reason, then it helps to make sure that those of us who really want change and want it to happen in legal and just ways won’t talk to each other or work together.

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