A Facilitator’s Obligation to Social Justice

I spent my weekend in a facilitation training with an impressive group of people from across my university community.

Over the course of two full days, we were introduced to a specific facilitation method of Reflective / Structured Dialogue.

All of us were there as people. As members of a shared community. As individuals who felt that dialogue is an important groundwork, an important foundation for shared understanding.

And mutual understanding really is the goal of the facilitation technique we studied.

As many in the Deliberative Democracy world have told me, mutual understanding is a critical and foundational goal. People with opposing ideas and opinions may not come to find common ground, they may not come to agree. But well-structured dialogue can help them lower the rhetoric. Can help them humanize each other.

Can help them find mutual understanding.

A common push back to this approach is the question, “is dialogue enough?” For those of us with a bias for action, it can be daunting to imagine having whole series of dialogues organized for no other purpose than to talk.

I mean, I’ve been in many a meeting which seemed to have no point at all, and doing this as a past time doesn’t necessarily seem like an optimal thing to do.

But whether it is “enough” or not, it is clear to me that dialogue is important.

Unlike a meeting that goes off the rails, a well-facilitated dialogue feels like a productive use of time.

You may not plan a boycott or complete a power analysis, but you get to know other people. Really get to know them. As people.

You remember that it’s an amazing experience to be genuinely interested in learning more about someone and to have them genuinely interested in learning more about you.

That can be a powerful experience.

And it’s an important experience. It’s what makes a community a community, and not just a fractured network of factions.

The role of the facilitator in these meetings is intentionally agnostic. They layout a structure, they keep time, they help the group agree to norms and keep the group honest to those norms.

Their role is to serve the interests of the group.

In many ways, this is how we’re used to thinking of a facilitator, and in many ways this structure makes good sense.

When you’re bringing together a polarized group, for example, it seems important that the facilitator be a neutral party, someone who can honestly and equitably enforce the ground rules a group sets for itself. Someone who can generate an unbiased calm and keep the group focused on the seemingly simple task of mutual understanding. Of getting to know each other as people.

And while in theory, that all sounds great, I can’t shake the question: Does a facilitator have an obligation to social justice?

Someone truly committed to the neutral facilitator model would say no. The facilitator has an obligation to the group, to help the group achieve mutual understanding. That understanding will ultimately serve social justice, as people from divergent views learn to humanize each other.

But the facilitator’s primary obligation is to the group, and that requires the facilitator stay neutral.A facilitator might call someone out for not speaking with respect or for not speaking from their own experience, but a neutral facilitator wouldn’t point out the fallacy in someone’s argument or the structural privilege that helped build their view.And in many ways, that seems like the right approach. A well structured dialogue might help someone realize – truly, for themselves – their structural privilege. And that self-realization serves social justice better than any well-intentioned condemnation ever could.But I feel a facilitator’s obligation to social justice goes deeper than this. I think not of polarized groups, but of groups where people’s views are too similar, or where people are too polite.A key step in the Reflective / Structured Dialogue approach is to open with a question that everyone can relate to, that get us all through personal stories, to recognize our common humanity.But recognizing our shared experiences should not lead to an expectation that our experiences are the same.I may have occasionally felt like an outsider. You may have felt like an outsider every day. I may have occasionally felt misrepresented. You may have felt misrepresented every day.Recognizing those common experiences is critical to developing humanized relationships, but social justice means recognizing that a common experience doesn’t imply a comparable existence. It means recognizing that deep systemic inequality, has dramatic outcomes for our different life experiences. It means recognizing that I may able to hide my deviance from social norms, while you may not. And while shared experience is important, the frequency and intensity of those experiences is important, too.I think it’s great to start with a question that everyone can relate to, that opens the door to mutual understanding.But I think a facilitator does have an obligation to social justice and, once commonality is recognized, has an obligation to ask next, how are those experiences different and why are they different? What has shaped our experiences and shaped our world?And, of course, a facilitator must ask, how can we all work together to positively shape the experiences of those who follow ?

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