On the Saturday evening of PantheaCon 2016 I facilitated a discussion around racism within a tradition. It was by far the thing I most got asked about for the rest of the weekend so I thought I’d break down the steps of what I did to manage the conversation. This is not a recipe that can be followed and work every time but it is what I used to set the intention of the space and the conversation.
A little background on this: About a week before con I got a phone call about a talk that was going to vastly overflow the planned space and as head of programming did I know of another room they could hold it in, even over a mealtime. I did. I was then asked about ways to have the conversation and it be productive. I offered some ideas over the phone that resonated with them. The person expressed concern about being able to do that and did I know anyone that could help. I stepped up and offered. This? Is very short notice and I don’t really recommend it but we made it work. In some cases short notice means less time for the audience to prepare but for this I do think it worked. It went from a very small, not advertised space to being in the conference newsletter in a big room. And honestly, it worked because my position at the conference made the space possible. It could have happened in other spaces like outdoors but for something as focused as this needed to be, I think it was the best compromise available in the time we had.
The talk itself:
1. I introduced myself as an outsider to the tradition itself but as one who had studied the trad and found it not for me but that I had a deep respect for it.
The implication here is that I’m invested and knowledgeable enough to manage the conversation but hopefully not so invested that I’ll push any one single agenda.
2. In this particular case I also suggested a very simple altar in the center of the space that held two figures that mean a lot to the group. One represented Justice and the other is the classic Mom figure.
The implication here is that we are here with the concepts of justice in mind and that you are loved even when you screw up. This structure won’t always work but it was also another way to show the touchstone back to the trad. Symbols are important. When people spoke they picked up the microphone off the table that held statues of those two powers. Whether they consciously aware of it or not the intention and awareness of it was there.
3. Here is the exact text of what I said next:
“Next, I do see this space we share for the next hour and a bit as a hospitality hall. As such it has a few rules.
One: You can always leave. You are welcome to take a break and come back or not as to your comfort.
Two: Respect the speaker. We’re going to be doing something called a stack. If you raise your hand you’re added to the stack as the next speaker. Once you’ve spoken you need to wait for at least two other people to speak before you can speak again. This is about sharing equally and hearing all the voices in the room, especially those that don’t often get heard.
Three: No ad homenim attacks. We are here to talk about actions. For example Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton are often characterized as idiots by people on the other side of the aisle. That’s fine but it isn’t necessarily productive, instead we would want to talk about their policies and positions on things like immigration or tax reform or social security and what it means to us and for our families and what we can do to effect change. THAT is a productive conversation. Hurling insults is not. I recognize there has been a lot of hurt but this isn’t a space about venting or beefing. ”
The implications are obvious with this. When you set up the rules and get everyone to agree with them you provide a framework for it to work. The first rule gives everyone the comfort of an out. Knowing there is an exit helps everyone relax. The second rule lets people know when they can speak and how that’s going to work. It can be very stressful to hold up your hand or want to interrupt. You can get hung up on the words in your head and not listen. Knowing you are number X of Y gives you a place to hold space for that in your head. The third rule was important going into this conversation since I knew that a number of people in the room had argued with each other heatedly over the internet for years (in some cases). To set intention that this was about the tradition as a practice and where they wanted it to go was the conversation as intended.
Note: There is absolutely a place for beefing and venting. This just wasn’t going to be that and if you let it become that you never get to the productive part for the good of the community.
4. Next up: “We’re also not here to pretend that the history of the trad isn’t problematic. We can’t however actually have a productive conversation by staying a state of anger or shame or hurt. So, remember. When someone says ‘x is racist, we’re talking about the behavior, not the person’. If you can’t abide by these rules: Leaving if you need to, respecting the speaker, no attacking people – then you can go now. Also, if this is so totally not what you were expecting that’s okay too and we hope you enjoy the concert or the bellydancing or you can go to X or Y instead.”
The implication here is a really straightforward one. We’re naming the elephant in the room. No need to be coy or use coded language. I also made it clear that if this isn’t what you thought it was, no shame in going now. For the record no one left after the announcement. That isn’t to say that some didn’t stay for the whole thing or showed up late.
5. I asked if there were any non-trad folks in the room and to the surprise of the bulk of the room there was. I don’t know if they were looking for the train wreck factor or the honest interest in knowing what the heck was going on. They stayed to the end too.
6. I took a moment to say that everyone in the room is racist, including me. We live in a culture that is toxic with it and that what we are after is to be aware of it and get better at it. No one is innocent in this. I gave the original three panelists the opportunity to introduce themselves and why they wanted to hold this talk in the first place.
7. After that is when we started the stack. Stack is a really straightforward tool where the moderator or facilitator keeps track of hands as they go up and calls out the next number in sequence. Each person gets no more than 1 or 2 minutes to speak then gives up the microphone to the next person in that sequence. I did allow the occasional direct response but we largely stuck to stack.
8. About 50 minutes into our time allotted of 90 I let the stack dwindled down and suggested we now move on to what’s next. I asked the question: So what do you want your trad to be in twenty, fifty, one hundred years? If you have children what do you want them to inherit from you? If you are unhappy with the portrayal in the news what can you do to change it. I restarted the stack and gave each person who wanted to speak a minute.
The goal of offering that question and topic change was because what we’d heard to that point, while useful about where we came from, did not so much tell folks about where they wanted to go next. I wanted to make sure we got to the ‘next action steps’ phase of the conversation so that it ended on an upward note.
9. I gave the panelists an opportunity to close with their thoughts when we had about 10 minutes left.
10. I closed by thanking everyone for their words and their time. That this is hard work and that the next step was going to be up to them now. That this was just a place to get started.
In conclusion: Facilitating a conversation like that with about 50 people in the room is tough. Especially when people walk in upset or nervous or angry. You have to be very attuned to body language and not afraid to interrupt people. There are ways to do it that are still compassionate and show respect to the speaker without losing control of the conversation.
I highly recommend if you are running a talk like that, especially the first time that you have at least one co-facilitator in the room to help, if nothing else, run stack for you. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it alone if the group was any bigger. It was very fortunate that this group wanted and were willing to go along with the rules as they were set.
I didn’t agree with much of what was said but it also wasn’t my job to argue with them or refute it. My job was a very clear one – give those who wanted to speak a chance to do that. I gave in once to the correction role but that was to me, a clear bit of misunderstanding about what another speaker has said. In other words, when you facilitate it cannot, cannot, be about your opinion.
I know that both sides were unhappy about the content that was ultimately said. That’s actually to me a really good sign that it went well. If one ‘side’ is happy then you haven’t actually done a good job of facilitating. It’s the classic compromise dilemma. Everyone should walk away feeling like they’ve been heard and hopefully that they’ve heard stuff that made them think.
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