Culture, activism, and building trust

Earlier this month, I was privileged to facilitate a training weekend called the ‘GROW Tatzmiach Shabbaton’, a collaboration between Oxfam and the Board of Deputies of British Jews (I am told that ‘tatzmiach’ is Hebrew for ‘grow’). This 6-month programme aims to increase understanding and activism around global food justice issues, and explore the issues addressed by Oxfam’s GROW campaign from a Jewish cultural and religious perspective. So as well as ‘standard’ campaigning content, the event drew on religious texts and, being held over the Shabbat (sabbath), included elements of worship, led by the wonderful Rabbi Natan Levi. International development content was provided by staff from Oxfam, Tzedek (Jewish Action for a Just World) and World Jewish Relief.

As usual with groups of self-selecting, committed campaigners, the event was a joy to run, with, for me, the added privilege of being able to observe first-hand some Jewish food practices and traditions around the Shabbat, and to understand how important these were to the participants’ sense of identity. It was clear from the outset that attempting to address such moral issues without rooting these in culture and religion would be impossible. This is something that doesn’t come naturally to people from secular development agencies. Yet people really respect it when they try – such as a couple of years ago when Oxfam worked with MADE in Europe to develop a campaigning toolkit for young Muslims.

I was also very much aware, as one would expect at the beginning of a relationship between two very different organisations (and a relatively controversial one at that), a high degree of sensitivity was needed to the different perspectives and traditions in the room. In particular, there was an overriding need to make space for participants to come to trust Oxfam, an organisation with a huge reputation which can get in the way from time to time, as I have observed previously.

Helping people and organisations genuinely ‘meet’ each other, and not simply act as representatives of two tribes, was a crucial facilitation task, involving making time for conversations, and allowing perspectives to lead the debate in an authentic way, rather than pushing to a pre-arranged conclusion. I should say that this task was greatly helped by the Jewish tradition of communal meals over which important issues are discussed. An instance of this was provided by participants Michael and Rachel, who generously invited everyone back to their home during the training (and whose annual ‘Gefiltefest’ is a great example of Jewish activism on food).

A couple of days ago, I read Matthew Herbert’s blog post, ‘When is a question not a question?’. This really struck a chord with my experience at GROW Tatzmiach. You can all too easily just present, follow a script, and aim for the outcome discussed with the organisers. But it’s not enough: you have to be in a genuine interaction, authentically listening and participating, constantly questioning what is happening in front of you, and not seeking to impose answers.

Trust between people from different backgrounds inevitably takes time to build, and needs people to believe that those who are running the activity personally believe in the outcome, and want to learn as well as teach. The facilitator’s powerful role must be used in a way which, as in any other position of power, trust is earned. As Matthew says, no amount of experience allows the facilitator to be able to sit back and say, yes, I know how to do that now. With each new event, the facilitator’s authority is provisional: it is loaned, not given, for the group’s purposes, and in my experience, failure to listen and to engage personally is quickly spotted. And nowhere is this more important than in cross-cultural contexts and where relationships are new.

Facilitating Action Learning Sets

The Friday before last, I travelled to Bermondsey to gain accreditation as a facilitator of Action Learning Sets. This training, run by the immensely skilled Ruth Cook, Director of Action Learning Associates, really helped me focus on the core skills of a facilitator. During the accreditation day, we attempted to create our own descriptions of the value of action learning – here’s mine:

A form of facilitation within a committed group (perhaps of peers) which enables individuals to learn and improve their skills in extremely powerful ways which are relevant to them.

The technique relies on participants asking a series of open questions, helping the presenter (learner) to see an issue or problem in a new light. The training involved being part of a practice set, taking on in turn the roles of participant, facilitator, and presenter, and in each role, reflecting on what had gone on, and to what extent the process had helped the presenter to gain insights which he or she might otherwise not have had by thinking about the problem alone.

As well as practising and honing my facilitation skills, I gained a couple of very powerful things from the 6-month programme. First, a re-realisation that facilitation is a passion and a skill that I have. In fact, this website – and my new ‘facilitation life’ – wouldn’t exist but for it! Secondly, we had to keep a ‘learning log’, a set of observations of the pieces of facilitation we’d done over the 6 months – a valuable practice I hope to continue.

Rhizome, Oxfam, and the power of facilitation

This post originally appeared on 30 November, 2012 on the blog of Rhizome, a co-operative providing facilitation, mediation, consensus building and training to grassroots activists and to organisations that support them. When I wrote it I was an employee of Oxfam GB.

‘Oxfam is planning to pilot a new annual campaigning event, and we recently decided to ask our activist network for help in working out what it could look like. Staff had already been through a rigorous innovation process, and we wanted to consult on the initial outcomes. But we didn’t think our ideas were strong enough, and were looking to their grassroots campaigning expertise to add a bit of inspiration.

We provided a really challenging brief for Emily and Maria, our Rhizome facilitators, for a one-day creative workshop, held in October. Inevitably, our internal priorities and plans stopped us from being objective; working with Emily and Maria freed the process from the straitjacket of our organisational thinking. Understanding that our very specific needs from the day could easily hamper people’s creativity, we basically briefed them to manage us! Ceding control allowed the three Oxfam staff members present to observe ideas as they emerged, and participate in discussions, without limiting the productivity of thoughts and conversations (this definitely wasn’t a focus group!).

What resulted was a very sophisticated piece of facilitation, controlling (not a comfortable word!) the space and the energy in it to generate the kinds of outcomes we had hoped for, opening up possibilities by stimulating “left brain” thinking, before helping the group sort, evaluate, and then develop its ideas.

This word “control”. Anyone who regularly facilitates groups has at hand a range of more or less powerful techniques to guide processes, manage interactions, and help groups achieve tasks, whether operating in fairly open spaces, or to more predetermined briefs, as here. In my own facilitation life, I’m interested in the power of relinquishing control to others, collaboratively exploring things like notions of identity, and releasing motivation through story telling (this learning document, co-written with Richard Watts from the everyone foundation, sets out a few of my preoccupations!). But a power relationship inevitably exists between the members of a group and its facilitators and organisers. This can sometimes be based in part on relative levels of skill and self-awareness, but more often, is just a function of the leadership that is tacitly assumed by people with roles assigned to them by organisations such as Oxfam. Of course these roles come with a certain set of skills and access to knowledge. But fundamentally, it is the participants in a session who decide, consciously or not, to give power to the people running the session, and/or to their fellow participants.

It was a real pleasure to watch two very skilled people negotiate these sensitivities, helping a big and well-resourced organisation with a very clear sense of what it wanted, do something which, by its nature, it couldn’t do by itself. Our exercise of control was to recognise our own weakness.

Note: these are my personal thoughts and not those of Oxfam GB.’

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