Reverse Stacking and Better Facilitation to reach Equitable Results

A note before we start: Today the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), ruled to disband Obama-era protections on equal access to the internet, better known as net neutrality. I’ve been following this debate and the ruling isn’t a surprise. I’m using this blog’s platform to say the undoing of these regulations will not favor people of color. If we explore it more deeply we will find threads of systemic and institutional racism. The fight isn’t over yet. Washington’s Attorney General and Governor have both taken steps to limit the reach of corporate internet providers in undoing net neutrality. Others across the country are stepping up as well. We need to keep the pressure on government officials to restore these protections and keep a more level playing field for access to information.

panda meeting 2

I’m guessing if you are reading this blog you’ve attended a few meetings in the past week. It could have been a small meeting of two people or a larger meeting with a few dozen to maybe larger. Someone was probably facilitating the meeting or gathering in some form. I do a lot of facilitation for work and in other places. Facilitation is a skillset that needs to be developed and practiced, especially as it relates to how can we use facilitation to reach more equitable results. If you don’t want to read much else here are the three main points on facilitation skills, we’ll unpack today:

  1. People Want to Be Seen
  2. Relationships – Even brief relationships are important
  3. Leveling power

If you know me well, you should be saying “Erin, those are race neutral – I expect better from you.” Here is where race comes into the three topics.

Everyone Wants to be Seen and Reverse Stacking

sad pandaYes, everyone wants to be seen – white people are seen a lot. White people are in almost every meeting I attend, even in spaces that are centered on communities of color, there is often at least a few white allies. People of color want to be seen and need to be understood just as much as white people. Yet the way current systems are designed and the way we are acculturated to dominant society people of color aren’t always seen and at the least they aren’t equals.

I learned a new term today – reverse stacking. Colleagues from Na’ah Illahee Fund presented on being allies with Indigenous communities. One of the practices they use when asking for feedback is to recognize and center Indigenous voices first, followed by other marginalized communities further from power. They invite Indigenous/Native American women to speak first, then Indigenous/Native American men, African American/Black and Latinx women, African American/Black and Latinx men, other poc women, other poc men, and finally white women, and white men. Please don’t get caught up in the race terminology or exact order within the order; the idea is what is important here. By changing the order of who is heard we are changing the power dynamics of the meeting.

Often time who speaks first sets the direction of a conversation, by being conscious of who is seen and whose voices are heard we alter the direction of a conversation. Using facilitation methods such as reverse stacking is important to allowing voices of people who are often not heard, heard first. When I facilitate I often call on pocs in the room or will invite them to speak first, much like the principle of reverse stacking but without the stacking. These practices are important for leveling power in the room too. Without realizing it, traditional power dynamics bleed into spaces – such as white men are seen as having power by just being born as white men, but facilitating in ways that invite others to speak up first allows us to change habits and power dynamics.

As a caveat, when I wrote everyone wants to be seen I believe that is true, but not everyone will want to publicly comment all of the time. Sometimes introverts, quieter people, or those where English (or whatever the dominant language of the meeting is) may not feel comfortable speaking in larger groups so use different modes of meeting facilitation to reach people, such as smaller table conversations or writing before speaking to elicit people’s responses.

Facilitating to Build Relationships

Relationships are very important; the facilitation of a meeting should work to create, foster, and deepen relationships between people – preferably cross-racially. Meetings should always be thought of as just one piece of the overall and longer-term work. Most of the real work happens outside of the meeting room, such as in the networking after the meeting in the parking lot or in my case at lunch or happy hour.

As much as we should allow relationship building to happen organically, we can also give it a nudge by socially engineer some of the relationship building. Everything from where people sit to the questions asked can help to build relationships. I recently facilitated a meeting where several white people sat together. Most of them were new to the meeting and they congregated together as they came in. As more people filtered into the room I steered several poc colleagues to that table to intentionally diversify the table conversations. I made sure to not isolate any of my poc colleagues at that table by sending several pocs to that table. At some meetings my team and I do table assignments as people walk in to purposefully break up cliques, mix people, and promote cross-racial conversations. Don’t be afraid to do these things, they make a difference and help to build new relationships in forming.

Leveling Power

We touched upon power earlier in the blog post. Power dynamics are always present, we can’t create spaces devoid or immune to power. What we can do is to facilitate meetings that level and redistribute power to people of color.

When I facilitate I try to pay attention to power dynamics. Some of it is easy to spot such as who is speaking and who isn’t. Or where people sit is another easy way to level power, breaking up cliques and more specifically white people cliques is an important way to redistribute power.

Even before a meeting starts you can level power dynamics through intentionally thinking about the attendee list and making sure it is diverse and centering communities of color and other groups such as immigrants/refugees, disabled people of color, elders and youth of color, by sectors that may not traditionally show up in your space (e.g. in education are you hearing from faith-based communities of color, health, or legal), are invited.

These are a few steps that may help to change conversations and push them towards more equitable results. Like all skills the more you practice them the better and easier they get. My final tip is to watch how other people you enjoy facilitate and take mental notes of the facilitation moves they make. We all need to push and develop some new edges around our skills.

Posted by Erin Okuno

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