How can you facilitate inclusive conversations?
Ally Dommu, director of strategy, & Key Jackson, deputy executive director for programs & power building at GLSEN dive into facilitation practices and how to create spaces where all people can engage and feel comfortable joining in the discussion.
Ally Dommu: Hello and welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m Ally Dommu, director of strategy and a member-owner at Big Duck, and I’m honored to be here with Key Jackson today to talk all about inclusive facilitation; how do we engage groups in group discussion in a way that intentionally creates space for all your participants to engage and to feel heard and to be part of the conversation. So, Key and I first had a chance to meet several years ago when Key co-facilitated a daylong racial justice workshop at Big Duck that I had the pleasure of attending with my colleagues, and Key and their co-facilitator really just wowed our team with their facilitation skills, how they held space for really deep, important conversations that we were having about equity at Big Duck. And they, together, really kind of inspired us at Big Duck to deepen our facilitation practice. So, Key’s work really has stuck internally at our organization and, I’m just really honored and excited that Key was willing to join us today to share with you a little bit about how they approach facilitation. How Key thinks about this work and weaves it into the awesome work that they’re doing now in the nonprofit sector.
Ally Dommu: So, before I welcome Key officially, I just want to share a little bit more about Key. Key is a First Nations Black queer radical dreamer who is committed to weaving the strength of their community into sustainable social change. Key has co-founded multiple youth-centered initiatives and has provided training and facilitation support to thousands of youth organizations and communities across the nation. A co-founder of Southern Organizer Academy, Key’s writing has been published by Colorlines, with upcoming works on conflict resolution to be released in the fall. And Key currently serves as the deputy executive director for programs and power building at GLSEN, a national organization dedicated to creating safe, inclusive, and affirming learning environments where LGBTQ+ youth can thrive. And as I shared with Key, I think that is the coolest title that I’ve ever heard for a nonprofit person. Power building, that’s awesome. Well, welcome to the show, Key. We are so happy that you’re here. Thank you so much.
Key Jackson: Yeah. Thanks, Ally, I’m super excited to be with you.
Ally Dommu: Maybe we could start with, how would you define facilitation? What does that mean? What’s the practice of it?
Key Jackson: I think the thing that really kicked off my understanding of facilitation is in these sort of broader community-based spaces, where you have people who are coming together to collectively understand where we have been, where we are, and where it is we’re trying to go. I think we do facilitation work when we’re facilitating, like, how to feed our families, and we do facilitation work when we’re in a meeting space trying to figure out how we’re going to get this thing done that we need to get done, or how we’re going to build relationships with each other.
Key Jackson: I view facilitation as this interesting thing where, in some cases, it is this sort of sacred role where you are being asked and trusted with a collective’s ability to navigate space together. And sometimes, just the navigating of the space is all we’re hoping to accomplish, on a given day, is how do we build relationships, communicate with one another’s sort of dream and vision together. In other spaces, the facilitation is really the role of supporting people and getting to where it is they’re trying to go and making sure that everybody in the space is able to feel sort of seen, heard, and valued along the way. So, I think that the role of the facilitator, there’s many roles, right? There’s timekeeper, it is value-holder, it is vibe-checker, it is the person that’s sort of tasked with how do we get us to go in the direction it is that we need to go.
Ally Dommu: And why do you think it’s important for one person to kind of like be holding that space versus a group sort of directing itself, especially in moments where there is some kind of outcome that the group is hoping for? Why is having someone in the mindset of a facilitator important in those group situations?
Key Jackson: In, like, an organizational setting, I actually usually love having two facilitators, but there’s a difference if we’re talking about, like, meeting facilitation versus a training facilitation, but I think having multiple energies that are sort of tasked with holding the space can be really useful. And it’s important because every single person that comes into your room has a wealth of experience of what it means to navigate the world, and so there is potential to bring all of those different ways of navigating together. And sometimes you don’t need a facilitator, right? I think about spaces where people have been in, like, really deep relationship with one another for years and years and years. They just sort of know who is great at what, who gets joy out of doing this thing. It sort of flows really naturally and sort of stands those relationships or this deep knowing and understanding of how every single person in the room functions and what role they like to play, what role they don’t like to play. It can be useful to have folks that are really dedicated to seeing the wholeness of the room and to sort of holding folks to this idea of actively participating in cultivating the destination, sort of the, where it is that we’re going.
Ally Dommu: So I’m thinking about our listeners who might be considering, maybe we need a facilitator? Maybe people are midway through a planning process or maybe trying to make sense, internally, of some kind of organizational challenge or harm or issue, and considering, have we deliberately thought about who’s facilitating these meetings and do we have the right folks that are holding this space or bringing the right skills to the table? What might be some signs that bringing in, like, a dedicated facilitator would be beneficial for a group?
Key Jackson: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think my default is, like, yes, you probably do need a facilitator if you are asking the question. But I think some signs that a group of folks might really benefit from some supportive facilitation would be, if there are things happening, like, you find that your conversations are just incredibly circular, right? We always tend to sort of hover around the same subjects or really having a hard time getting traction. What I found is that when people are repeating themselves or feeling like they’re repeating themselves, that’s generally a good indicator that someone is not feeling heard or somebody is not fully understanding. And so, it can be really useful to sort of pull back and bring in an outside source.
Key Jackson: The other time it can be helpful is if we’re trying to get to a destination or make a decision about something that’s pretty high stakes, like, everybody’s got something to gain or something to lose. I don’t know that there’s ever such a thing as neutrality, fully, but to pull in somebody that maybe doesn’t have the same sort of relationship to whatever it is we’re trying to accomplish can be useful in clarifying what it is we’re trying to move. So I think anytime there’s an element of confusion, there is a question of, like, who is holding the weight of what piece of moving this forward, there is a desire to have everyone participate equally. Sometimes it’s hard in an organization, on a team to be the person that’s facilitating the conversation or the process because you can’t participate as fully if you’re not the person who’s sort of tasked with holding it. So if we want everyone in the team to be able to participate evenly, I think sometimes that’s also a good indicator that it’s time to pull in someone to do the facilitative work.
Ally Dommu: So let’s talk about that, creating a space where everyone can participate fully. It sounds like that should always be happening, but why is it so difficult to do that? And I was wondering if you could share a little bit about some facilitation practices or skills that you bring to the spaces that you facilitate, to support that inclusive facilitation, to create that space where all people can engage and feel comfortable joining into the discussion or process?
Key Jackson: Yes. Full and even participation is pretty difficult if we’re not really intentional about inclusion. For some of the reasons that we already know, as I’m talking, I’m going to invite you to imagine a nonprofit organization in particular, but thinking about the fact that everyone who comes into a space holds an identity. Knowing that in them holding that identity, there are also many interconnecting systems of oppression that are sort of at play that we’re all interfacing with in various ways and every day, every sort of second basis. So, if we know that we are dealing with things like white supremacy, we’re dealing with colonization, we’re dealing with capitalism, we’re dealing with patriarchy, sort of dealing with all of these influences on just the individual level, what it means to move in my day-to-day life. But we’re also dealing with them on an institutional level, how they show up inside of our organizations.
Key Jackson: We’re actually not set up super well to be able to engage in a conversation with the understanding that everyone who is present, their thoughts, ideas, contributions are valuable and necessary to the space. I think this is particularly true in hierarchical organizations. There’s almost always some, if not explicitly-named, unspoken understanding that those who have more hierarchical power within the organization are the people who are going to be heard the most, and those who have the least amount of hierarchical power are the folks whose ideas and opinion sort of matter the least. And this is mirrored in almost every diversity, equity, and inclusion statement I’ve ever read, right, which is this idea that we want to operate or create spaces regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, race. This idea that we want to invite people in regardless of their identity as opposed to starting with the identity piece.
Key Jackson: So, in creating an inclusive space, the goal is really to blur the lines of power and move the margins inward so that everyone is closer to the center of power. I define inclusion as real and authentic participation with access to power. So it’s a lot and there’s a lot that’s moving all of the time, and the trick is, how do we create investment and buy-in to this idea and understanding that every single person coming into the space is actually incredibly strategic to make sure that folks have the ability to contribute to what it is that we’re building or where we’re trying to go.
Ally Dommu: What are some specific ways that you practice inclusive facilitation? Like, as a facilitator, you’re in the room, you’re in a group, you’re noticing group dynamics, you have some understanding about where power lies in the room. Like, how do you put that into practice to shift things so there actually is more participation? How do you support that as a facilitator?
Key Jackson: There’s so many different ways that feel super nuanced. I’m going to try to highlight some of my favorite. The dynamic that I come into contact with the most often in my facilitation work for nonprofits, which I would identify as different than facilitation work in, like, community grassroots organizing spaces, where power is really heavy in the room, and there’s generally this feeling that there’s not a whole lot that people that don’t hold hierarchical power can do in the organization. When that’s happening, it’s really important to be able to get a read of where and how that manifests. Pre-pandemic for me, it would be on the breaks, like, outside you would meet folks that would share with you like, oh, well, this is what’s going on, or this is sort of the thing that I’ve been experiencing that I don’t want to say in the large group. In the virtual reality, it’s the private Zoom message, like, just so you know, this is the thing that’s happening. It’s finding the moments and the opportunity to sort of shift the access of power in the room, and some of my, like, trickster mentality ways of doing that in the before times would be to switch up, like, who is setting up the physical meeting space. So, I might ask a CEO or someone on the senior leadership team to make the coffee for folks, right? Or to stick behind and clean up to sort of shift our ideas of who is doing what in the room. In the virtual world, I think having things like group agreements at the front end, sort of how are we setting up our community space, how can we build buy-in and accountability for how we want to be together on the front end? Also, my facilitation style is pretty informal, and it’s pretty informal on purpose, right? If we’re able to bring some joy or some levity, reminding that we are in this, oftentimes, sort of professionalized setting, but we are all still, like, human people who find things funny or find things interesting and, like, deserve to be able to dig into that. Being really intentional in how I’m showing up in the spaces as a way to open up.
Key Jackson: And then the, like, intuitive work of facilitation, where when you’re in the room with folks and you can really just feel the energy and sort of identify the body language and the trends of, like, who is raising their hand, who is, like, clearly wishing they were not here right now, is a little bit difficult to translate in the virtual world, but some of the same things show up, right? Sometimes it’s in, like, who keeps their camera off, who is active in the chat, who’s giving an emoji in response to something? I think it can be really useful to make sure that you are inviting folks into participation and being really clear in sort of, what are the ways in which you are asking for folks to facilitate. So we’re taking away from the idea that people have to sort of intuit or figure out how to navigate how they can provide their input in the space. So it’s creating those really clear pathways to engagement that can sort of help to open up the space for folks.
Ally Dommu: My last question is, you talked about setting group norms at the start of a meeting together. Do you have a favorite norm that you like to see groups embrace or something that you kind of put out to groups as something to consider that you find to be really helpful?
Key Jackson: Yeah. I have so many favorites, and it depends on the group, right? It really depends on the folks that are in the space, and so if you have a group that maybe people know each other a little bit, they’re a little bit more prone to joyfulness, they sort of have an understanding of their own tendencies as a group then there are norms like E.L.M.O., that’s just funny to say, which is enough already, let’s move on.
Ally Dommu: Nice.
Key Jackson: It’s a norm where we can sort of playfully call out a name like, alright, we’ve hovered here, we’ve done what we can do, let’s continue our process.
Ally Dommu: I love that. I’ve never heard of that before E.L.M.O. I had no idea where you were going with that.
Key Jackson: It’s just fun to say.
Ally Dommu: It’s so true. It’s great.
Key Jackson: The E.L.M.O. rule, I’m sure, is problematic in some way, but the Vegas Rule, I think, is also a rule that I like to offer to folks. Which is, sometimes we name it the Vegas Rule, and sometimes we get a little bit more nuanced, and the idea is, what is learned here, leaves here; what is said here, stays here. So, this is the identities of the people who are sharing, sort of, people’s individual stories, those stay put. The big themes, the big lessons, those are free to move with you as you leave the space.
Key Jackson: The last one that I almost always find useful is an invitation into curiosity and being deeply curious about what’s happening. And when you verbalize this idea that, as we move through our time, you may feel something. You might have a feeling in your body. It might be a good feeling, it might be a hard feeling, it might be a like, oh, what is that feeling? But the invitation that when that happens to be curious about it, where is that feeling in my body? Where do I think that’s coming from? Am I in a place of reactivity, or am I in a place of really being able to respond to what’s happening, and do I have all the information that I need, or is this response that I’m having telling me that I actually need more information? And so, the invitation for folks to be deeply curious with one another, I think, it expands our ability to lean into grace, and it also gets us out of this place where we’re afraid to ask questions of one another.
Ally Dommu: Those are wonderful. And all new to me. Thank you so much for sharing those. Key, thanks for being with us today. We really appreciate it. This was great. If you want to reach out to Key, learn more about where Key is working now, you could go to glsen.org. That’s G-L-S-E-N dot org. Key, this was awesome. Thank you so much.
Key Jackson: Yeah. Thanks, Ally. I appreciate you.
Ally Dommu: I appreciate you, too.