Over the past several years we at IISC have had to opportunity to work with colleagues to go deep over a relatively short period of time (2-3 years) with a few organizations facilitating internal culture change for race equity and inclusion. The intensity of this work has offered up opportunity and a number of important lessons, perhaps first and foremost that it is critical to have in place an ecosystem of support and resources to do this work for everyone involved, facilitators included.
IISC President Kelly Bates wrote wisely in a blog post that the work for racial equity is about undoing as much as it is about doing. We do not simply build new culture or behavior on top of old, especially in situations that are characterized by oppression. Some things must be released, and this letting go does not come easy.
There is power and identity and comfort and resources of various kinds invested in the status quo, including in chronic busyness that does not make space for the work or for much of substance to happen. In some cases, there is a preference for existing discomfort that is familiar and that for some is better than uncertainty and instability (the devil you know). But this is exactly what this work calls for – stepping boldly, and together, into the unknown and unknowing and being open to changing who we think we are, how we relate to ourselves and one another.
This can get quite fraught, opening up hard feelings, mistrust, suspicion and trauma. The diagram above from DismantlingRacism.org highlights the “liminal” space in racial equity processes that groups enter when they move beyond the familiar, including “familiar dysfunction,” to unfamiliar dysfunction. This phase is described in the following way:
The stage of “not knowing,” [is] a place where many experience frustration and/or fear. Many if not most people want the process to offer clarity and quick fixes; when the process does not, both POC and white people give into the tendency to identify people and actions as “right” or “wrong.” Some people in the organization move into positions of high righteousness, believing that race equity is based in “one right way” of doing things; energy goes into identifying who or what is “right” and who or what is “wrong.” People can feel very unsettled because this righteous judgment can either lead to significant self-doubt and/or a desire for the organization to address personal ego needs. At the same time, in the middle of this “not knowing,” relationships may begin to subtly shift as some individuals within the organization work to negotiate conflict with heightened personal awareness and increased accountability to the mission. In addition, the organization as a whole begins to recognize ways in which racism is tending to reproduce itself and attempts are being made to address those.
SOURCE: “Racial Equity Stages” from DismantlingRacism.org
Here, while ideally we would hope to be able to lean on one another, it is the reality that other supports are going to be necessary, and beyond what external change facilitators and coaches are able to provide. On the way to achieving more relational trust with and commitment to one another, there are a variety of handrails that can be helpful.
For one of our engagements, my colleague Jen Willsea put together the diagram below to sketch out some of the systemic supports that can be useful for organizations going through race equity change work.
A few notes about what appears in the diagram:
Contemplative and embodiment practices can be done alone or in groups and include things like meditation, prayer, general somatics, and focusing. This Self-Care Wheel, which I learned about from my colleague and IISC Racial Equity and Training Practice Lead, Aba Taylor, has many great suggestions of practices that can contribute to well-being. Another good resource is the Tree of Contemplative Practices from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.
There are many rich places to find resources for learning. Consider Racial Equity Tools as a place to start. Also consider the Healing Justice podcast and community. The Perception Institute offers cutting edge research on the science of implicit bias, racial anxiety and stereotype and identity threat. In addition, the Food Solutions New England 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge website has a lengthy resource list.
Mental health professionals may or may not have experience around race-based trauma, racial identify formation, internalized superiority and inferiority, etc. It is good to do your homework around this.
Human resource professionals can be key to providing support especially when they are trained in dealing with racism and white supremacy. A helpful resource on this front is this guide from RoadMap.
The board of directors of an organization is an important lever for change and support, provided it has an unwavering commitment to racial equity, ideally is collectively trained in the history/shared language/key concepts around race and racism, and has people who bring some relevant lived experience and expertise around healing, organizational change and political action.
There are more and more resources that address the reality of trauma and intergenerational transmission of suffering that results from racism and white supremacy. Consider books such as Trauma Stewardshipand My Grandmother’s Hands.
For more political and historical education, consider books such as Stamped from the Beginning, White Rage, Under the Affluence, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Waking Up White, The New Jim Crow, The Fire Next Time, White Fragility, Who We Be; and videos such as Race: The Power of Illusion, Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity.
For more on the what, why and how of racial affinity groupsand caucuses, check out the resources on this page.
Thanks to the guidance of Melinda Weekes-Laidlow and inspiration of Christine Ortiz, prototype teams are increasingly a feature of our work with organizations doing race equity and inclusion culture change work. What this looks like is that departmental and other cross-functional teams each create a small testable and scalable experiment at strategic “choice points” to address internalized and institutional racism and white supremacy. When well-facilitated and guided, these are powerful engines of learning and relational trust-building. We are are happy to share more about our experience with these teams, how they operate and what they produce.
Race equity design, planning and implementation teams are a feature of the work we do around culture change in organizations and networks. These teams are ideally diverse (with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, seniority/tenure, age, function … ), process-savvy and invested in the long-term success of this work. Again, we are happy to share more about these vital teams.
And we certainly welcome additions! What have you found to be helpful, if not crucial, to the work of race equity culture change?
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are [people] who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.”
The FSNE Challenge is a remixed and more topically focused form of an exercise created by Dr. Eddie Moore (founder of the Privilege Institute), Debbie Irving (author of Waking Up White), and Dr. Marguerite W. Penick-Parks (Chair of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh). A small design team saw the potential of using the Challenge to invite more widespread conversation about the connection between race, racism and sustainable food systems and ultimately greater action for racial and food justice.
Furthermore, we saw an enhanced on-line version of the Challenge as a way of creating “network effects” around the justice work that many are already doing in our region and beyond. Participation in and the complexity of the Challenge have grown significantly and organically over time. In 2015 we had 200 participants, mainly from the six state region of “New England.” Last year we had over 3,000 people participate from most states in the US and some places in Canada. As of the writing of this post, we already have over 2,000 people registered.
The point of Challenge is not simply to spread but also deepen the commitment to racial equity and food justice. As such, we hope that participants return each year, and many do. Accounting for this, no two Challenges are exactly alike in terms of content, and we are continuously nudging people to go from learning to action. See the image below as one way that we have thought about encouraging people to move up a “ladder of engagement” through their involvement.
Over time, numerous organizations have self-organized to take the Challenge in-house, convening staff colleagues, fellow congregants, community members and classmates to reflect together on learning and making commitments to action. We have heard from groups such as Health Care Without Harm; the Wallace Center at Winrock International; Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems; Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University; Southside Community Land Trust (Providence, RI); Agricultural Sustainability Institute at University of California-Davis, Georgia Organics and many others who have convened around the Challenge and are planning to do it for the first time or again.
This year the Challenge is being widely promoted in a variety of places, including through sessions that Karen Spiller and I offered at the White Privilege Conference in Rapids City, Iowa, and at the New Hampshire Food Alliance state-wide gathering. In addition, the Challenge is being promoted campus-wide to students, faculty and staff at the University of New Hampshire, where FSNE’s convening team, the UNH Sustainability Institute, is located.
So what exactly is the Challenge?
It is a self-guided learning journey examining the history and impacts of racism, different kinds of racism, how it is connected to our food systems, examples and tools on how to undo racism and build racial equity and food justice.
How does the Challenge work?
People sign up (YOU can register here) and then starting April 1st, they receive daily email prompts focused on a different theme along with links to related resources (readings, video, audio) that take about 10-15 minutes each day. In addition, there is a robust Resource List for people to look through and continue their learning. Those who register also have access to an online discussion forum for those who want to talk and think out loud about the daily prompts and other learning along the way.
How is the Challenge evolving?
To meet the demands of a growing number of participants and the expressed desire for many to go deeper and to replicate the Challenge in different ways, we have developed a variety of additional supports. This year we again offered an orienting webinar that featured Drs. Moore, Jr. and Penick-Parks along with testimonials to the value of the Challenge, including perspective from Sister Anna Muhammad who works for NOFA/Mass and is on the FSNE Network Team and the FSNE Racial Equity Challenge Committee.
In addition, this year we have produced a Discussion Guide to support groups at schools, colleges, businesses, churches or other organizations that may want to do the Challenge together. The Guide along with the Resource List essentially form a ready-to-use “bake box” that groups could use to run their own exercise if they would like, or to keep the Challenge going 365 days a year!
Another feature this year is a robust Outreach Kit that has been pulled together by FSNE Communications Director, Lisa Fernandes. The Kit includes sample communications that can be used to recruit others to participate in the Challenge through email, social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook), as well as a one page information flyer.
All of this is in line with how FSNE sees itself evolving as a network into its next 8 years, creating resources that might be shared easily through aligned, diverse and robust connections and adapted by others in the region and beyond (stay tuned for a New Food Narrative Messaging Guide).
Please join us, and spread the word, the invitation, the conversation and the commitment to others!
Very recently I brought this poem to a group of community organizers from a state-wide political action network, and after hearing it, many said they were really touched by this notion of there being a vastness they do not enter, and are therefore limited by. References were made to systems of oppression, to antagonism, to fear and lack of love. There is so much more to this world and by extension to ourselves that we do not tap into that keeps us repeating patterns of behavior and systems that do not serve our fuller humanity.
“We use language not so much to convey factual information as to construct worlds.”
– Barbara A. Holmes
Image by NASA Goddard, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.
Holmes’ book extends this same theme of vastness, drawing from the fields of quantum physics, cosmology and ethics as a way of inviting a broader perspective and creating new language and thinking that points in the direction of a world where everyone belongs. She writes, for example, about “dark matter” and “dark energy,” which is pervasive and cohesive in the universe, the essentially creative energy that holds things together. Considering this profound and primordial force, Holmes says, we can only wonder at and celebrate “darkness,” not fear or denigrate it.
Holmes also invites us to consider that physics and cosmology point to the fundamental nature of reality as existing in relationship and interdependence and that systems of oppression go against the grain of the unfolding cosmos. She writes, “Our desire for justice is deeply rooted in systems that are holistic and relational. We have not forced, created, or dreamed this shared destiny; it seems to be the way of the universe.”
In times of breakdown and cynicism, both Ortiz and Holmes tell us that creativity and hope are to be found by looking more deeply into nature and more widely into the heavens to re-member who we are and that there are so many more possibilities than what we have created and perpetuate.
What vastness have you not yet entered, what wonders in our world and beyond have you not allowed to grab hold of you that might liberate and generate new possibilities in your change agency?
Photo by tracydekalb, “Redbud Love,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.
The following post was originally published in 2014, and has been edited. In many ways it feels even more relevant five years later …
Over the past dozen years or so at IISC (our half-life as an organization, and my whole life as a member of this amazing community), we have seen and experienced some interesting progressions. In our Facilitative Leadership for Social Change trainings and consulting work, we talk about the “interior condition” of effective collaborative and network leadership. When I first joined the organization, we used to say that collaborative leaders and change agents embraced an ethic of “service, authenticity and respect.” Then we made the move of changing “respect,” which came across to some as a bit weak, to LOVE. For the first couple of years after making this switch, when we asked “What’s love got to do with it?” with respect to effective leadership and work for social change, there were definitely some uncomfortable silences. Some participants would ultimately want to rename love as “respect” or “passion.”
Then in 2009 we started noticing a change. More heads nodded in rooms when we mentioned the “L-word,” less nervous laughter and shifting in seats. In one particularly striking instance, during a training with health care and public health professionals, a senior and very respected physician responded,
“What’s love got to do with it? Everything! Beyond my technical skills, I am effective in so far as I am able to really see my patients, students, and colleagues, to make them feel seen for who they are.”
“The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.”
The quote above has been cited every now and then over the past dozen years or so that I have been with IISC, including a later line – “The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace.” Some combination of these words seem to come to mind and lips more frequently as many of the organizations and networks with which we work are are dealing with oppressive dynamics of overwork and urgency, whether they identify as activist or not.
These dynamics are increasingly recognized as an aspect of white dominant and supremacist culture and hyper-capitalist fervor that reduces many people to “producers” in the workplace and extracts as much labor as they can give. In our race equity and social change work, we see this as part and parcel of the structures that must be named and addressed for justice, liberation and sustainability to be realized.
In a recent workshop with an organization we are supporting through a two-year race, equity and inclusion transformation process, we invited the predominantly white staff into a dialogue circleto unpack their self-identified culture of overwork and urgency, to look more deeply at what they are gaining from this (and who in particular gains most), what they are losing (and who loses most), and what it would take to do commit to creating something different. Here is some of what we have heard, aspects of which are being echoed in various other organizations, networks and communities (curious to know what resonates): Read More
What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.
So building fires
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.
When we are able to build
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible. …
simply because the space is there,
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.
– “Fire,” Judy Sorum Brown
Change does not tend to happen through piling on, through simply adding to what we are already doing or whatever heap we have in front of us.
Change happens, say scientists and sages, through some kind of release, through letting go. Not of everything, but of something. Something that will create enough space for creativity (something else!) to happen.
Changing the way we do work, behave, and treat one another and the planet doesn’t mean dumping new techniques on top of old ways of working. It means carving out creative niches that are given space for the breath of life to reach them. So they can grow. So that they can find their way.
Change does not tend to happen in isolation (the proof of re-treat is ultimately in re-engagement). It happens through connection, through webs (no one is an island). It happens through collective care and nurturing. Too much space – distance, disconnection – can kill the spark of change.
“Scarcity alters how we look at things; it makes us choose differently; … our single-mindedness leads us to neglect things we actually value.”
-Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives
Image by geckzilla, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
A few weeks ago, the inimitable Seth Godin wrote a blog post about “the magnetic generosity of the network effect.” In the post, he talks about how a “scarcity mindset” can impact our willingness to share ideas. This can happen, says Seth, when we treat ideas as if we were sharing a pizza. But ideas are not pizza slices. Ideas can grow, inspire, flourish. Ideas when offered freely can give birth to innovation; in dialogue they can create even better ideas. The exchange of ideas can grow energy and enthusiasm among sharers and recipients. This is central to the notion of “network effect” – as a network grows, so does the potential of the network. It’s potential grows. Having connections is only as good as what gets shared through those connections, and in which directions. In other words, networks are made valuable not just through connectivity, but through generosity and mutuality.
I work with some groups, aspiring to be networks for change, that struggle with what I would call an “organizational mindset” in their work. Their tendency is to want to immediately put structure and boundaries on what they are doing – who is in, who is out; how we will make decisions; what committees need to be formed, who has what kind of power, etc. This is not necessarily a bad thing, except when it is driven by a scarcity mindset, an overly protectionist stance that can result in the hoarding and unwillingness to share things that are not scarce – ideas, appreciation, a skill, gratitude, love, an image, a tune – and whose sharing can create the richness of emergence and greater abundance. Read More
IISC exists to bring the best of collaborative practice to the work of social justice and sustainability. In the early years, some of our detractors felt we were too apolitical, that our call to “get the whole system in the room” was naïve at best and dangerous at worst. Without a power analysis, collaboration across traditional lines of authority, role and identity was of limited interest to some of the organizers and activists we knew. Collaboration might be a good idea for the allies, they thought, but it was silly to think that bringing the power brokers or counterproductive actors in the system into the room with those most affected would lead to meaningful results. That was the early and mid 1990s.
In some ways, our critics were right and we knew it. By the late 1990s, we began to bring diversity and cultural competency explicitly into our framework. After all, collaboration is about working together, and working together across race, class, culture, and role are part and parcel of that kind of work. We stretched our core methodology. We expanded the boundaries of cultural competency to include understanding historic and present-day structural dynamics of oppression and taking action to address structural factors. By the early 2000s we were crystalizing an understanding of power, network theory, and love as critical dimensions of collaboration. Since the late 2000s, we’ve been building tools and methods to bring power, equity, and inclusion into the center of our practice. The next stage of this evolving practice has been an increasingly sharp focus on racial justice in particular, to the point where the pursuit of racial equity is part of our stated mission. And, I’m excited to see how many people see the value of bringing that enriched understanding of collaborative practice to their work for racial justice. At the same time, I’m struck by the continuing importance of protest and civil disobedience to the pursuit of justice.
In this particular moment brings a question into sharp relief in this particular moment. When is it necessary to completely disrupt life or business as usual in order to shine a light on injustices and pursue justice? Can that kind of disruption be done in a collaborative way? What’s the role for confrontation?
I am indebted to Linda Stout and her colleagues at Spirit in Action for their 4Rs approach to social change. They recognize that there are times for Resisting violations of shared values and human rights; Reforming existing systems; Reimagining alternative futures; and Reinventing communities, organizations, and societies from the ground up to reflect the kinds of values we hold dear. If ever there was a time to resist, it’s now. And those who are resisting courageously in ways large and small need spaces of refuge and restoration. It’s exhausting and dangerous work. Reimagining is often led by artists, and the movie Black Panther highlighted the power of reimagining alternative futures. I think that much of our work centers on reforming existing systems, supporting people who are working to transform their institutions from the inside out. And, in a few cases, there are genuine efforts to focus energy and attention on recreating ways of being and doing together that bring the imagined future into reality.
I’ve been sensing a growing desire for a lot more reimagining and recreating. What’s the mix in your work and your world?
This post originally appeared on the Health and Environmental Funders Network website. It was co-authored by Fred Brown, The Forbes Funds, President & CEO; Debra Erenberg, Cancer Free Economy Network, Strategic Director; and Ruth Rominger, Garfield Foundation, Director, Collaborative Networks Program. IISC was centrally involved with the launch of the Cancer Free Economy Network, serving as lead process designer, facilitator and network coach from 2014-2017. IISC is currently supporting the development of CFEN’s network strategy.
We can do this! Within the philanthropy sector, there are so many solutions emerging around the world from people coming together to tackle the social, economic and environmental problems challenging humanity right now. We are in a time when connecting solutions together to align and reinforce each others’ progress is the most critical strategy across issue silos.
The Cancer Free Economy Network (CFEN) is one such example, where people with solutions — good ideas, strategies, initiatives, expertise, models, products and passion — are collaborating to build an economy that supports health and well being for all. These types of social change networks are held together with universal core values. In CFEN, the values are framed as simply as:
The water we drink, the air we breathe, and the products we use every day shouldn’t make us sick, cause cancer or any other disease.
The network is an open and flexible way to connect to an extended community of people who are building power together to phase outall toxic chemicals manufactured and put into industrial and consumer products that are making us sick and damaging our environment. Collectively, we know of many solutions that are readily available for moving the economy in that direction.
Like many social change networks that take a holistic, collaborative approach, people come together to connect and multiply actions aimed at shifting mindsets, structures and behaviors in many different aspects of the complex problem.
In the case of CFEN, this means there are teams from many organizations coordinating a variety of actions around toxics that together will:
Change the Story to show how we can prevent many cancers by addressing the toxic chemicals that are currently accepted as part of our environment.
Advance the science supporting health and preventing illness.
Shift the marketfrom toxic chemicals to a market producing safe, healthy, and affordable materials.
Build the power to implement system changes across diverse constituencies.
This is a repost of a fourth in a series of postings written by former IISC Senior Associate Linda Guinee about power and group facilitation processes, based on research she completed a number of years ago. Today’s post is about how power is built into group narrative. Also check out these other posts on power: “What is Power Anyway?” “Power Dynamics: The Hidden Element to Effective Meetings“
As I was doing research, I came across a batch of work about narrative theory by Sara Cobb and Janet Rifkin (cited below). Cobb and Rifkin researched how a narrative is constructed and what impact it has on the ultimate outcome of mediation sessions. They found that the first story told tends to be privileged and “colonize” later stories told. By framing the discussion to come, this initial story tends to narrow and define the direction of the ensuing conversation. Later versions are generally tied to the initial story and thus are unable to be fully developed. And the outcome of mediation is generally tied to the initial story.
This can also play a role in group facilitation. If the first version told in a group becomes the frame under which all other discussion happens, a facilitator must pay attention to who tells the first story – or to how to reinforce different versions.Read More
Building on the theme of our recent blog post, Power Dynamics: The Hidden Element to Effective Meetings, we are reposting a series of posts written by our former IISC colleague Linda Guinee. Linda wrote a masters’ thesis on addressing power dynamics in collaborative process design and facilitation. She did this study based on questions raised over the years by another former IISC colleague, Cyndi Suarez (current Senior Editor at NonProfit Quarterlyand author of The Power Manual: How to Master Complex Power Dynamics) – and as she put it, “with the belief that if power dynamics are not well understood and addressed, group process facilitators are likely to unknowingly reinforce the status quo – a scary thought for those of us working on social justice and social change!”
As Linda wrote in her opening post in 2010:
“One thing that woke me up at two in the morning – one of those notorious ‘aha’ moments – was that when doing an extensive literature review of group facilitation literature and conflict resolution literature at that time (2005), I found that conflict resolution/engagement literature is packed full of discussions about addressing power dynamics – while group facilitation literature rarely (if ever) talks about power I only found a very small handful of references to power (as in two or three) anywhere in the very extensive group facilitation literature – and only in reference to people with positional power. There is, in fact, an assumption built into group facilitation methodology that collaboration on its own somehow balances power dynamics.”
Here is her second post in the series …
One of the first questions you might ask when thinking about looking at power dynamics in group facilitation is what IS power anyway? This seemingly simple question, of course, is not really all so simple after all. What do you think? How would you describe power?
When I first started trying to answer this question for myself, I found that I was overwhelmed with material – literally hundreds and hundreds of books about what power is, where it comes from, how it operates, etc. For many, a definition of power has to do with the ability to force something to do something they wouldn’t have done otherwise – a coercive definition of power. Feminist psychologist Jean Baker Miller described power as “the capacity to produce a change.” Others (and in fact, our common terminology) talks about power as a “thing” that can be divided, shared, owned, and transferred.
Many articles have been devoted to running effective meetings that build collaboration among teams, yet many fail to discuss the hidden element that can destroy a meeting almost without fail.
Power dynamics – the ways in which power works in a setting – can either sink a meeting and negatively impact relationships for years, or produce more shared power and capacity to get things done. A lot of the difference comes down to how we attend to power dynamics in meetings, how well we plan our meetings, how well we determine what happens within and outside of meetings, and how well we facilitate in the moment.
In every organization, there are people who hold formal power and informal power. Formal power is attributed to someone by virtue of their title or position in the organization. People carry informal power if they have influence over others or their organization, either because of their experience, force of personality or persuasion, unearned privilege, or because they have strong relationships with decision-makers and peers. Power is also deeply influenced by diversity and equity dynamics. In most Western societies today, many decisions in organizations are still controlled by people with certain backgrounds: over 40, male, white/European, heterosexual, and middle class and wealthy people. Many feel empowered to lead, speak, and make decisions by virtue of the standing society gives to them on the basis of their background. They get a lot of practice leading and people are acculturated to following and respecting them.
Power — the capacity to get things done — is neither positive nor negative in and of itself. It’s all about how we construct, reconstruct, and practice power. Individuals can exercise their power in healthy ways if they stay focused on making space for others and growing power to achieve positive outcomes by building “power with” others. Individuals and groups can exercise their power in unhealthy ways if they are focused on establishing “power over” others or concentrating power in a few.
At IISC we have made some key observations about power in meetings:
Power dynamics are always present in meetings whether we see them or not.
Every meeting is a chance to build a group’s power and transform power dynamics. It’s important to design and facilitate meetings to create opportunities for power to be shared and openly discussed.
Meeting designers and facilitators must attend to formal and informal power and the dynamics that come along with it.
Meeting facilitators should be mindful of and acknowledge their own power and enact it in a way that builds the power of the group.
Every element of meetings needs preparation to make power and decision-making transparent. Consider questions like: Who is at the meeting and who is not? Why or why not? What’s on the agenda and what’s not on the table for discussion that should be? Who will be making the decisions that flow from what will be discussed (both in the room and beyond)? Who plays which roles and why? What work will happen outside of the meeting? What information from the meeting should be shared and with whom?
So, what are some ways to attend to power dynamics in meetings?
Assume power dynamics are always present in meetings. Design your meeting agenda to include multiple voices and perspectives. Lightly encourage people to step forward to lead and participate, especially if they have less power in the organization either because of role, positional status, race, gender, or other factors. Encourage people with traditional forms of formal power to do more listening than speaking.
Build a culture of collaboration in meetings. Think of meetings as an opportunity for a team to build relationships, learn leadership, design good processes, and counteract unhealthy uses of power. Design your meetings for relationships, joy, and creativity. Good things will follow! Always build an agenda that allows people to first interact on a human basis, such as starting with opportunities for people to do a “check-in” to share how their day or week is going or to learn more about each other on a personal level. Ask people a question that surfaces their personal and professional purpose. Encourage honesty, vulnerability, and calling people “in”, instead of calling people “out”. Spread a little business love around the room, creating openings for people to feel heard and noticed, and to experience a sense of belonging and interconnectedness.
Openly discuss power in meetings. Discuss openly with your team the question, what would be the benefits to our group if we shared power? Remind them that power is not a finite pie; rather, it can be infinite, expanded, and shared among people and leaders. Prompt them to explore how they can share “power with” each other instead of “power over.” Make a list of meeting agreements the group will use to share power. Ask people to monitor the agreements and be brave enough to intervene if people are not practicing them. Make a list of “power over” moves, so people learn the behaviors that reinforce dominant voices and power and exclude others. Have people take mental note of who is speaking the most and who is not. Make sure your discussions of power go beyond yourselves as colleagues to the people or communities you serve. How are they “at the table?” How are their priorities, assets, and skills driving the discussion?
Remember that power is a social construct. We can design spaces where individuals and groups experience their own and others’ power differently. Be proactive about ways to amplify the power of people who are typically at the margins of the conversation. Challenge the group to pay at least as much attention to the expertise that comes from lived experience (say, of poverty) as from formal theories and data. Flip questions on their head by asking “why not do things differently?” instead of “how can we work within given boundaries?” Ensure that people who are affected by the issues you’re working on are at the center of the conversation and have meaningful roles in the work over time (inside meetings and beyond).
Use your role intentionally and thoughtfully if you’re the meeting facilitator. Don’t dominate the discussion. Don’t come up with all the ideas. Stay as impartial as possible, even though you can never truly be completely neutral. If you want to contribute an idea or experience, tell the group you are switching from facilitator role to express your view as an individual and then step back into your facilitator role. Examine who gets to facilitate meetings and who doesn’t. Meeting facilitators can change the outcome of the meeting just by how they design and run it. Rotating facilitation and supporting people to learn how to facilitate and run meetings distributes power and makes meetings more dynamic.
The skills of meeting facilitation with a lens to share power are teachable and replicable. At IISC, we share some of those skills through training and consulting. We have learned that meetings that are both well facilitated and that attend to power dynamics can transform groups into highly functioning teams with deeper purpose and intention for social change.