Equity and Justice: Facilitating Groups Through Resistance
We facilitate racial equity, social justice and anti-oppression conversations daily. Sometimes these are one-on-one conversations (even with family or friends), professionally they are most often large group conversations. In the big picture, we feel compelled and fortunate to be equity facilitators. But it is a mixed bag: equity facilitation work is motivating, exhausting, and honestly sometimes intimidating. As a form of support and to continually develop our facilitation skills, we often check in with other equity facilitators. During these roundtable check-in, pour-support-on-each-other conversations, some of the biggest concerns we have discussed are how do I navigate resistance?!? It is with this burning question in mind that we decided to write this blog, to outline some of our facilitator thoughts about resistance and approaches to resistors in equity workshops.
It is important to remember that as racial equity, social justice, anti-oppression facilitators we have consciously signed up to join the coalition to shift unjust systems, alter historical trajectories, and hopefully undo generations of oppressive ideologies. We sign up to do this with the understanding that systems and societies are made up of individual people, so our “work” is with people. People do not shift their ideologies easily nor very often willingly. Humans are inclined to take the path of least resistance, to maintain the comfortable. As equity and social justice facilitators we know that we will be:
- pushing on comfort zones
- upsetting what people are ‘used to’ and ‘how it has always been’
- revealing and challenging the areas where people have privilege
- countering some narratives that people have been told their whole life
- questioning peoples’ hierarchical place in the system and the merit of their status
- challenging people’s beliefs, perhaps even deeply held religious beliefs or hard earned professional training
In short: upsetting peoples’ foundational ideologies and sense of security. It is within this context that we must expect and plan for resistance.
Even when we expect and plan for resistance, that doesn’t make dealing with it easy or simple. If you’ve ever facilitated racial equity professional development, it’s likely you’ve been there: maybe feeling heat on your neck and cheeks, a tightness in your throat, sweat developing on your palms… the moment of resistance.
It might have been a question in front of the whole group from the back of the room: “But how are we supposed to make time for one more thing?” Or an overheard snide remark in a small group: “We’ve seen this video a million times.” Possibly an effort to justify inequitable practices: “The research says the way we are doing things is the best way.” Or even a blatantly racist comment: “Black parents don’t seem to care about their child’s education.”
Comments of resistance drop in the middle of the room like a pile of bricks. And as facilitators we must decide how to address them. Regardless of our expectations and preparation, the setting or comment, resistance in equity facilitation is a challenging hurdle. We are balancing our large goals for the session, the needs of all participants, and our own wellbeing. Fortunately, resistance is fairly predictable and with the right plan– and some practice– can effectively be addressed with skill.
First, facilitators must make the decision of whether to engage in productive dialogue with a resistor or to shut it down from the start. This decision often hinges on the facilitator’s perception of the intention on the part of the resistor. That decision matrix looks something like this:
Engage in Productive dialogue when…
- it feels like other people in the room have the same question.
- it feels like the resistor is open to hearing new ideas and/or their question comes from a genuine place of confusion or concern.
- a resolution to the resistance will create healing for the group (i.e. someone was being harmed in the moment, so it must be addressed.
- the idea or question has come up multiple times from different people.
- the exchange will serve as modeling or an example for others of how to handle an inequitable situation (especially if the resistor has positional or relational power in the group.
Shut it down when…
- it feels like the resistor’s intention is to be disruptive, not productive.
- the resistor’s comments directly attack a person or people in the room (instead of questioning ideas).
- the resistor is attempting to monopolize air time and have their voice or ideas take over the space; it’s completely derailing from content.
- the resistor is participating in derailing or resisting for sport (i.e. “playing Devil’s Advocate”).
- the comments are blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc.
If and when you decide to meet resistance, you must choose your facilitation strategy based on the type of resistance, purpose of the resistance, the resistor’s intention, and your own facilitator style. Shutting it down often looks like a short declarative statement such as:
- “That comment/question is counterproductive to this session. We can talk about it after the session if you would like.” Or
- “That comment/question reinforces racism/inequity/oppression and may harm others. I cannot allow it here.” and finally,
- “You are free to leave.”
It is rare that you will have to completely shut down resistance. More often you will have an opportunity to engage in productive dialogue. What follows are the most frequent resistance roles we encounter and some strategies that we have found effective in addressing them.
The Thinker: “Where’s the Data?”
Resistance from the Thinker comes in a variety of ways, all with the same foundational formula: a request for “proof” and the data to back it up. One way resistance may come from the Thinker is in the form of skepticism– What does the data show? What are your sources? Are they reputable? Another form of resistance in which the Thinker may engage is “Devil’s Advocate” behavior; they will likely tell you that they enjoy academic discussions in the form of debate or banter and may cloak their disbelief or disagreement in “playing a role” “for argument’s sake.” They may even state that they are on board with equity work, but are looking for data to convince others who are struggling to see its importance.
- As the facilitator, have a few data points or research citations prepared. Knowing you are likely to encounter a Thinker, these few points will help to keep them engaged if their questions are genuine. It also validates your role as facilitator.
- If the Thinker persists after you have given basic data to support your purpose, it is time to shift focus and move on. Share with the Thinker and the rest of the group that data rarely convinces people who are determined not to be convinced. In fact, if data could convince people that equity was important, we would not have a need for equity facilitators in the first place. The data has been there for generations; needing “more” of it is a lack of willingness to accept the narrative in the numbers.
The Doer: “Give me Strategies!”
The resistance from this person (or group) is all about “give me/us strategies.” Finding the solution to the problem is more important than examining the problem or finding its root cause. The Doer believes it is a waste of time to process through feelings and perspectives because they cannot be implemented as strategies in the classroom tomorrow; all discussion must have practical ends.
- Reframe the Doer’s mindset by explaining that mindsets, values and ideologies have to be foundationally sound in order to implement strategies. This is because:
- Without an equity mindset or ideology it is very easy to fall back into previous inequitable habits of practice (especially when one encounters even minor setbacks to the strategy or barriers in practice)
- Mindset, ideology and deep values are adaptive to ever-changing circumstances and the uniqueness of the people with whom we connect.
- Conversely, strategies have the assumption that “one size fits all,” which isn’t true; strategies will have a disparate impact on different people. Assuming that strategies will work regardless of the situation or people assumes that the target group (for the equity strategy) is a monolith. That often perpetuates the inequities.
The Believer: “I’ve Done this Before.”
Resistance from the Believer can be especially challenging because they are already “on board” with equity work. It will likely come in the form of frustration with colleagues who “don’t get it” and the perceived slow pace with which the work is being done. They may complain that they have “done this before,” engage in name- and text-dropping, or monopolize small- and large-group sharing time. The Believer can be especially dogmatic. And those of us who facilitate equity PD (especially white people or other privileged identities) often become the Believer when participating in another facilitator’s equity session.
- Publicly affirm their belief in equity, then ask how we can effectively and collectively move people towards a shared goal of equity. This is important reframing to help them envision building coalitions instead of identifying the “in group” and “out group” participants (thereby dividing the room and stalling progress for some) and to disrupt any righteous savior identity.
- Make this person your “helper” in the space by asking them to encourage effective, productive equity work.
- If this person aligns with privilege, remind them they need to recognize how they may be marginalizing other people in the room. This is especially true when they believe they can explain the -isms being discussed (ex: mansplaining); encourage them to be listeners and learners instead.
The Fairness-Seeker: “Equal is Fair.”
Resistance from the Fairness-Seeker frequently reveals itself in the struggle to differentiate between equity and equality. They hold tightly to rules, policies, and procedures with little interest in flexibility, even when an inequity has been identified; redistribution of access and resources is difficult for them to understand.They believe fair means equal. Because the Fairness-Seeker idealizes equality it may be especially challenging for them to believe in systemic racism; a common refrain from white people engaging in this type of resistance is, “but I grew up poor!” A lack of experience with racial inequities makes them naive even if their intentions are good– the upside is they can become ardent equity supporters if you can redirect their definition of fairness from equal to equity.
- Explicitly teach the difference between equality and equity as this may be a new concept or new vocabulary for them. One way to do this is to
- Give an example scenario, policy, or practice in which most people would agree that equal is not fair and actually has unfair impacts based on people’s identities or circumstances.
- Ask the group to share examples of scenarios, policies, or practices where equal is actually unfair.
- Dilute the Fairness-Seeker’s voice with other voices in the room; asking others to explain equity (versus equality) or telling stories where equal was not fair can be especially poignant for the Fairness-Seeker
The Minimizer: “Why Can’t We All Just (Go Along to) Get Along?”
The resistance from this role is varied and wide-ranging because it is often a large percentage of participants in the room. It can show up anywhere from “I don’t see color” to “But the real world is not fair and we are living in the real world.” The Minimizer may see a facilitator as someone who is there to “stir the pot” because they don’t see the inequities in the system and believe it is generally fair. That means they also don’t see their own role in perpetuating systems of inequity nor in the possibilities of creating a more just and equitable system. The resistance that follows is a good indicator that the Minimizer is feeling overwhelmed, uncomfortable, and wanting to maintain the peace. Because they don’t like public conflict this resistor is less likely to publicly rock the boat, but is more likely to make a snide remark to a colleague in a small group or even in a side conversation in the hallway the next day.
- The Minimizer often needs expanded perspective. Case studies, story-telling, testimony, videos, etc. can be particularly influential in shifting the Minimizer.
- Similarly, utilizing small group discussions as a facilitation technique will help build– and diversify– perspectives, relationships and experiences for the Minimizer.
- Model and name best practices; Minimizers are more likely to consider trying something new if they have seen it in action.
- Acknowledge that equity work feels uncomfortable because we don’t have enough examples of what true equity looks like.
- Engage in thinking mapping by using the phrase “I used to think… but now I know…” This activity models the growth of thought. It may also feel more relational for the Minimizer (like the facilitator is walking alongside them in the journey towards equity instead of talking at them from the front of the room).
The Thinker, Doer, Believer, Fairness-Seeker, and Minimizer are the most common forms of resistance we encounter, but of course this is not an exhaustive list. You can find more resistance prototypes here where we outline 14 common forms of resistance to equity and social justice. While we hope this blog offers some practical ideas about facilitating through resistance, we would be remiss if we failed to mention a final and overarching facilitation strategy: maintaining your energy as a facilitator. If you are preparing for the long haul of facilitating equity work, it’s important that resistance not derail your larger purpose and passion. Do not engage with resistors to the point that you are draining yourself of the energy or the will to keep facilitating. If you are fortunate enough to have a co-facilitator, be sure to communicate your need to step away from the situation so they can take some of the load off. Develop a plan for taking turns, cues for who should lead in response to a resistor, and just plain backing each other up. If you’re flying solo, you have every right to sidestep the resistance if it is going to usurp your ability and desire to keep going.
A final important factor in the decision whether to engage with resistance is the intersection of each facilitator’s identities (especially those perceived by– or disclosed to– the group you are facilitating) and how those inform and influence racial equity, social justice and anti-oppression work. For example, a white male facilitator will be treated very differently than a Black female facilitator when they take on resistors. And even the expectations of those resistors can be skewed– and inequitable– depending on the facilitator’s identity; Black women are expected to shoulder more emotional labor in equity work. With those considerations, choose to engage with care– primarily for yourself.
We encourage and appreciate your persistence in the important work of equity facilitation and also wish you luck and grace in navigating it all. Know that you would not encounter resistance if you were not disrupting the inequitable systems of power and privilege. Lean into that challenge, safeguard your energy, and keep going.
A Few Reflection Questions:
- Have you observed or encountered resistance to equity facilitation? How did that resistance present itself? How did you or the facilitator respond?
- How do you decide whether to engage in productive dialogue with a resistor or to shut it down from the start?
- Which of the resistance roles do you think you are best equipped to facilitate through? Which would be most difficult for you? Why?
- How do you see your personal identity(ies) or life circumstances impacting your role, impact, and experience as an equity facilitator?
- In your opinion, what components make a great co-facilitation partnership? What makes for a bad co-facilitation partnership?
- Have you ever found yourself playing one of these resistance roles during an equity session in which you were a participant? Why were you resistant? What did you need to move through your resistance?
- What wisdom do you have about navigating resistance? What are your best practices?