To help educators confront biased policies and behaviors, consider working with an interracial team of facilitators.
Today, countless American businesses, both large and small, are struggling to confront the ugly specter of racism in their hiring practices, workplace norms, managerial decisions, and so on. As part of this effort, more and more of them are choosing to offer anti-bias education to their employees. In May 2018, for example, Starbucks shut down its 8,000 coffee shops for a full day to provide such training after two young Black men were wrongfully arrested at one of the company’s locations in Philadelphia (Baertlein, 2018). Similarly, after public complaints of racist incidents involving their employees, American Airlines (Horowitz, 2017) and Delta Airlines (Colby, 2017) recently provided diversity education to thousands of their staff members.
In school systems, too, racism is a pervasive and persistent problem. Addressing it effectively may be even more challenging in K-12 education than in the business world, though, given that relationships among students, teachers, administrators, and parents are far more complex and formative than the quick, transactional relationships than tend to occur between employees and customers. Racial bias in schools tends to have even more serious effects on young people’s lives, too, insofar as it denies them critically important educational experiences (Horsford, 2011). For instance, students of color tend to be tracked into lower-level classes and are more likely to attend schools with the fewest resources and the least experienced teachers. Black boys, in particular, are overrepresented in special education and disproportionately likely to be removed from classrooms as “discipline problems.” In coffee shops, baristas’ deeply rooted biases sometimes lead to wrongful arrests; in schools, teachers’ biases tend to rob whole generations of the opportunity to succeed.
Given how powerful the effects of racism are in K-12 education, no school reform or intervention could be more important than the effort to help educators become aware of their biases and racism and learn to change their behaviors. But for schools that choose to bring antibias training to their faculty and staff, what should such training look like? How can this professional learning be facilitated in ways that actually persuade the adults who work in schools to confront long-held and deeply rooted assumptions about race and to make real changes in their behavior?
The challenges facilitators face
As facilitators of antibias programs for educators, we have discovered how important it is to carefully consider multiple factors when designing learning experiences, from the types of questions we ask to the discussion format, activities, and more. As we described in a previous article for Kappan (“Learning to lead for equity,” Ngounou & Gutiérrez, 2017), we believe that professional learning about race and equity requires at least four key elements: 1) a comprehensive and systematic focus on the whole school or district, 2) a willingness by participants to experience some level of discomfort, 3) a willingness by participants to tell their own stories about race, and 4) the recognition that discussions about these issues rarely lead to a tidy sense of closure.
Here we address another important strategic consideration: Who should facilitate such meetings? Through research and firsthand experience, we have found that professional learning about racial bias tends to be most powerful when it is led by a diverse team of facilitators with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences that enable them to present differing viewpoints and challenge participants to engage in differing ways (Ngounou & Gutiérrez, 2017).
Every person in the room will undoubtedly be made uncomfortable by others’ behavior or words at some point, so it is important for facilitators to demonstrate how to confront one another in productive ways that allow the conversation to continue.
Discussions about race are unavoidably complex. As Derald Wing Sue (2015) has found, when members of different racial and ethnic groups talk about race (or bias), the interactions can easily become threatening to one or both parties. These conversations arouse intense emotions, such as dread and anxiety (for Whites) and anger and frustration (for people of color), that disrupt effective communication. However, as Robin DiAngelo and Darlene Flynn (2010) argue, having a diverse team of facilitators can ameliorate some of the challenges:
Defensiveness and comparing oppressions
During equity training, it’s not unusual for White people to feel left out or to believe that more value is assigned to the experiences of people of color. Their response is often to talk about how they, too, have been oppressed, opening up an argument that prevents constructive discourse. When this happens, a diverse group of facilitators can draw from their own experiences to guide participants in a conversation about the “varying dimensions and degrees of discrimination” people experience, “while raising awareness of the results of multiple systems of oppression at work” (Crosley-Corcoran, 2014).
Guilt, fear, and anxiety
Discussions about equity in education often lead participants to confront, perhaps for the first time, the long and ugly history of discrimination toward poor children and children of color in our schools. When people are asked to rethink their assumptions about the meritocracy — and to consider that it was not hard work alone that led them to succeed in school — strong emotions tend to well up. Many people experience guilt, grappling with the realization that they have benefited from a system designed to help them at other children’s expense. As Eula Biss (2015) notes about the behaviors that White people engage in when confronted with the privilege they carry and profit from, “Guilt is what makes a good life built on evil no longer good.” Many experience fear that they will be labeled “racist.” Many become anxious, unsure of what to say or do next. But if the experience is to be a productive one, the conversation needs to continue — which is why it’s so important to have a facilitator on hand who has had this experience themselves and figured out how to move forward, without becoming mired in guilt, fear, and anxiety.
The toll of being the lone facilitator
A skilled and experienced facilitator more than likely has the ability to engage diverse audiences in difficult discussions. However, balancing the many quick, yet calculated decisions a facilitator has to make during training can carry a high emotional and mental toll, especially when a lone facilitator is expected to understand, push, and support all participants; assume a neutral stance while challenging assumptions; model vulnerability, and honor their own identity and those of the participants. This is exhausting, and even more so as we consider the nature of equity training that centers on race — but a diverse team of facilitators can share the load.
The difference interracial team facilitation can make
To see how interracial facilitators can work together to ease these challenges, let’s look at Gian, Susan, Mike, Jo, Trey, and Nadia, all of whom are experienced facilitators who have dedicated countless hours to refining their practice. Gian gloriously wears a Black immigrant identity, Susan has dedicated a good portion of her life to unpacking her own White privilege, Mike likes to draw upon stories of his Italian and Irish ancestors, Jo is a fierce advocate of the African-American community she hails from, Trey often shares his perspective of being a biracial man who holds both Asian and White ancestries, and Nadia introduces herself as a proud Latinx woman. When these master facilitators enter learning spaces, they show up in the skin they are in — all of them confident cultural and racial beings who are conscious of the fact that, by simply being who they are, they influence participants in ways both subtle and explicit.
Take Gian’s recent experience at a conference focused on equity and social justice, where she facilitated a session for mostly White participants. During one of the sessions, she asked participants to mingle and share ideas with each other. From across the room, she saw a White participant walking toward her. She felt anxious and vulnerable, as she often does when working in all-White spaces. She thought, as the facilitator, she needed to listen deeply and quickly find a point of connection with this man so she could return to the larger group and the activity at hand.
The participant asked Gian if she had ever met a poor White person and went on to explain that as he listened to Gian’s personal story of her life as a Black woman, he was thinking that a lot of White people come from humble beginnings and have struggles, too. “These White people,” he said, “work hard to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, yet the conversation only focuses on how Black people have struggled.”
When the event ended, Gian found herself thinking back to that moment. Had she behaved in a way that suggested she knew nothing about poor White people? Was it just a case of a participant playing, as Derald Wing Sue (2015) puts it, the game of “Who is more oppressed?” Regardless of how she interpreted the moment, though, she realized that the participant likely did not trust her or learn much from the experience. That’s when it hit her just how much she appreciated the opportunities she often had to facilitate sessions with Susan, her White colleague. If Susan had been at her side, sharing her own life story, would it even have occurred to the man to question Gian’s understanding of racial differences? When she and Susan facilitated together, their work rarely became bogged down in the challenges described above — participants’ defensiveness and guilt, the devaluing of the scholarship of facilitators of color because of race, and the strain of having to manage such dynamics and emotions on one’s own.
Over time, Susan, Mike, Jo, Trey, and Nadia all have come to the same realization as Gian. When working as a sole facilitator — or with a co-facilitator of the same race — racially sensitive conversations often sputter. Participants seem to have a harder time opening up and speaking candidly, especially if the person leading the discussion is identifiably different from most of the people in the room. When faced with the possibility that the conversation might become difficult or uncomfortable, it’s all too tempting for people to opt out of the whole experience on the grounds that the facilitator doesn’t get them or their background.
When creating an environment that fosters productive dialogue about race, it’s important to understand that “people of color can be reluctant to engage in dialogue that may cause them to feel pain and anger or that asks them to speak for their entire race [and] Whites can be reluctant to engage in dialogue in which they might be called racist or blamed for the circumstances of people of color” (Aspen Institute, 2013). Having facilitators of different races allows for modeling of the necessary dance of trust, safety in the midst of discomfort, support, and accountability. Further, it signals that we must all do the work of ending racial bias and racism and promoting equity in education. It’s our shared responsibility.
The principles of interracial facilitation
To maximize every training opportunity to reach a broader audience and a broader coalition of learners willing to tackle their own racial biases, we propose a set of principles for interracial teams of facilitators.
Principle 1: Interracial co-facilitators must be strategic in deciding who does what.
Mike, Jo, and Nadia often tag team their training sessions, either as pairs or in a trio. When planning, they discuss who will begin and close their training sessions. All three are acutely aware of the fact that, historically, Whiteness has dominated conversations. Therefore, to interrupt the common perception of White males as authority figures or leaders, Mike seldom starts or ends workshops. Jo and Nadia often begin by setting the stage and inviting participants to the learning.
During the introductory section, each facilitator shares a piece of their personal story, shedding light on their values, their experiences, their reasons for doing this specific work, and the role they hope to play as members of the facilitation team. For example, in a recent training with a group of school administrators and teachers, Nadia said she hoped to help the participants remember that Latinx people have varied experiences and are not monolithic. Jo then acknowledged how, as a Black woman, she is still unlearning the messages she internalized when growing up in a system built on White supremacy. Then, Mike observed that he and all the White people in the room are complicit in racism and that White people must help each other listen and understand the work they need to do. All three facilitators were explicit about the fact that, together, they represent a broad perspective that they hoped would create multiple places for participants to see themselves or their own stories and that they were there to simultaneously support and push one another in their individual and collective learning.
In their work, Jo, Nadia, and Mike demonstrate how facilitators can strategically share the responsibility of handling the difficult questions or conversations, so that no one facilitator feels overwhelmed. As they reflect on their work together, interracial teams can consider how each facilitator’s race intersects with their facilitation moves, including what they say, who they call on, and what they give attention to. A White facilitator, for instance, could ask for feedback on how he responded to a participant of color’s question or share his thinking when he got stuck in a challenging moment. A facilitator of color might ask co-facilitators whether her facilitation directly mitigated the false idea, identified by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009), that all people of a particular racial background share a “single story.” The facilitator might want to know if she shared the complexities of her experiences and created the space for participants to see her story as simply one example, rather than a complete representation of her racial group.
Principle 2: Interracial co-facilitators must model vulnerability.
It is important for training participants to see the complexities of each facilitator’s identities, especially as they are being asked to expose their own. As DiAngelo and Flynn (2010) argue, facilitators should consider the multiple facets of their identity — class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, and so on — and how these intersect with race and can potentially undermine the racial equity or anti-racist work they are trying to accomplish. In owning who they are, facilitators must also own their role in perpetuating or promoting institutionalized practices that perpetuate inequities. Doing this publicly allows them to normalize the idea that everyone carries certain biases, which, in turn, enables them to collectively challenge the dominant ideology in a way that goes beyond placing blame or finger pointing. Simply put, when facilitators admit to having sensitive biases, they open the door for others to make similar confessions.
When facilitators admit to having sensitive biases, they open the door for others to make similar confessions.
For example, in a recent staff meeting, Jo, who is Black, was facilitating a conversation about implicit bias with her colleague, Trey, who identifies as White and Asian. As part of the discussion, Jo publicly shared that she tends to assume White men who drive pickup trucks are conservative and racist toward people of color. She then asked everyone in the room if they had a bias to share. Trey reflected on Jo’s admission by admitting that, as a biracial person, he often feels that he has to defend both sides of his identity — people sometimes see him as a White man, but he experiences biases from and against both sides. A White senior school leader who was participating in the training then admitted that she and her White husband locked their car doors while recently driving through a neighborhood primarily inhabited by Black people. Hearing both Jo and Trey share their own biases and experiences made this White leader more willing to share her own. The facilitators’ vulnerability, therefore, expanded the opportunities for participants to grapple with uncomfortable yet necessary conversations about biases and their effects.
Principle 3: Interracial co-facilitators must model effective ways to challenge others’ beliefs.
Co-facilitators of different races will more often than not see or hear things from different vantage points, based on their mental models, backgrounds, and experiences. It is important to bring those observations or disagreements to the forefront and leverage them as a teaching opportunity. In Courageous Conversations About Race, Glenn Singleton (2015) establishes discomfort as one of the norms of conversations about race, and this applies not only to participants but also to facilitators. Discomfort will manifest itself in different ways, including in seemingly worst-case scenarios that are actually teachable moments: When racial divisions appear, facilitators must name and address them, showing how they handle such issues in real time.
Sue (2015) observes that, when examining their racial identity, people go through an introspection phase in which they consider the meaning of their identity (p. 197). During this phase, Whites may feel disconnected from their Euro-American roots and experience a sense of loss, confusion, or isolation when they realize they have not deeply understood the experiences of oppressed and marginalized people. People of color, on the other hand, might feel silenced, invisible, exhausted, or weary at the unmasking of biases, stereotypes, conflicts, and misunderstandings about their experiences, all of which bring to the forefront social stigma unwittingly imposed upon them in the workplace (p. 124). Facilitators must be prepared to manage the learning environment with the understanding that anything could emerge as participants process their learning.
Because co-facilitators have the same goal of dismantling assumptions, biases, stereotypes, and contradicting realities across lines of racial difference, real conversations need to be modeled. As teaching moments that are not addressed in the facilitator’s guide emerge, we encourage co-facilitators to leverage what happens for learning. For example, during a recent co-facilitation, Nadia modeled how to confront a colleague with a difficult observation by publicly questioning her co-facilitator Mike for repeatedly drowning out her voice in the presentation. She did so by citing specific examples of how he had done that, acknowledging that although she was certain he had not intended to be overpowering or offensive, the impact that his actions had on her and the learning at hand was important. Mike acknowledged his behavior and, before moving on to the next part of the agenda, the co-facilitators allowed the participants in the room to process and talk about their interaction, connections to their own lives or work, and their problem-solving process.
Every person in the room will undoubtedly be made uncomfortable by others’ behavior or words at some point, so it is important for facilitators to demonstrate how to confront one another in productive ways that allow the conversation to continue. That may include, for example, disagreeing with your co-facilitator’s point of view and allowing participants to see your productive disagreement unfold in real time.
Costs and benefits
While we advocate for interracial facilitation, we realize that there are costs associated with it. Some systems and organizations, particularly those operating with limited resources, often cannot afford to pay for multiple facilitators for trainings. In those instances, rather than run the risk of not investing in this important work at all or of selecting the wrong facilitator, we suggest that those making the decisions ask the following questions to guide their choice of facilitator:
- How should the racial and cultural makeup of the participants influence who we choose to facilitate, keeping in mind that the goal is for the audience to be able to connect with the facilitators, and vice versa?
- If we can’t afford multiple facilitators, who on our internal team has the skills and willingness to team up with an external facilitator to lead the learning, in order to increase diversity of thought, perspective, and race?
Whatever the potential costs, however, they tend to be outweighed by the benefits of bringing in interracial teams to facilitate racial equity trainings. Such teams are better able to provide multiple ways for participants to connect with them and join the conversation, while also modeling the kinds of interactions that are necessary for deeper and more authentic growth. Assembling a strong team of co-facilitators requires deliberate strategy and should take into account the experiences, skills, context, racial makeup of participants, the nature and depth of trust and relationship between facilitators, and their track record of effectiveness with various types of audiences (Gutierrez & Grossman, 2017).
Given the racism plaguing our communities, schools, organizations, and systems, it is critical for schools and school systems to invest in professional learning aimed at raising consciousness and disrupting systems of racial oppression. Interracial co-facilitators can be a crucial part of supporting this learning by being strategic and thoughtful about their roles and responsibilities, expressing vulnerability from the skin they’re in, and modeling the work by publicly pushing each other in the same way they expect those in the room to push one another.
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Baertlein, L. (2018, May 29). Starbucks shuts 8,000 stores for anti-bias training. Reuters.
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Gutierrez, N. & Grossman, J. (2017). Power in numbers: Coaching principals to build teams that transform schools. New York, NY: New York City Leadership Academy.
Gutierrez, N. & Ngounou, G. (2017). Learning to lead for racial equity. Phi Delta Kappan, 99 (3), 37-41.
Horowitz, J. (2017, December 1). American Airlines employees will now have to undergo anti-racism training. CNN Money.
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Citation: Ngounou, G.N. & Gutiérrez, N.B. (2019). The value of interracial facilitation of racial equity training. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (8), 55-61.