process-content distinction

Facilitation and justice

I’m going to be thinking a lot about justice over the next few months, as it’s this quarter's theme at the weekly meeting of like-minded locals that I go to, at Newington Green's Unitarian chapel New Unity.

Today, we heard an extract from a sermon by Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, which was picked up in later years by Martin Luther King Jr and Barack Obama. 

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight, I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

And we reflected on what we can each do, to move us further along that arc.  More words from religious sources, this time in the Jewish tradition (Rabbi Tarfon):

"It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you at liberty to desist from it" 

What does this mean for facilitators?

What is the justice that we can seek to advance, in our work?

When the content is 'just', or not

We may choose, or be lucky enough, to work with groups whose content concerns what we consider to be justice.  Whether this is structural and social justice, questions of inter-generational justice of the kind that climate change throws up; or justice in the realm of victims and perpetrators and the criminal law; or justice as right relationship and fair dealings between people in dispute with each other. 

Or we may find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of helping groups get better at doing something we don’t entirely agree with – their ideas about fairness and right action may be different to ours.  We may be faced with hard choices at this point – time to remember our mandate! Did we come to the group to serve it as its facilitator, or were we contracted for some other role (mediator, arbitrator, content expert, trainer...)?

But in this post I’m interested in how ‘justice’ manifests in our process, as content-neutral facilitators.

'Just' process

There’s justice as fairness / equality, and there’s justice as getting some kind of outcome that is considered to be ‘deserved’. 

And when we look at equality, there’s equality of opportunity and equality of outcome.  And when we look at inequality, there’s systemic or structural inequality (manifested as patterns of unequal outcome for e.g. women, people of colour or marginalised ethnicity, people with disabilities, people with non-straight, non-cis sexuality and gender, people with fewer resources or unfavoured class status) as well as what might be going on in the room, in individual conversations and transactions.

I’d argue that underpinning our entire profession is the assumption that it is better (more just) for people’s truth to be heard than not.

A few aspects came immediately to mind:  the opportunity to have your say and be listened to with respect; power balancing so that those who are habitually dominant are not privileged in the conversation; ground rules or working agreements which reinforce a culture of openness and listening; reflecting back to the group when individuals or types of individual are being heard more or less than others.

Gently stretching our mandate

I think there are some greyer areas, where we can gently exercise our mandate more actively in pursuit of ‘justice’. 

Asking the client about the values or principles which they want to see manifested in the conversation and conclusions might prompt them to consider the subject matter through a lens that might otherwise remain unused. 

Asking for clarity on the rationale for who gets invited to be part of the conversation, and whether the rationale has been applied objectively, can help to bring in marginalised voices.  I write more about stakeholder identification and mapping here.

Setting aside time in the agenda or process for the group to explicitly consider its criteria for decisions gives an opportunity for assumptions to be shared and questioned, including assumptions about whose interests need to be considered.  Helping the group to understand the different decision-making methods (single decision-maker, majority decisions, vetoes, consensus) before they agree which to use brings unspoken assumptions about fairness and power to conscious attention. There’s more on that here.

Knowing our own prejudices

We need to be very aware of our own prejudices: who do we marginalise, dismiss or consider to be 'other'?  Where might we over-compensate, and swing the pendulum too far?  When do we judge the conversation and the points being made, according to our own (flawed, personal, partial) standards of justice?

Working in teams, especially diverse teams, can help us see our own blind spots.