It all started in July 2012, in Manchester: half the people in the room seemed to be revolting, turning against the man at the front, who they had all come a long way to hear. There was a palpable tension in the air, and quite a lot of confusion and anxiety.
These were 30 of the most experienced activist trainers in Britain coming to participate in a training of trainers given by probably the most experienced activist trainer in the world. They might have expected a warm, relaxing bath. Instead, it felt like we were in rough water, choppy seas with poor visibility, not quite sure if there were any lifeboats around.
My first experience of activist training was preparing to take nonviolent direct action (NVDA) against US nuclear weapons deployed in the UK. A more experienced activist would lead us through some role-play exercises, give us some tips, and clarify the legal consequences of the action we were planning to undertake.
Usually there would be an emphasis on making your mind up after hearing about what was involved, giving everyone the option of changing their minds about risking arrest.
Later on, I got introduced to consensus decision-making and learned more about how group meetings were run in the corner of the British peace movement that I was working in. After a while, I ran occasional introductory trainings in consensus and facilitation, and gave some NVDA workshops.
These are probably the bread and butter offerings in the world of activist training: helping campaigners to run better meetings, helping groups to improve their decision-making processes, and helping to prepare people who feel impelled to risk arrest to protest against a major social wrong.
I didn’t realise that in the activist world I was working in, there were powerful cultural norms that actually conflicted with the values that I said I believed in.
For example, I was very committed to using my position as a facilitator (and occasional trainer) to guiding group attention (‘Would you like to speak, Diana?’) to people who were not participating much in meetings because (as I saw it) they weren’t feeling very confident in the group.
I liked feeling that I was standing up for the excluded or marginalised. I liked it when my interventions led to those folk participating more in the group. I liked it even more when these kinds of intervention were rewarded by visible gratitude from the person who had looked like they felt excluded.
What I did not realise at all, until that Manchester training of trainers in 2012, was that this use of facilitator power to lift individuals up ran completely contrary to my stated belief that individuals should empower themselves, that a leader giving you power (or the space to speak) is actually profoundly disempowering.
What I didn’t realise at all was that there were ways of facilitating and training that are not about lifting people up, but about creating safe opportunities for participants to learn in a much deeper way, and to make the decision themselves whether to take power – and how much.
One approach is called ‘direct education’, and was pioneered by US trainer, activist and author George Lakey, the man who stood at the front of the room in Manchester in 2012 and calmly faced a storm of disapproval from a large number of activist trainers who (I think) saw direct education as an abandonment of marginalised people.
As a friend and fellow participant said to me afterwards, this judgement ran in the face of the evidence of the weekend training itself. The people who felt most positive about the Manchester training, and who felt most empowered after the weekend were people of colour and working class people.
That weekend in 2012 led me this summer to travel thousands of miles (chucking over a tonne of carbon into the atmosphere) to a strange city on a different continent to spend three weeks learning more about direct education from Training for Change (TfC) the training group co-founded by George Lakey.
There are plenty of facilitators and trainers in Britain to learn from – plenty of activist trainers. There are a lot of books available about different approaches to facilitation and training. Training for Change have loads of material on their website that you can download for free.
I’d also participated in a two-part 10-day training in the UK run by Training for Change (organised by the Quaker training network Turning the Tide) in January 2013.
Why go all the way to Philadelphia for a four-part 17-day ‘Super-T’ training?
At one point during the Super-T, Nico Amador, co-director of Training for Change, stood in front of the group, laughing and saying: ‘I keep hearing people say: “I’m not the kind of trainer who does X, but I’m doing it now.” Well, I’m not the kind of trainer who leads group songs, but I’m going to lead a song now.’
That sums up a lot about the Super-T. We experimented with new behaviour, we faced up to restrictive ideas we had about ourselves, and we were supported by experienced and skilled trainers who modelled the risk-taking that they were encouraging in us.
Online, you can find a video of graduates of previous Super-Ts saying what the course has meant to them. Here are quotes from two women of colour.
Naomi Long from Washington DC, USA: ‘When I went to the Super-T, I realised: “Wow, there is a way to do work that goes beyond just the information that you’re trying to get participants to understand. There’s a way to create a design that is fun and that is interactive. And there’s a way to learn so that the information lives in your participants.”’
Naomi went on to say that the Super-T ‘probably is the single most learning moment for me in my life as a trainer, because there was a safe space for me to really step out and learn and grow – and do it in front of other people.’
Pat Nelson from Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, said that what she learned was that: ‘Every place is the right place, every group is the right group. Groups are capable of their own learning. And it’s just having the facilitation skills to make sure that the group is able to do their own learning.’
We definitely learned a lot of handy, practical tips; we were definitely skilled up in particular techniques; we definitely learned tons of new tools; we definitely learned a lot about the experiential cycle, group diagnosis, creative workshop and activity design, different learning styles, the sequencing of activities, activity set-up, and elicitive questioning, and much more; we learned every day from the amazing examples of rigorous, world-class facilitation and training in front of us.
All that is true.
But for me the most astounding and powerful part of the Super-T was the personal growth – what TfC calls ‘transformational work’ – that happened for many people during the Super-T. I was awestruck by the self-exploration and self-revelation and personal change that happened for many people during the Super-T.
George Lakey, co-founder of TfC, writes in his book Facilitating Group Learning that transformational work is not the same as group therapy: it is not about healing or insight, but it is based on the aims of the workshop. Transformational work aims to loosen up people’s internalised blocks to learning and to help them function more effectively in groups working for social change.
George adds: ‘To make actual transformation, rather than simply a sentimental moment to remember at the end of a workshop, participants need assistance in changing their belief about themselves and even a revised cognitive framework, or worldview. Nor is this enough. Consistently changed behaviour requires confidence, and confidence comes from practice’ – especially in ‘real life’ after the workshop.
This kind of transformation cannot be handed to a participant by a facilitator. In fact, the kind of directive intervention that I was most comfortable with as a group leader, most proud of, is an obstacle to this kind of transformational work.
There is a huge difference between intellectually recognising this fact and being able to make changes in how you actually work in groups – your ingrained unconscious habits. Being supported in making those kinds of behaviour and attitude changes is what the experience of skilled training is all about.
Spending hours or even days in rough seas is well worth it if you come out onto new land, a beach of plenty.