Taking an Equity Pause: Facilitating for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Equity is on our minds as an education design lab — both in the way our internal team functions, the work we take on and how we go about doing it. Earlier this year, 2Rev was invited to join a group of education organizations working to build community, capacity and accountability to live our diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) beliefs.  This multi-month learning experience is called the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Accelerator. We met for the first time in January as a group of 54 organizations, including schools, non-profits, businesses and foundations. The experience was facilitated by Promise54 and funded by leading national philanthropists like the Kauffman Foundation, Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, New Schools Venture Fund and the Walton Family Foundation.

In the months following the convening, I’ve had some time to reflect on and consolidate my learning. One experience in particular continues to stick in my mind as the most powerful learning moment. And it wasn't part of the scheduled programming. (Like many students, some of my most meaningful learning has happened outside of carefully designed learning experiences.)

The moment I walked away turning over in my mind arose when two women spoke up and a facilitator listened.

It was the second day of the convening. The day before we had engaged in small group sessions and now we were preparing to develop action plans to accelerate diversity, equity and inclusion in our organizations. We were gathered as a large group in the main meeting room, and a Harvard professor was leading us through a case study focused on two foundations’ efforts to make this work a strategic priority.

The format for the case study discussion was very open-ended — participants elected to speak by raising their hand. At one point in the conversation, a white woman raised a concern that three white men had spoke in a row, although there were a number of people of color and women in the room. She invited other voices to join in. The professor facilitating the conversation did not respond to the substance of her comment, instead choosing to pull the discussion back to the case study. A black woman then raised her hand to say that while she understood the intent of the first woman’s comment and had noticed the same trend, she reserved the right to speak up or stay quiet based on her learning needs and did not need a white participant to speak up on behalf of herself and other people of color. It was a powerful moment and you could feel the energy in the room shift, but the professor again chose to pull the discussion back to the case study.

I have been in a number of rooms in my education and career where that would have been the end of the conversation. Some participants would have checked out for the remainder of the discussion, frustrated that the two women’s comments had been ignored. Others would be secretly relieved that the moment of tension had been smoothed over. Meanwhile, a real life diversity, equity and inclusion problem of practice would have been papered over so that we could instead focus on a case study on that topic. How often do we make similar decisions to maintain comfort and forgo learning in professional convenings, staff meetings and classrooms?

Yet thankfully the conversation did not end there. Xiomara Padamsee, the head of the organization facilitating the event, spoke to the group after the case study ended and asked us to dig into that unacknowledged moment of tension. She and her team felt it was enough of a priority to adjust the day’s schedule and take what equityXdesign has termed an “equity pause."

Xiomara led us through small group and collective processing of that moment of conflict. Together, we parsed the complexity, honoring both the white female speaker’s impulse to interrupt an inequity she noticed and the black female speaker’s honesty in naming that she did not need an invitation to speak. We talked about the layers of power and white dominant norms that played out in that moment, in the professor’s response and the conversation as a whole.

I am still thinking about that moment, and how it relates to our work at 2Rev and more broadly in education. One clear takeaway for me was how essential it is to engage with those critical incidents, whether we are classroom teachers or facilitating adult learning experiences (as we do at 2Rev). We can't just sweep them under the rug and hope the day can go on as planned.

As a facilitator of learning, if you’re lucky enough to have a brave voice speak up and name how racism is playing out in your context or flag a microaggression, you need to be prepared to dig into it as a learning moment. Those of us who are less likely to notice these moments by virtue of race, ethnicity, class, gender or other aspects of our identities need to do some extra work to tune our senses and figure out how to facilitate effectively from our particular position. The salience of race, inequity and power in our society is such that you can bet these critical moments will surface, and we need to recognize that is where the learning lives.

Here are some initial thoughts about how facilitators — particularly white facilitators — can anticipate and prepare to harness these moments of DEI learning:

I.   Listen for understanding. Seek to understand and empathize with the logic of other’s reactions, particularly those of different identities.

II.   Pay attention to and react to trends in conversations. Who is speaking up? Who is staying silent? Why? How can your facilitation support new voices joining?

III.   Structure conversations to support equity of voice. Sometimes simply giving some time for participants to process individually or with a partner before a whole group conversation helps bring new voices into the discussion. Be thoughtful in how you set up structures to invite all voices into the conversation.

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IV.   Set norms in advance. Agreeing on shared norms can help set the conditions for more equitable exchanges and allow groups to explore learning moments thoughtfully and with curiosity. To the right are the norms we used at the convening, courtesy of Promise54.

V.   Draw on the insights of others. Develop a network of colleagues of different identities and perspectives to help you notice and compensate for your blind spots in planning, facilitating and reflecting on discussions.

VI.   Go to where the learning is. The learning may be in the activity you planned as a facilitator, but it may also be in a critical incident that arises during a conversation and is worth unpacking as a group. Learn when to follow your agenda and when to take an equity pause.

Here's to opening our hearts and minds to more of these learning moments!