I want to tell you a secret that both isn’t and shouldn’t be a secret… Facilitators, therapists, helping practitioners, and “leaders” are human beings. Mmm hmm, we eat food and breathe air just like everyone else. We have emotions and personalities, experience loss, celebrate success (however that’s defined for us), and our bodies and psyches have limitations.
While the word leader often creates an individualistic hierarchy, I’m using it here to denote the facilitators, witches, artists, organizers, space holders, culture makers, and elders who take on increased responsibility, and often visibility, in order to imagine and co-create liberatory spaces. As I deepen into various leadership roles, I’m noticing patterns that echo subtle but harmful threads woven through capitalism and mainstream extractive culture, patterns that compromise and even harm those holding these valuable spaces.1
Leadership and elderhood call us to practice right use of power, skillful expression, and attunement to our own nervous systems, as well as others’ and the collective nervous system. As a facilitator and therapist, I’m continually noticing the state of my being, strengthening my ability to be curious and calm (my ventral vagal system), and deepening my support system with humans, other-than human kin, and more-than human kin. The more I facilitate—taking on increasingly complicated and conflictual experiences, holding space for larger groups and enhanced nuance—the deeper my practices and relationships need to be. Much like our beloved tree elders, our root systems have to be able to hold what’s showing up and impacting us above ground.
All of this being true, I’m also weary of the ways capitalism dehumanizes every one of us, including those of us who are space holders, threshold tenders, facilitators, and leaders; the ways colonization demands we push ourselves, the land, and all beings past our limits; the ways all forms of supremacy, including the delusions of white supremacy, male supremacy, and human supremacy, insist we oppress and destroy that which doesn’t uphold the status quo; the ways loss of intact village creates disconnected “participants” and “leaders” rather than interwoven community members and respected elders; the ways trauma and insecure attachment set us up for unhealthy projection and abuse.
This weariness comes from experiencing the impacts of some people’s sense of entitlement to passively and/or aggressively consume facilitator’s and leader’s time, bodies of work, and personal information. This is especially true when people have paid money for a program or workshop, as if the only reciprocity needed is financial; as if leaders are not humans who desire and require relationality and some level of privacy; as if because we’re being paid (attention to and/or financially) we don’t deserve to also be treated with respect and care.
As someone who facilitates several spaces every week, the level of feedback I receive is HIGH. Often, whether appreciative or challenging, the offer of feedback is a sign of trust. Most people don’t share what they’re feeling unless there’s some level of safety. The majority of the time I deeply appreciate when people I work with (and relate to personally) tell me how I’m impacting them, even when it’s hard to hear.
Annnnnnnd, it’s not uncommon for myself and other leaders and facilitators to be held to a standard that is unachievable and dehumanizing. I find this to be increasingly true in white-dominated “social justice” spaces2 (this may also be true in many other spaces). Often in these groups, I experience people’s capacity for nuance and imperfection as almost non-existent, making the margin of error for leaders incredibly low and the effort required to hold these spaces unsustainable. This intolerance and persistent tension is often the result of trauma, colonization, and embedded white supremacy.
Most of us are in a disorganized attachment field with the overculture. We’re constantly on edge, being abused and then comforted by various forms of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Because of this we’re often unconsciously acting out disorganized attachment, particularly with authority figures who have any capacity to facilitate safeness and community. Generally, this looks like a deep yearning to belong coupled with extreme fear and rejection of connection. In a facilitated space or group, this can look like joining an organization or workshop, then nitpicking every little thing a leader does or exaggerating harm when a mistake is made, yet insisting on staying in the space. Both generally and in participant-to-leader dynamics, disorganized attachment feels incredibly confusing and exhausting for everyone involved.
To be clear, when I’m writing about disproportionate and disorganized feedback (unrelational expectations), I’m not talking about telling a facilitator or leader about harm3 they’re causing. I’m not talking about significant gaps in awareness that need to be explored. I’m not talking about getting our accessibility needs met. I am talking about interacting with leaders and facilitators transactionally (“give me what I want/need…”) rather than relationally (“hey there human, how are you? Thank you for your support, here’s how I’m feeling about it…”). I’m talking about intolerance for infractions of misattunement. I’m talking about expecting our hyper-individual tastes and window of tolerance to be met while not considering the scale of community. I’m talking about using leaders to direct our anger and unmet needs at, whether fitted or not.4 I’m talking about an inherently punitive response rather than an appreciative and accountable approach (hello abolitionism and transformative justice, let’s get to know each other).
I think we need to ask ourselves, what happens when we don’t offer our leaders compassion, understanding, and space to learn? What happens when the feedback we’re giving people who dare to step into visible responsibility (and power) is more often challenging than relational (no matter how skilled the facilitator is)? What happens when the level of skill and transparency we expect far exceeds5 what we’d ever ask of ourselves or other human beings?
I can say from my own experience in several different roles of this dynamic, we lose our leaders. We lose them because we’re not in actual, authentic relationship with them. We lose them because we make them vulnerable to attack from people and groups who don’t value collective liberation. We lose them because their health suffers. We lose them because, understandably, they’re no longer willing to take on the role. I’ve grief-fully walked away from roles, relationships, and organizations where I was pleaded with to stay because they weren’t treating me with care. And, I know too many leaders who’ve considered and/or done the same because of this dynamic.
Given these corrosive patterns, what can we do both as participants and leaders/facilitators? How can we take care of our people who’re exposed to higher levels of scrutiny so they can continue to shape change in the directions we’re hoping for? Of course, most responses to this question are nuanced and specific circumstances, particularly power, rank and privilege, should influence how we approach leaders/hip. Below are some invitations to participants and leaders, recognizing leadership is flexible and most of us will inhabit both roles at different times and in different spaces.
With power, rank, and privilege in mind, as participants we can practice:
1) Appreciation: Share our appreciation with leaders when we have nourishing experiences.
2) Relationship: Offer challenging feedback in the most relational way possible.
3) Mutuality: Invite mutual feedback from leaders when sharing how we’ve been impacted (if appropriate, given the type and level of impact).
4) Proportionality: Ask ourselves if our level of feedback is proportional to our level of participation.
5) Discretion: Practice discretion regarding what annoyances or hurts we need to share with leaders.
6) Variety: Connect with a variety of leaders in our lives so we can weave a web of examples of what works for us and what doesn’t. Recognize that no one leader can fill our window of preferences all the time. (This is particularly important for those of us who carry a weighty trauma history.)
7) Fittedness: Recognize when a space or facilitator is generally fitted for us or not. If they are not, we can respectfully leave rather than staying to continually communicate how disappointed we are.
8) Responsibility: When giving practical suggestions, be willing to take on some of the tasks needed to implement these offered suggestions.
9) Support: Offer support in various forms: “Need help setting up the chairs?” “I can send out that email with the resources you mentioned.” “Would you like me to co-host and admit people to the zoom room as we get started?”
10) Care: Treat leaders with respect and compassion, including generally tracking how they’re doing and what they’re navigating in their world.
11) Self Awareness: Learn about our attachment styles and trauma so we notice when we’re enacting old patterns rather than responding to the current situation.
12) Celebration: You found a leader or space that works for you? WHOOP! That’s a big deal, go you! If a facilitator you’re working with had a win in the world (a book published, a successful event, a life milestone) it’s huge. Let them know you see them in their awesome, post about it online, send a card, do a celebration spell or dance.
With power, rank, and privilege in mind, as leaders/facilitators we can practice:
1) Right Use of Power: Continually track and practice right use of power, rank and privilege, including recognizing that the role of leader almost always puts us in an up-power position.
2) Anti-Oppression Lens: Understand and dismantle systems of oppression within and outside of us. This includes deepening our cultural humility and tracking our bodies.
3) Resilience: Engage in ongoing practices that strengthen our ventral vagal systems (our ability to be curious + calm), skill-sets, and imaginations.
4) Connection: Foster deep connection with the land we’re inhabiting, other-than human beings (plants, animals+), and the more-than-human realm.
5) Support: Work with co-facilitators who agree to co-regulate with us, share honest feedback, and laugh at the absurdity of the times we’re in.
6) Tracking: Maintain accountability partners who will help us track our commitments, weaknesses, and strengths.
7) Community: Cultivate relationships, and ultimately community, that mutually appreciate, audit, and support the work we do.
8) Mentorship: Receive mentorship and/or supervision that will resource us and help us ascertain healthy feedback from abusive dynamics.
9) Containment: Create and share our boundaries around feedback and processing. When and where do we want to receive feedback? How much are you able to take in today? Are you willing to receive feedback privately or would you prefer to have community members and elders witness this process?
10) Preparation: Set up general processes and people we can engage for harm mitigation, repair, and accountability so they’re available when needed.
11) Embodied Awareness: Learn how our attachment styles, trauma, and patterns show up in our bodies so we’re more aware of how we’re impacting people and groups. Practice breathing and creating more space to respond rather than react.
12) Celebration: Dance, sing, play, and recognize all the change and nourishment you’ve helped co-create. This shit is hard (and becoming even harder as collapse accelerates), take-in all the appreciation you’re offered.
1) In this essay, I’m not critiquing “cancel culture,” rather I’m writing about ongoing unhealthy dynamics I’m recognizing between participants and leaders, particularly in anti-oppression or “progressive” spaces.
2) While this is notable, it’s also essential that as a white, cis, middle-class facilator who currently lives with minimal illness and body limitations, I’m open to receiving feedback when I lack awareness and/or cause harm, particularly with people who have less social power, rank, and privilege.
3) I find it beneficial to differentiate between hurt and harm. Hurt being less serious, though important, and sometimes needing extra attention and repair; for example, hurt feelings. Harm being more serious and always needing extra attention and often reparations. This differentiation can be nuanced and multiplexed.
4) In my experience, there’s a noticeable difference in the way participants respond to women and non-binary facilitators versus facilitators who benefit from male privilege. Particularly, I find that people/groups are MUCH more inclined to criticize, take down, and question women and non-binary faciliators, while giving high levels of baseline respect and deference to men facilitators. Of course, this is increasingly true for facilitators with multiple oppressed identities.
5) “Far exceeds” is key here because we can expect more from leaders and facilitators than most humans. Leaders are in up-power positions and, as such, have heightened responsibility, however, there needs to be limitations to these expectations.
Podcast – Finding Our Way with Prentis Hemphill: Creativity and Leadership with Patrisse Cullors
Essay – Disrupting the Pattern: A Call for Love and Solidarity by adrienne maree brown
Essay – Addressing Trauma as a Pathway to Social Change by Ijeoma Njaka & Duncan Peacock
Poem – Remember by Joy Harjo; video of Remember spoken by Joy Harjo
Book – Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation by adrienne maree brown
Practice/Training – The Resilience Toolkit
Links in Essay:
Essay – Finding Gray in Black and White Thinking in Complex PTSD by Traci Powell
List – Characteristics of white supremacy culture by Tema Okun
Essay – Disorganized Attachment by Lisa Firestone
Essay – Practicing Everyday Abolition by Sarah Lamble
Video – Everyday Practices of Transformative Justice