Study and Struggle Facilitator Guide
This is a facilitator guide from Study and Struggle, downloaded September 2021. Not all items will be relevant for MDC DSA, but the guide raises some useful questions/practices.
This is a living document for Study and Struggle hosts. The hope is that it continues to change collaboratively as we learn together so that we can adapt it more specifically for our context. This guide breaks down what a facilitator is, strategies we can use, and ideas for discussion prompts and exercises we can incorporate throughout the curriculum.
What is a facilitator?
As defined in the Fumbling Towards Repair Workbook, “facilitate” means “to make easier.” The role of the facilitator in our context is to make group meetings generative, connective, and sustainable. Facilitators concentrate on cultivating a space where people can study and struggle alongside each other.
Strategies we can use at meetings:
- Start each meeting with some kind of check in. Go around in a circle where each person answers a question like, “What energy are you bringing to this space today?” or “How are you feeling today?” This gives the group a chance to get on the same page with each other and decide what kind of group meeting everyone needs. This usually takes about 10 minutes.
- Adapt the reading(s) to fit the needs of the group. As we navigate constant crises, there are many moments when we don’t have the mental capacity to sit down and read an entire book. Some days, people may need space to talk about things going on in their lives. The facilitator should be aware of these dynamics and adapts the meetings in a way where study can happen without being too overwhelming.
The most important person in the room is the newest. The person who is least familiar with the subject, the terms, and the space is your audience. Breaking down terms and reviewing for everyone else is always useful because it allows everyone to become more fluent in the material and be able to teach someone else.
Strategies we can use in general:
- Building capacity of the group. Having a co-host, making sure other people are trained and equipped to take over certain tasks. As Dean Spade wrote in Mutual Aid, “To win big, we need to build leaderless and leaderful groups. This means we want lots of people involved, all of whom are building skills that help them do the work and bring new people into the work.” (Mutual Aid, 98).
- Keep care at the core of study. Find ways to support each other through moments of stress. Study cannot exist without survival first. Everyone’s basic needs must be met in order to study.
- Experiment. Try things for the sake of trying them. Every lesson you learn is a valuable one to pass on. Mariame Kaba notes that “we need a million experiments. A bunch will fail. That’s good because we’ll have learned a lot that we can apply to the next ones.” If you have access to the internet, check out https://millionexperiments.com, a virtual zine project with snapshots of community-based safety projects by Project Nia and Interrupting Criminalization.
- Conflict. Conflict is an inevitable part of all groups and relationships. While many of us have learned that conflict is harmful, it’s important to draw a distinction between conflict and harm. Every challenge to our principles is an opportunity to refine our understanding, explain concepts, and bring people in. When we operate from the principle that the people in our group are valuable to the movement, we can find resolutions to our conflicts that focus on building power.
- Accountability and harm. Many of us have been taught that when someone hurts us or causes conflict, they deserve to be punished and ostracized. However, the reality is that all of us cause harm at some point. In order to create systems of accountability within our group, we must first cultivate a culture of love and trust.
- Learn before teaching. Notice what is already there and begin to develop around people’s particular strengths, abilities, and capacities.
Group exercises and prompts to incorporate:
1. Asking Better Questions:
Abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba wrote that “history is instructive, not because it offers us a blueprint for how to act in the present but because it can help us ask better questions for the future.” Using a single or several primary sources (for example, from the Voices or Remaking Radicalism anthologies), consider as a group how these histories help us ask better questions today. What sorts of questions were the authors asking during the time period in which these sources were written? What was made possible—or impossible—through those questions? How are those questions similar or different from ones your group is asking today?
2. “Abolition is … (Green/Red/International/Intersectional):
This year we’ve structured our readings and discussions around Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s concept of abolition as green (environmentalist), red (socialist), international, and intersectional. Using this concept, write a free-form poem or short prose envisioning what a green, red, international, and intersectional abolition looks like. You can use the phrase “Abolition is…” to start each line or stanza (for example: Abolition is a set of pink lungs/two squishy sponges/squeezing and expanding/with a breath that flows easy/a breath free of pesticides.) Or you can write using your own form. Try to use descriptive, sensory-based language, and touch on all 4 categories.
3. Abolition Mural:
Imagine in some not-too-distant future that abolition is achieved. You’re tapped to create a mural commemorating the communities, solidarities, and actions that brought abolition about. Consider the theme of your mural, any symbols you’ll include, and how you’d like people to feel when they see it.
Sketch out your mural. Then share it with a peer and take time to point out the details of your mural and why you chose those details.
4. Political quilting:
Building on the tradition of organizer Ella Baker, historian Barbara Ransby describes a process called “political quilting” which weaves together various radical communities and builds bridges connecting their work. “In order to sustain a powerful mass movement,” she writes, “we need to forge strong and reinforcing ties between various communities, organizations, and movement sectors as we work to connect all the strands, to stitch—or weave—disparate patches of struggle” (Making All Black Lives Matter, 148). Using the concept of political quilting, you might explore the following exercises in your groups:
a. Have each person in the group produce a paper quilt square based on the readings for that session. In the center, you might represent (visually, with words, in song, etc.) a person, event, or theoretical concept from that session. Around the four sides, you can add other people, events, or concepts which are interconnected or overlay with that at the center. Share your squares with your group and explain the choices you made. Where are the points of connection between different sides of your square and others? How can these points of contact between quilt squares help us think about ways of connecting our movements? Your group might create a full quilt out of the squares over the course of one session, or even the entire fall.
b. Outside groups might consider having each member do research on local organizations doing work around the themes for that session to bring back to the full group. What are the points of connection between what members of your group are doing and these other formations? Are there existing bridges between these groups? Where and how could more stitching between these movements be formed?
5. Organizing Toolkit:
One of the best tools for organizing, teaching, and learning, is to try to explain an idea to someone who is newer to it. Abolitionist organizer and imprisoned intellectual Stevie Wilson emphasizes that as a facilitator you should always be focused on the newest person in the room. Once they understand a concept, the chances are better that everyone else does too. If they have a question, the odds are good someone else does as well.
Either as a group, or individually, choose a term, idea, or concept for the upcoming session that you want to be able to share with others. For example, you might want to explain how the Combahee River Collective defines “identity politics” or what Angela Davis means when she asks if prisons are obsolete. What is anarchism, according to Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin? What is settler colonialism and what does it have to do with criminalization and incarceration?
Take time to explain whatever idea you choose to 3-5 people before the next meeting, making notes to yourself about what works and what doesn’t. What brings people in and what shuts them out? What clarifies and what confuses? Make some notes to yourself at the end of this exercise about what was successful. How did your own understanding of this idea change through sharing it with others? Talk as a group about what strategies worked and how you all might come to a shared understanding of an otherwise difficult, variable, or contentious idea.
Performing the words of voices throughout history gives us a chance to use embodiment — an important form of practicing empathy — to better understand the struggles of people throughout history. “Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes” can reveal how interconnected different struggles are, acknowledge how we may “ask better questions” as struggles evolve, and ultimately, highlight our common humanity.
Choose a piece from the Voices of a People’s History anthology that does not necessarily match your gender, race, religion, or status. Think about the original context of the piece, and how one would convey the message to different audiences. What does the piece sound like if performed to an audience of thousands of like-minded individuals? How does it change when presented as a testimony in court? As a memoir? As a song? As a rebuttal to individuals who don’t acknowledge your humanity?
Identify the parts of the piece that you think need extra emphasis; keep an eye out for literary devices such as alliteration, repetition, rhetorical questions, etc. How might you use gestures, facial expressions, stressing of syllables/words, or deliberate pauses to add that extra emphasis to those important parts of the text you’ve identified? Keeping all of this in mind, perform the piece aloud. Don’t rush. Look up at your audience as much as possible—talk to them.
Both the performer and the audience should share their feedback on the performance. For the performer, describe what it felt like to add your voice to the words on the page. Why did you choose to emphasize the parts that you did? For the audience, what was compelling about the performance, and the words themselves? What made the greatest impact on you? Did the performer’s choices of emphasis come through to you as the listener? For everyone, do you feel that the piece is as relevant today as it was originally? How has the struggle changed since the original piece?
Have a new performer take on the same piece, bringing their own interpretation and emphasis to the words. How do the performances differ, and how are they similar? As a reminder: there is no right or wrong way to perform these pieces! All performances will differ from one another (and the original) based on the unique experience each individual is bringing to these words.