Over the last 25 years, I have had the privilege of facilitating several dialogues that have included representatives from groups who have experienced historic injustice.  These engagements have addressed complicated farm policy with socially-disadvantaged farmers, environmental justice with African-Americans, and numerous sensitive policy and planning issues with Native Americans.

As a white male, raised in a rural, predominantly white community, living in a predominantly middle class community, working in a predominantly white organization with staff with numerous advanced degrees, what does it mean for me to facilitate such groups?  What strengths do I bring? What unconscious biases, ignorance, and lack of nuance and deep understanding might surface? How do these factors – essentially fundamental issues of identity, communication, justice, and power – impact my ability to remain neutral and help these groups address their current challenges, knowing that they have deep roots? 

Seeking to answer these questions is a life-long and career-long journey. Yet, over the years I have learned some practical lessons that have helped me be more effective in these cases – thus, the focus of this article. And, even as I write this, I realize these insights have their own biases and limitations, so know that they are presented as much to stimulate exploration as to offer solutions. And, my experience does not include a myriad of other kinds of identities:  gender, sexual preference, Asian-American, and so on.

There is No Cookie-Cutter Approach

I have learned, through many mistakes, that there is no cookie-cutter approach for much of our work, and certainly not work involving individuals and groups who have experienced historic (and current) injustice.  Each Tribe has its own history, culture, and complicated internal political and social dynamics.  African-American farmers in Georgia have had very different life experiences than predominantly urban African-American communities around a chemical plant or refinery.  Historic wrongs experienced and justice denied and desired can be variable by groups of individuals as well by each unique human being.  There’s no single set of techniques, practices, or actions I necessarily should or can take in these cases.

Exercise Radical Listening

The simple but essential skill of listening is key to understanding people who come from very different experiences, world views, and cultures than my own.  In cases of historic injustice, I would argue one needs not just listening skills, but radical listening.  That means working very hard to be aware of, and set aside, the numerous filters you use to understand the world and the heuristics or short-cuts you employ as a facilitator to understand complex concepts. 

As an example, a former Supreme Court Justice of the Navajo Supreme Court was trying to teach me a basic term of the Navajo concepts of justice: K’é. K’é is not easily translatable but generally means a wide range of deeply felt emotions which create solidarity of the individual with his or her clan, and more broadly, with people and community. One goal of Navajo justice is to restore that connection, or K’é, when it has been disturbed by violence, harm, or other negative actions. I kept trying to relate his teaching to the constructs I had at my disposal -- classical western philosophy with a touch of eastern religion -- and he had to keep correcting me.  I said, “You mean community,” and he said, “No, I mean K’é.”  I said, “You mean yin and yang, a kind of balance.”  And he said more emphatically: “No, I mean K’é.”  And so it went, as I kept calling on terms, and he kept bringing me back to K’é.  I had to listen intently, set aside my filters, my words, and be willing to be ignorant, confused, and in discomfort, to even begin to take in what he was saying.  

Beware of Instrumentality

Because I have been trained in problem-solving, mutual gains negotiation, and agreement-seeking, I am mostly hired to “get results” through “good process.”  It’s easy to focus on tasks the group needs to complete.  But in cases of historic injustice, whatever practical ends are sought, they and the process sit within a complicated web of history, relationships, divergent values, and culture.  Thus, I better be paying attention to the broader principles at stake (say, the sovereignty and self-determination of U.S. Tribes) and the relationships (respect, care, and trust) as well as the instrumental tasks at hand.  Otherwise, I’m likely to be unhelpful at best, and destructive at worst. In one Tribal-First Nation case, my First Nation colleague had to remind me more than once that the issue wasn’t just about determining the right watershed planning tool, but also figuring out how to realign and assert the central role of First Nations and Tribes in governing the river that is and was the lifeblood of their food, community, and culture.

History is Present

In almost every case, at some point, some frustrated party will say: “But I didn’t cause this injustice.  Can’t we get on with it?  Really.”  My extraordinarily talented colleague Lucy Moore, who has worked with many Native American groups, taught me that history in injustice is alive and well.  It cannot be erased -- and it deserves a seat at the table.  In one dialogue, Lucy invited history to the discussion through the visual cue of pulling an empty chair up to the negotiating table. The fact is, for those who have experienced injustice, it doesn’t end at some finite, temporal moment.  Rather, as I understand it, injustice lives on today, percolating through the emotions, hurts, and needs expressed by stakeholders.  Ignore history at your peril.  As much as some parties may wish “bygones to be bygones,” a facilitator’s task is to help the group acknowledge the past, honor it by naming it, allow time for stories to be shared, and not rush solutions in these cases. 

Pave a Path with Patience

Patience is essential in cases of injustice.  First, it will likely take extensive time to build trust and acceptance of your role as facilitator.  I am an outsider – a foreigner -- almost always in these cases.  Only through time and relationship-building can I establish myself as a useful guide for their process.  Second, because of historic distrust and my role as a non-decision maker, I can become an easy but also strategic focus of anger, positioning, and frustration.  In one process involving numerous Tribes that ultimately resulted in a successful agreement, I was “fired” (and rehired) several times along the way.  While a non-partisan mediator, I was a contractor of the U.S. federal government.  The firing might or might not have been about my own actions as a facilitator.  But it was certainly about inter-Tribal politics, in part, and the long-standing power struggle among Tribes and the U.S. government.  My job was to be, in the words of our founder Larry Susskind, “utterly non-defensive” and to let the process play out over time.

Separate Leadership from Facilitation

In many non-justice-related processes, I have come to assume I’ll “lead” the meetings:  guide the process and be in front of the room.  For cases involving historic marginalization or cultural norms, that is not the case.  It is extraordinarily important in these processes that the group itself selects leaders from within the group to chair and lead the group.  The facilitator can work closely with these leaders and sort out respective roles.  However, the assumption that the facilitator will stand in front of the room, manage discussion, and most importantly, manage decision-making, is one to test early and often in cases involving historic injustice, power imbalances, and fundamental questions of sovereignty and control.

Test Not Only for Agreement but for Justice

In these cases, I believe it is essential to recognize and ask not merely about settlement or agreement, but about justice.  In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice.  As a facilitator and mediator, I can help parties share interests, explore options, prioritize those options, make trade-offs, and find the zone of possible agreement (if all goes well). However, a settlement does not necessarily represent “justice.”  A settlement reflects the parties’ (and mediators’) best sense of what is possible within the various constraints and realities of the situation, politically, technically, and legally.  For the aggrieved parties, a settlement may or may not signal a bending toward justice. Saying “no” to uphold a principle may be more important.  In one case, though an agreement seemed attainable, I felt it incumbent to say to the parties who were African-American:  1) I think this is probably close to the best we can do in terms of settlement; 2) I have no standing or ability to say whether or not this satisfies the larger and overarching question of whether this could be considered a “just” outcome.  My ethical obligation was to highlight what was achieved and how the agreement might be viewed as progress, as well as its limitations. But only the parties could make the call about justice.

Neutrality is in the Eyes of the Beholder

The facilitator's race, gender, and background matter.  In some cases, as a white facilitator from the dominant culture, you might suffice, but be limited in your ability to be seen as truly unbiased, or effectively engage in certain issues and processes.  As one participant said to me at the end of a process related to agricultural policy and socially disadvantaged farmers: “You’re a capable facilitator, but in the future, we need a person of color – looks better, feels better, and helps build capacity among practitioners of color.”  In other cases, as it turns out, the dominant culture facilitator might be viewed as the most neutral of all.  I was asked to facilitate a workshop in Iqaluit, Canada around Inuit input into a major climate change report.  The organizers tried to find an Inuit facilitator, but could not, and turned to several First Nation facilitators, but Inuit participants were very uncomfortable with any First Nation band member taking on the role. So, in the end, they came to me.  I was far enough away geographically, different enough, and not tied to complex historical relationships among Canada’s First People to be considered the better of choices for the role.

Act as a Humble Amateur – Because You Are

The reality is, as part of a dominant socio-economic, racial, and ethnic culture, participating in processes involving traditionally disenfranchised groups means I am a foreigner, and an amateur.  I don’t understand the clan system of the Navajo.  I do not speak Inuktitut.  I have not experienced systematic exclusion from USDA programs, county committees, education, and markets as have most African American farmers.  I only have an inkling of the long, often obscure, painful sets of laws, Congressional actions, broken treaties, and direct physical and cultural multi-generational trauma that Native Americans have suffered over centuries.  However professional, educated, and seasoned I may be, in all of these cases, I enter with one set of skills and a serious deficit in others. The mantra, “I have much to learn, instincts to doubt, and beliefs to be challenged,” is a useful and realistic mindset to return to over and over as a facilitator or mediator in these cases, given their complex contexts.