By: Benjamin Freeman, Fall 2020 Practitioner in Residence at the Swearer Center and member of The Glitter Goddess Collective
I am a facilitator. As a facilitator, I create experiences that support people in tapping in: to their own curiosities and rumblings, to the wisdom that others have to offer, and to a shared set of ideas or problems, work that needs to be done. Facilitation depends on the so-called “soft skills” of listening, empathic communication, and care, skills that have historically been ascribed to women and femmes and relegated to being of second-class importance in a misogynistic society. In this piece I want to explore facilitation as its own art form — an art form that awakens the artistry in others — and consider how this might be a specifically feminist way of thinking, feeling, being, healing. As a window into this, I want to invite some silliness! I want to share what I have learned facilitating an exercise called the Squiggle Game in my work as this semester’s Practitioner in Residence at the Swearer Center. The Squiggle Game is a deceptively simple activity: one person draws an impulsive squiggle and invites other participants to contribute to it, to make something together. Ostensibly the drawing, the product, is the point. But the drawing is also an entry point for us to reflect on the process of making creative choices together, to re-examine our own relationship to what it means to be a creator.
GOOD WORK TAKES TIME
In her essay “Uses of the Erotic,” Audre Lorde writes that “the sharing of joy…forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.” This sharing is one of the core tasks of facilitation that sees justice or equity as its aim. But when do people feel safe enough to share joy, to be vulnerable in play? We cannot come to the conversation assuming we understand each other. The threat of difference has been inserted into our lives by design, and the pleasure of coming to know each other will have to be the product of deliberate creative work. Creating justice is a new kind of performance all of us will have to participate in.
In facilitation I always notice the time it takes to relax. We can’t get to the heart of what we are feeling or thinking or may be needing to experience together right away; there is too much anxiety hanging in the air, too much anticipation of what and how this will be, which precludes the possibility of experiencing it now, as it actually is. Too much fair worry as to whether we will feel safe and seen here. Competitiveness arises for many of us, both in ways of feeling superior and inferior, but rarely feeling ourselves as whatever we actually are. When we can acknowledge this in community it is a grace. Krista Tippett, the host of the podcast On Being, writes about the pressure she experienced in the early years of producing the show to make the episodes punchier, quicker, more concise. She resisted, trusting the slow work that conversation can do. Each time I play the Squiggle Game in a workshop, there is an initial surge of creative energy, then a lull, and then, if I have been skillful in tending to my own sense of urgency, a second wave in which the picture — literal and figurative — gets richer and intensifies. Stopping at the first lull is appealing. It takes immediate care of my anxiety, and it gives us something presentable to work with. But it’s a mistake. It comes at the expense of process. Good work takes time.
HOW WE COME HOME TO OURSELVES
I have said that, in the Squiggle Game, while we are ostensibly focused on one thing, something concrete, something else happens. Something intimate and vulnerable, something we can choose to be curious about. Most Squiggle Games that I have played include faces with exaggerated expressions of joy; many take dragons as their central protagonist. Eventually, in most Squiggle Games played by Zoom, someone discovers the stamp function on the annotated whiteboard and, in what seems to be a spontaneous flurry owing in part to digital lag, the screen fills up all at once with hearts and checkmarks and stars. People’s accounts of what happens for them in the Squiggle Game usually foreground a sense of silliness and play that they feel renewed permission to express. So the form and the process of the drawing tend to mirror each other: what we create in the Squiggle Game reflects the childlike part of our consciousness that we are tapped into, a way of being that we experience increasing societal pressure to discard as we age. Maya Angelou wrote:
I am convinced that most people do not grow up. We find parking spaces and honor our credit cards. We marry and dare to have children and call that growing up. I think what we do is mostly grow old. We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.
We may act sophisticated and worldly but I believe we feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home, a place where we belong and maybe the only place we really do.
How do we come to ourselves? The fundamental genius of child mind is the gift of seeing all things as dynamically alive, which also means that fear and isolation can take on overwhelming proportions. The other set of responses that tend to come up in debrief: this was difficult, I didn’t know what to make, I felt silly in a self-judging way, it was hard to relinquish a sense of autonomy and lean in to collective process and collective mind. What I hear in these responses is the reality that playing can be hard work. That playing is vulnerable, and that it can be unnerving to feel estranged from the native language of learning of our early lives. What accounts for this estrangement? How and when do we learn that playing is something we should devalue and disavow? Sometimes the most important thing a facilitator can do is deliberately raise the level of discomfort in a room, to say: I think there might be something we are collectively avoiding here. Something intimate, something vulnerable. Let’s slow down, look at it, be with it together. The difficulty of coming home to ourselves, and the things that stand in the way of our feeling safe when we go inside: strong facilitation practice regards all of this as valuable. It is not just concrete deliverables that are on my mind in facilitation: it’s our ability to relate well to one another that is always fundamentally at stake, and this depends on our ability to relate well to ourselves.
THE CONVERSATION THAT ONLY THESE PEOPLE CAN HAVE
In her book Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown says: “There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.” That is the most elegant definition of facilitation that I have encountered so far. And the idea that the conversation exists, whether or not we choose to attend to it, and that that conversation can be illuminated only through the unique gathering of people present in a given moment, is part of what makes facilitation a spiritual task, as well as a feminist one. A non-feminist ethic is one that says: you are valuable to me insofar as you have something to offer that can advance my own purposes. A feminist ethic is one that acknowledges: you have your own reason for being, and I have mine, and there is an abundance of possibility at the nexus of the two, if we will stay in relationship (thoughtful, considerate, principled relationship) long enough to find it. A feminist ethic knows there is enough time and space for everyone to be heard.
Justice work is healing work.
Justice is relational.
Healing our relationships, with others, with ourselves.
Everything spirals upwards from there.
Underneath the conscious layer of what we do to make our lives “work” in social context (what Angelou characterizes as finding parking spaces and honoring our credit cards), I feel aware of the fact that there is pain — private, quiet, isolating pain. All of us are asked to discard parts of ourselves that don’t fit the mold, to deaden ourselves to our own suffering and the suffering of others. This is part of how systemic oppression works. I am always curious about these unspoken whispers, these unacknowledged ghosts in a group. Facilitation with a liberating praxis asks: what is just beyond the edge of what feels safe enough to say here? And then: what work can we do to make this space something that might be capable of holding that with tenderness and respect? How do we build spaces that are worthy of the full and complicated selves we actually are, rather than the selves we think others want us to be? We are still talking about the sharing of joy, just through the prism of meditating on pain. The poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes: “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside / You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.” The Squiggle Game is a queer little journey into the heart of that flow, the heart of what makes us human. I have said that facilitation is an art form, one that awakens the artistry in others. It is also a practice of coming back to each moment with clarity and curiosity, and asking: “What might I learn in relationship with you today?”