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June 27, 2018

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Building a Forum to Help People Talk About the Tender Spots in Our Systems

April 11, 2018


On Monday, Ellen shared her experiences as a facilitator of a series of forums conceptualized, planned, and led by student members of the LGBTQ Alliance Club in Miami Palmetto Senior High School.  Their intentions were clear: The forums would serve to prevent bullying by working to create safe spaces where people could begin to understand those who were different from them. 


This was one of the first stories that Ellen brought to the table when we began writing our book about teachers who were "getting culture right" last spring, and it remains one of my favorites. The forum wasn't designed to change people's minds or defend anyone's choices. It wasn't a rally. In fact, Ellen and Larry confirmed that in fact, there was very little tension around LGBTQ issues in the school to begin with. 


The culture was already a fairly compassionate one. Perhaps that's because it's filled with teachers and students and community members who make conversations like this happen. How might you do the same, especially if your school culture isn't quite as ready for it? These are a few essential questions that will help you plan and facilitate a productive and respectful forum of your own. 


Five Essential Questions that Will Help You Plan a Forum for Compassion with Decorum


1. Where are the tender spots in your community, and how might a forum expose and help people treat them with sensitivity? Although many of the students in Miami Palmetto Senior High School tend to treat their LBGTQ peers with respect, the Alliance Club was eager to deepen understandings about LBGTQ issues and the needs and interests of the students who were most influenced by them. They also wanted to create a space where listeners could ask good questions and listen to the answers provided to others' as well, in order to bridge the distances that sometimes exist between groups that identify differently. It makes sense to plan forums around issues that deserve greater attention and groups who deserve more consideration and empathy. 


2. Who might feeling bruised? Who might be throwing punches? Seeking representation from those who are most affected by the issues at hand is critical. Even if you disagree with a popular perspective and the behavior that is resulting from it, it makes sense to ask good questions of all who are affected and involved. Practice active listening, in order to learn more about their concerns and their needs. This will help you design forum opportunities that address them in healthy and positive ways. 


3. How might you establish norms for ideal behavior ahead of the forum? Once you know who your audience will be, identify the most engaged members of it and invite them to participate in a bit of norm setting, ahead of the session. As you facilitate this work, take care not impose pre-fabricated rules or expectations on the team. Instead, work with them to define ideal behaviors for all who intend to participate, and then, work together to establish equitable norms. This guidance document includes a powerful norm-setting protocol. 


4. Which protocols can ensure equity throughout the event? It makes sense to anticipate the flow of energy that might be experienced in the room during the forum. Protocols help groups manage information and emotion in a way that creates a safe space for all participants to contribute. You'll find a wide variety of powerful protocols offered here, by the School Reform Initiative. 


5. How will you establish feedback loops? A feedback loop ensures that your output returns to you as input. Where might you need this to happen most before, during, and after the forum? How will you gather the feedback you need from the people that you need it from?


These questions inspire thoughtful planning, work, assessment, and reflection. Are you in the process of creating a community forum around a tender spot inside of your own system? Let us know. This is work that we facilitate, and we are eager to grow our own perspectives and practices. We'd love to learn from you. 


You'll find us on Twitter. We're @AngelaStockman and @EllenFeigGray there. You're welcome to join our Facebook group as well. Share your plans and your work as you go. There are many there who are willing to support you. 








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