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5 Tips for Navigating Social Justice Discussions

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January 26, 2015

I’m part of a group at my university called Feminists United and every week we hold discussion based meetings that focus on different social justice topics ie. ableism, rape culture, classism, race, gender, etc. 

Having our meetings be mostly discussion based is really important because it provides a safe for people to speak on topics they are passionate about as well as learn about the unfamiliar through the help of their peers.

I’ve attended these meetings and been a part of this group for a couple of semesters now, but this is the first semester where I’m going to be in the position of a group facilitator. Usually during our meetings because we have such a large group (between 30 and 40 people) we like to break into smaller sections of about 5-7 people to create a more intimate environment for sharing and discussing.

To do so a group facilitator, usually an officer of our group, leads the smaller discussion circles by posing questions and striking up conversation. It’s important though, especially when discussing topics that can be sensitive in nature, that a certain amount of tact be used as a group leader.

To help with that I’m going to provide you with five tips on how to navigate group discussions around social justice topics. Keep in mind that these tactics can really be used in any kind of group situation.

#1. What I think is most important in the beginning is to get a feel for your group and then adjust the way you facilitate accordingly. If everyone in the group is really talkative, embrace that and take a step back, while making sure everyone gets a chance to speak. If people are more on the quiet side, be prepared to do more of the talking and try asking people direct questions to get them out of their shells.

#2. Positive feedback is always a good way to encourage group members who may be a little unsure of what they’re saying. It’s important to remember that everyone is going to join your group with different strengths and weaknesses and have different knowledge on different subjects. Everyone’s there to learn from one another and that can only happen if people feel like their thoughts and ideas are being respected and validated.

#3. It’s okay to point out someone’s mistakes. The use of problematic language for example, or coming from a particularly biased or privileged standpoint. No one’s ever going to be perfect, not even facilitators. And it’s important that everyone feel comfortable enough calling people out on their mistakes, but doing so in a gentle way that turns the situation into an opportunity for growth and improvement.

#4. Remember that these are your peers, they’re not going to judge you. At least in situations like mine, I’m  leading a group of my peers so whenever I get anxious or overwhelmed or feel like I’m not doing the best that I can, I have to remember that we’re all here for each other. Even just becoming comfortable with sitting in silence for a few moments to collect thoughts or reflect is not something to feel ashamed of. Sometimes discussing topics like these can get heavy and exhausting, carving time out specifically for reflection never hurts.

#5. Always make sure everyone in the group feels safe and comfortable. Apply trigger warnings if necessary if specific topics are especially sensitive and let people know that you are someone they can come to with questions about the meeting, or school, or life in general. Being a part of Feminists United at my university has helped me carve out a home for myself within a student body of 35,000.  That’s a common theme I find in a lot social justice and activism communities, the sense of community and home.

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