Do we need help?

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Image depicts two women of color sitting at a table. One woman has her hand raised as if to answer a question

This article is part of a series about race-based caucusing. If you’re new to the idea, please take a look at Internal Race-Based Caucusing: Why do it? and Race-Based Caucusing Part 2: Risky Business.

How do you know when it’s time to hire outside help for your caucus sessions?

My answer to this question is you need an outside facilitator from the get-go. When an organization is just starting out with caucusing, management will often either take on facilitation themselves or ask staff members to do it. This can lead to biased agendas, loss of key voices, and emotional turmoil, to name just a few potential issues.

When leadership facilitates race-based caucusing the power differential in the room results in people not speaking their truth for fear of retaliation, whether that fear is justified or not. There has to be an incredibly high level of trust between staff and leadership for this situation to work well, and those in leadership cannot rely on their own ideas or feelings about how much their staff trusts them. In addition, management may not have the skills necessary to facilitate such difficult conversations.

Having non-leadership staff facilitate caucusing is a bad idea for some of the same reasons already mentioned (lack of skill, or fear of retaliation), but also because it ends up either shutting out their voice or allowing them too much leeway in guiding the conversation. As Kad Smith of CompassPoint says in their piece about instituting race-based caucusing at their institution, “While it was tremendously enriching for me to step into the role of POC Caucus Organizer, I think being a staff member unintentionally had an impact on how I was able to shape the discourse within the caucus.” Your staff is at caucus to figure out how to make lasting, impactful change. A staff-member facilitator not only doesn’t get to collaborate with their colleagues in the same way, leading to lost opportunities for more or different input, but they can also shape the conversation according to their own agenda, consciously or unconsciously.

If those reasons aren’t sufficient to make you think twice about having staff-led caucusing, consider that the first caucus meeting can be really tough. There are a couple of major reasons why this is the case:

The first is that the organization may have decided to start caucusing in response to a particular incident. Like anything started in a reactive mindset, reactive caucusing, when not facilitated by a disinterested party, can quickly run out of control. Emotions are running high, and whoever is in the position of facilitator is processing their own feelings and responses to the incident and the group at the same time as having to try to make sure all voices are heard and that the session ends up being productive in some way.

The second is that the white folks on staff may not understand why caucusing is so helpful. In cases where staff of color have been the group most vocal about starting caucusing, the white people on staff may not be clear about the reasons for doing racial justice work in this way. Some white staff will disengage because they are uncomfortable meeting in a race-segregated space or because they say they “don’t have any clear direction from our colleagues of color.” The first meeting of the white caucus is often an exploration of what that group knows about racial justice and how racism is showing up in that particular institution. I have had white people say to me that without hearing from staff of color about specific problems, we are spinning our wheels in the white caucus. While it’s true that one reason to engage in caucusing is for white people to work on the specific issues being raised by people of color, that doesn’t mean that white folks can’t do anything without POC input. A professional caucus facilitator can allay these concerns by mapping out the process and bringing their expertise to bear on the situation.

Once you’re over the hump of that first meeting, outside facilitators keep the groups accountable to each other by conferring after each session. They not only discuss the content of the caucus sessions but also the pain points, the places where each group has learning opportunities. They then use that understanding to help staff get to the next level. This is a skill, and it is one that is much easier to implement if the facilitator isn’t involved in day to day office politics.

Trained facilitators experienced in having uncomfortable conversations about race will take your caucusing to the next level, pushing when necessary and providing accountable, safer space for your staff to make concrete, lasting change at your organization.

©2018 Judy Blair LLC