I teach a graduate course on facilitation skills for both master’s degree and graduate certificate students at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. For several years I taught it face to face, but starting in the spring 2020, it went virtual and synchronistic, which means I meet with students in a virtual classroom weekly. The class starts at 4:30 p.m. ET. Most of my students are in the U.S., but increasingly I have students from around the world. Lately, I’ve been getting students from east Africa: Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, where it is 11:30 p.m. when class starts.
Because I believe that the best way to learn is experientially, the class focuses on students engaging in actual facilitations for two and half hours. We might engage in two to four facilitations (with breaks) per class. For every facilitation, two students are designated as facilitators, and rest of the students are assigned roles.
For the first 10 weeks of class, I assign the facilitations. This semester students acted as facilitators in a range of situations including a community meeting where police were allegedly targeting men of color; a coal mine that is closing and the impact on the community; a city that has experienced a major flood where a meeting is held of residents, the business community, and city officials; nurses in a hospital threatening to strike because of poor working conditions and low salary; a rural community dealing with an opioid crisis and its impact on a city’s medical infrastructure; a school board considering a call to ban books; a group of NGOs attempting to coordinate a response after a major hurricane; a U.S./Mexico border community dealing with the influx of migrants; a culturally diverse neighborhood meeting about residents having loud parties; a meeting of residents and officials in a city facing a contaminated water crisis; a community dealing with allegations of voter fraud in the last election; and the closing of a clinic providing abortion services and its impact on a community.
The facilitator students meet in advance to plan the approach they will use, including any technology. Jamboard is a popular digital whiteboard for taking notes and fostering engagement that students have used. The roles I assign are designed to be contentious and reflect high emotions and anger. Young conflict resolution professionals will soon find themselves in meetings of angry, despondent, and determined community members. In a society that is as polarized as ours, we need facilitators skilled at navigating combative gatherings, reassuring those needing support, and helping communities reach decisions that work for all.
For the final few weeks of the class, students develop their own facilitation situations that they run with fellow students. I ask students to develop something that reflects the type of work they wish to do: the fights they want to want help settle, the situations they want to play a role in bringing to closure, and the challenges they see most pressing in our future. This semester I had 19 students, and each came up with a unique situation.
And in some reconsidering of history one student set up a meeting of East Timor officials and community members considering how best to seek independence, and another student looked at U.S. post Civil War Reconstruction policy in a meeting facilitated by President Andrew Johnson.
Am I missing any issues that need to be facilitated?
My students, many of whom will soon graduate, are ready. Bring it on. (And call me if you need a good facilitator).