Guiding Group Work

You may be planning an educational event or series as an individual facilitator, a small team, or a group co-facilitating itself. Regardless of how planning is carried out, there are basic principles of “best practices” that you will want to consider. Many resources are available to help structure a group process. White Awake recommends the book Coming Back to Life, by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown. The principles outlined in Chapter 5, “Guiding Group Work”, fit well with the shared agreements White Awake promotes as well as the mindfulness centered approach of our educational work.

Work that Reconnects
White Awake has been heavily influenced by the Work that Reconnects, and you will notice that our Group Exercises (for workshop/study group use) are divided into the four sections of the Spiral of the Work that Reconnects: Gratitude; Honoring our Pain for the World; Seeing with New Eyes; and Going Forth. You can read more about the Spiral of the WTR, and how we’ve adapted it for use in White Awake work, here.

Basic Elements of White Awake Educational Process

Whether you are planning a one time event or an extended series of meetings, you will want to plan your gathering/s with these basic elements in mind:

Shared Agreements
It is vital that we create group norms that will prioritize mindfulness, and be effective, so that transformation can occur. Judgment, shame, and blame do not set the stage for change. Look over our shared agreements, and decide if you need to adapt them for your group and, if so, how.

Balance Internal and External Focus
External sources of information are vital to breaking the isolating loop of the social conditioning most white people have experienced. A focus on internal experience is necessary in order for participants to integrate what they are learning, reflect and build upon their personal experience, and create a new “culture” of white racial awareness together. Practices to facilitate the internal process are found on the Group Exercises page. External information and themes of study are found on the Themes and Resources page.

Multiple Styles of Learning
We learn best when we involve all our senses. Academic, intellectual study is definitely called for, as “remedial education” (to use Dr. Parker’s words) is an important piece of the development of racial awareness for most white people. That said, transformation is most likely to occur when we ground this type of learning within a broad spectrum of activities, such as: storytelling; movement; meditation and other types of mindful practice; interactive exercises; and community ritual.

Sharing from Personal Experience
In line with our shared agreements, White Awake encourages participants to speak directly about their own emotions, experiences, and values. Time can be set aside to reflect on external sources of information as well as share stories about the participants’ own life and experience, all from the individual’s unique perspective. Sharing from personal experience, rather than critiquing, attacking, or offering unsolicited advice to another, brings integrity and stability to the work.

A Call to Respond
The act of engaging with new information and reviewing old belief systems changes us. Once new awareness opens up, we can never return to the old limits of awareness. Engaging in this work creates the internal desire to live differently. There are many ways this desire can be supported in group work, including: reserving time for small groups to share what new insights they are taking home; structuring activities that help individuals reflect upon the cultural and/or institutional racism they encounter in their workplace, community schools, local politics, etc.; roll playing ways that participants can interrupt and/or work to change interpersonal, cultural, and institutional racism that they encounter in their everyday lives.

Creating an Experience for the emotions …

There are two ways to think about the experience, or “arch” through which participants will travel, when planning a series or educational gathering. The first has to do with how the emotions will be engaged over a period of time. An example of guiding the emotional experience of a group with care can be found in the spiral of the Work that Reconnects.

The Work that Reconnects (WTR) takes participants through an experiential arch that opens the heart with gratitude and then creates space for individual and collective expressions of grief. Within the WTR, this grief is generally focused on environmental destruction. In a racial awareness workshop grief, anger, or other cathartic emotions would more likely arise in response to the harm caused by racism. The important thing to note, when crafting a group experience, is that we do not want participants to leave a group space in a space of deep, emotional catharsis or grief. We want to find a way to honor the difficult emotions while at the same time creating a safe container in which to process and direct this energy.

The spiral of the WTR accomplishes this goal by moving from “hotness” of grief into a “cooler” engagement with the rational mind. This is done by exposing participants to information that engages the intellect by illuminating the interconnected reality of all of our experience. Part of the significance of this interdependence is that, because we are all connected, we all have the ability to change the whole through our individual actions. This awareness leads naturally to the final stage of the WTR spiral, “going forth”, in which participants can identify actions or goals they are willing to commit themselves to as they leave the group experience.

There are many ways to guide the emotional experience of a group. The important thing is to think through what this emotional experience might look like, and to shape it in a way that supports the overarching goal of the White Awake work: to build racial awareness among white people for the benefit of all. While leaving a group experience feeling frustrated, angry, overwhelmed, or hopeless may at times be unavoidable, measures can be taken to move participants to a place of hopeful, engaged presence over the course of a structured time together. A more detailed explanation of the Work that Reconnects, and how this approach can be adapted for racial awareness work, can be found on the WTR Spiral page.

… and for the mind

The second consideration when organizing an experience is the themes of study selected, the order in which they are presented, and which themes or concepts need to be in place first in order for others to be meaningful. The Themes and Resources page on this site has been designed to facilitate this process.

Creating a shared language about white identity and the value of racial awareness (first theme on the Themes and Resources page) is foundational to all other themes explored on the site. If we cannot “see” ourselves, then we cannot unwind our own racial conditioning or engage our world with the awareness necessary to question or change ingrained patterns of racial oppression.

The core assumptions outlined on the Waking up to Race page are an excellent place to start for creating shared, working agreements in your group about race and the benefit of self-conscious racial awareness among white people.

Once common ground is established about white identity and the value of racial awareness, other themes can be thoughtfully explored in a variety of ways. “Historical Grief and Trauma” is an essential insight into “deep time” from a racial perspective, helping participants understand how violence and trauma in the past can effect entire communities of people for generations following the historical events. “Institutional Racism” is vital for understanding the ways in which racism continues to play a roll in ongoing oppression.

“The perils of ‘helping’ across cultures”, “Cultural Appropriation”, and the “Authentic relationships with people of color” themes and corresponding resources help white participants unwind racial conditioning that interferes with authentic relationships with people of color and begins to point out the wounds and deficiencies present within our own cultural experience.

“Responding to discomfort” involves learning skillful ways of working with confrontation and difficult emotions at the interpersonal level. Managing strong emotions is critical to success when white people begin to navigate the land mines of historical and cultural experience, Developing skills and protocols for emotional self-management may be given special emphasis within groups that are working deeply over an extended period of time together.

“Understanding the impacts of our Historical Grief and Trauma” and “‘White Violence’ as a cultural phenomena” take a direct look at the cultural process within Western society from which racism emerges and with which it interacts. “Race awareness as a healing practice” speaks not only to how white people can develop racial awareness but why they would want to in the first place: in order to recover and claim our full humanity.

Be Mindful of Personal Trauma

It is important to keep in mind that material on the practices of racism can be triggering, especially for survivors of personal trauma and abuse. Take care to know yourself and know your group when sharing these types of materials. There is a balance to be found in which we learn the truth of racism and honor the stories of violence without exposing ourselves to triggers that cause further harm. Keeping our shared agreements, engaging in the practices of community ritual shared on this site (and within resources such as Coming Back to Life), and allowing time to process emotions are all valuable ways to protect everyone’s safety while bringing our respectful attention to the ongoing violence and brutal legacy of racism.

Return to Manual for Group Work table of contents page

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