USING GROUP WORK TO FACILITATE CONVERSATIONS AROUND SOCIAL JUSTICE ISSUES22-Aug-2016
In 2014 I saw a group such as this in operation at Orlando. It was amazing… the group was social justice based but worked with such immediacy and people’s own issues that it would also be called therapeutic. It would be great to see its expansion in Australia to respond to our own divided cultural issues... Andrew King
Reflection by Christy Lyons Graham
Last winter, I had the opportunity to organize a Black Lives Matter (BLM) Teach-In and follow-up Town Hall Meeting on the campus of Bridgewater State University (BSU), my place of employment. It was the first eventof its kind and was held in conjunction with similar events on two other campuses also located in the state of Massachusetts. Despite this being the first event of this kind and new territory for most, more than 70 BSU professors across all disciplines and levels volunteered to participate by agreeing to infuse a BLM related topic into their course(s) during that week. I was truly astonished at the outpouring of volunteers and interest throughout the planning and preparation phase of the event. Many volunteers had no experience in facilitating dialogue around social justice issues, but chose to take on the challenge.
As an experienced group counselor, I am, of course, aware that individual perspectives can contribute both negatively and positively to group dynamics. In preparation for the Teach-in, I, therefore, sought a preventive approach to ensure a multiculturally sensitive and respectful climate in these classrooms. I settled upon organizing a pre-Teach-In workshop for interested faculty that addressed strategies to assist in facilitate difficult conversations. I felt that a workshop such as this would help ensure that faculty would be prepared for possible resistant and even hostile reactions and had the resources needed to create the optimum classroom environment during the Teach-In. Additionally, I solicited undergraduate volunteers to help me design and create inviting and inclusive flyers and community announcements promoting the event across the campus community. Following the Teach-In, a culminating “Black Lives Matter Town Hall Meeting” was held at BSU. I put out a call to all full-time and part-time faculty for volunteers to assist with facilitating small group dialogue for the Town Hall Meeting. Again, a good number of faculty, with diversity training backgrounds, volunteered to take time out of their regular teaching schedules to participate as group leaders during the event. Prior to the Town Hall Meeting, the volunteer group leaders crafted a list of prompt questions to pose in the small groups they would lead. Roughly 85 college students, both undergraduate and graduate level, who had participated in the Teach-In the before in at least one of their classes, attended the BLM Town Hall Meeting.
The Town Hall meeting was held in a large campus ballroom. I, being the organizer of the event, served as the overall leader and did not lead a small group. Instead, my role was to be visible and available to all and to be present in the event that there arose a need for intervention. I began by leading the large group format during which time opening remarks were given and introductions were made. Ground rules (“agreements”) were then disseminated and read aloud. Participants were asked if they were in agreement with the ground rules and everyone replied, “Yes”. Following the establishment of and commitment to the ground rules, the groupleaders were assigned and the 85 students were divided into nine groups.
Each group had one group leader. Th e groups began their discussions and remained in constructive dialogue for 45 minutes.Following wrap-up of the small group discussions, I facilitated a largegroup discussion by asking a volunteer member from each group to standup and share some of the main points discussed during the small group portion.Based on these reports, each group clearly had meaningful dialogue.Some shared about their own personal experiences with both overt racism and micro-aggressions. Others shared their experiences of witnessing such things. Many talked about the fact that these types of conversations needed to happen more often on campus both in and outside of classrooms so that people remain aware and informed.The Town Hall Meeting ended with a pledge to speak-up about racism and injustice. The event was an intense and powerful culminating experience following the Black Lives Matter Teach-In. I was mostly struck by that candid discussions that were occurring in the groups that I was observing from a distance. As a trained group leader, I knew that the only way to have constructive dialogues such as the ones that took place on that evening was to conduct semi-structured, small group meetings. In this format and inan environment of safety, students felt free to discuss difficult and controversial topics around the Black Lives Matter movement. It appeared that everyone felt invited to the table to share their respective views. This small Town Hall Meeting, it was decided that a Teach-In will be held annually at my university and each year a diff erent social justice topic would be explored using a similar design. With the upcoming potentially divisive presidential election this November, we are considering focusing on a topic related to “Promoting Civil Discourse on Campus”. Group work has made its way to my campus in a big way. This may be a model worth considering in your area!
Christy Lyons Graham, Ph.D., LMHC, LMFT
Associate Professor | Director, Mental Health Counseling International
Non-Licensure Program | Coordinator, Professional Development Center
| Department of Counselor Education | Bridgewater State University
THE GROUP WORKER • SUMMER/FALL 2016, VOL 45, NO 27