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Anti-Oppression Trainings at Midwest Power Shift
I facilitated the Anti-Oppression 1 and 2 workshops at Midwest Power Shift. It’s a commitment I take seriously, and in completing that commitment I’m writing up how things went and some advice for future A-O trainings.
I’m going to cover what’s “on top” for me here, because I think those things will be most of interest and useful to you. This probably goes without saying, but I invite discussion in the comments!
>>[For more resources and/or an introduction to what the heck I’m talking about, see Global Exchange’s Anti-Oppression Reader]
It was great to have a small to mid-sized room with mobile chairs. People learn more from each other than they do from me in these workshops, and pairs and small groups are critical. If the chairs are anchored to the ground, go somewhere else!
My workshops were offered to a conference of 400 people simultaneously with several other workshops, so I expected there to be a crowd, but I was surprised at how big they were – there were about 35 in the first and 50 in the second session (90 minutes each). Hooray, people want to go to Anti-Oppression trainings!… Uh oh, that means we actually have to train them!
Overall I think it’s appropriate to offer these workshops at the same time as other workshops (though it’s not acceptable to offer them simultaneously with big speakers or events). Because these workshops are most powerful for small to mid-sized groups, maybe 6-20 people, I recommend offering intro workshops multiple times in larger conferences.
A nit-picky thing: I submitted my workshops as Anti-Oppression 1 and 2, but they were on the program as 101 and 201. I prefer the way I put it originally, because the whole 101/201 thing suggests that there’s a quick advancement, that the content is consistent from one workshop to the next, and that there’s some sort of “end” to Anti-Oppression workshops, like you’re an expert once you get to A-O 501, which just isn’t true.
I under-planned, figuring we would create the second session as we went, because I didn’t know how many people were going to show up or what their interests or experience levels were. I don’t think that was necessarily a bad approach, and it didn’t cause any problems (in fact it left the full group space people were hungry for), but it did have me anxious in the hours leading up to the workshops.
This is a tricky dynamic when doing these workshops for open groups, rather than a specific organization with a specific goal in mind. Next time I do Anti-Oppression training at a conference I will limit the number of participants to a specific number in the workshop description, offer it multiple times in the agenda, and/or center myself on trusting the group (with my guidance) to take itself where it wants to go.
Multiple formats are totally critical! We did lecture, creative hands-on, pairs, full group report backs, small groups, and open full group discussion. The more the better.
One thing I lacked this time was a training partner. There were a few times I was thinking about the workshop too much in the moment to perform 100% as the workshop leader. I recruited a participant before the workshops to help me de-escalate any problems, but I was lucky that someone I knew showed up and was willing and able to play that role.
Many people are tired of introductory Anti-Oppression workshops. A big conference like Midwest Power Shift is a great place to expose lots of people to this work for the first time, but not a great place to dig deep. Unfortunately, the A-O 2 workshop participants had far too wide a range of experience to satisfy those that wanted an advanced workshop, or to really provide a transformational experience for beginners.
I thought that people would be somewhat self-selecting for this workshop, that I would have a mid-sized group in A-O 1 and a smaller group in A-O 2. I also didn’t require that A-O 2 participants attend A-O 1, because I didn’t want to discourage people that had already had introductory A-O training elsewhere from joining in. Mistake! Only about 20% of the 50 A-O 2 participants had previously attended an A-O workshop. Next time I will write in the A-O 2 workshop description “Participants are required to attend A-O 1, or have attended a prior Anti-Oppression workshop.”
I made a big mistake early in the A-O 1 workshop. A young visually impaired participant walked out after volunteering for an exercise when I said I didn’t think they were a good match for the role. I did check in with them before the workshop and asked what I could do to help make it accessible for them (and they asked me to read written things aloud, describe visual exercises, and email any handouts).
When I asked for volunteers for an exercise, they stepped right into the circle. The problem for me was that volunteering required either sight or unpredictable touching, and I wasn’t able to explain that in a clear and concise way. This was a powerful example of able-ism on my part for the group to witness and process — it led to a real-life discussion and my explanation, apology, and commitment to take responsibility and be in communication with that person (which I have done) — but it’s not fair that someone had that experience, especially in an Anti-Oppression workshop.
In the future, I will check in with people that seem to be of differing abilities before any workshop I give, and describe each exercise that might be exclusive or uncomfortable for them ahead of time.
This was an awesome experience and made a huge difference for a handful of folks. Multiple people spoke about digging into ideas and experiences they had never been exposed to before, and I could tell they were really opening themselves to the complexities of oppression in social movements. During the evening and the following day I think 5 people told me that their friends thought it was a great and challenging and necessary workshop. We created a special space in both of the workshops.
This work is fundamental in any social movement building. At one point someone said “this is probably the most important workshop happening all weekend.” It’s worth investing the time and money needed for professional trainers and consultants to integrate Anti-Oppression into the actual structure of a conference, rather than adding it on as an accessory.
PS – Check out Midwest Power Shift backing up Occupy Cleveland (at 1:25):