Celebrating Black Female Facilitators
In the U.S., February is African American history month. It began as a celebration of contributions by African Americans at a time when those contributions were not remotely recognized. This month is meant to be a tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity and oppression in achieving full citizenship in American society. The first event was celebrated in 1926 in February. In 1976, it was expanded to the full month of February. Gerald Ford, U.S. president at the time, said we need to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Today, I would like to honor some of my esteemed Black female facilitator colleagues in the U.S. Four of them were able to spend some time with me and share their prides, challenges and advice to others on this journey. They are all trained in the Technology of Participation (ToP) methods among other things. Thank you to these women for this amazing gift to me and to all the readers. I think their sharings will be deeply interesting to all of us who are on the journey. It is great for those who want role models. It is great for those who want to be allies. Please enjoy these four beautiful women’s stories. A full version of their interviews can be downloaded in the PDF at the bottom of this article. To those whom I did not get to interview or share your story, I am sorry.
Biography: Shelby Pierce is currently working to transition into becoming a full-time ToP Facilitator and Trainer. She has worked in administration in various fields including investment advisory and dentistry for the last 10 years. Taking what she has learned from leading meetings in these fields, Shelby is looking to expand the organizations she works with. Shelby lives in Sioux City with her husband, Austin, and two cats. She is a rollerskating, public radio, and morel mushroom hunting enthusiast.
What’s your background?
I am in my thirties. For the last six years, I have worked as an Executive Assistant for a financial investment firm. I love to connect people.
As part of my current job, I have facilitated our weekly staff meetings for years. While doing so, I had often found myself thinking, I wish I could run other people’s meetings. I also facilitate in a weekly women’s circle, which is what first introduced me to facilitation as a practice.
Last year, serving on a nonprofit board is when I first experienced ToP (Technology of Participation) methods. When I took my first ToP class as a participant, I thought, This is the thing I’ve been waiting for.
So now I am on the journey to certify as a ToP facilitator. In addition to this, I’ve started my ToP trainer apprenticeship journey. I am now actively learning from my mentors and jumping in to do Focused Conversations, Consensus Workshops and action planning as much as possible. I am constantly rereading the ToP course materials and am taking advantage of the ToP resource library. The depth and usefulness of these methods feels like studying for a Master’s degree. I definitely feel like I’ve willingly thrown myself into the deep end of the pool.
How does your racial heritage play out in facilitation?
I am multi-racial: Black, White and Native American. With this background and strong tendencies toward empathy, my heritage informs my ability to communicate across various experiences and be sensitive to the differences that come with other’s own culture. I have an authentic curiosity about every person I encounter. I’ve learned to create space for everyone’s experiences to be honored in the room.
As a facilitator, I feel like I need to maintain a strong sense of my identity—even while I am navigating the complexities of that identity.
Who are White Allies that you’ve met in your work?
White allies are those who say no to keep doing the same thing (i.e. always hiring, training, and working within their own constituency group). The White allies are clear that they want more of us to join them in this profession.
Deb Burnight, a ToP mentor trainer and certified facilitator, has been a tremendous ally for me in this certification journey. She had asked me if I had any interest in being a ToP facilitator because she saw a natural intuition in me. I told her, “Yes, this is the work I want to do.” After that course I asked Deb out for coffee and I asked if I could shadow her on jobs. She very generously shared her schedule and I have followed her around as much as possible. I have had unfettered support from Deb.
What is something that White allies might not want to know?
There are times that I’ve been told, “I did not know you were Black. I never thought of that.” Something about being comfortable in your White community brings on this colorblindness. Who I am and especially my cultural background is so important. As I get older, not a day goes by that I do not think about my heritage and I’m grateful when this is acknowledged.
What words of advice do you have for others?
There are still not enough facilitators. If this is an area of interest or passion, pursue it. Ask whatever you are curious about. If you think, This is interesting, ask potential mentors to spend more time with you and share their wisdom. There is so much to be done with facilitation. The work is transformative and can be tremendously healing.
Contact Shelby Pierce: firstname.lastname@example.org
Biography: Eileen Pippins is a Learning Organizational Development (LD/OD) Specialist, educator, and dynamic facilitator based in the heart of the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Area. With over 15 years’ experience in both higher education and consulting, Eileen brings focused and exciting energy to her clients. Her “why” in consulting helps people have the conversations they need to have to achieve the goals they set. Eileen has been involved with the ToP Network since 2017, and hopes to become a trainer and complete MToP. As she works toward completing her doctorate in Organizational Psychology, Eileen also finds time to play with vegan recipes, swim and travel.
What’s your background?
For 15 years, my primary role has been as an educator, and program coordinator. I am a professor of communication and advertising, teaching among other things, interpersonal communication, intercultural communication and persuasion. I am also working on my doctorate in Organizational Psychology. I am looking now to put more focus in the realm of Organizational Psychology and consulting. My non-teaching work has been for Not for Profits and in health care. I also do a lot of coaching around communication and public speaking, helping people who are aiming to be, or declared political candidates.
How does facilitation fit into your work?
I see facilitation primarily as a way to help people hold the space to get the work done, whether it is conflict management, strategic planning, meetings, or coaching.
I use a variety of facilitation techniques. I just learned about ToP methods 2 years ago and have been using the Focused Conversation more. I was using something similar without knowing it! My clients are appreciating the ToP methods partly because they are so new to them.
How do you bring your Black culture into the way you lead?
This is an interesting question. As a Black woman, I bring diversity and an outlook unique to that experience. Part of who I am is embedded in my identity. It comes out in my examples, frames my worldview and my perspectives. It helps me ask better questions when working with clients. I am really good at asking questions, because I do not have a “dog in the fight” (i.e., I’m outside of the client issues). I naturally seek equity and inclusion in the room. I do not play to the politics, but it is part of the culture. I try to speak to where there is equity or lack of equity. Because I am external to their culture I can help. I know when I enter as one of the few (or only) Black women/people in the room. I am very conscious about the conversations that may or may not surface because I am a Black woman, but I don’t let that drive me away from the room.
What are some things that challenge you about race?
One of the challenging things I can say about my role has to do with others’ perceptions of my intellect. I’ve had encounters with men and women who have “been surprised” at how creative, intelligent, or experienced I am without even knowing me. Sometimes I’ll even ask, “why would you be so surprised by that?” I still encounter people who express that they feel I am too entitled. They assume their own experience is so much more than mine. That is one of the biggest challenges I get – they do not believe that I can be so capable. They want me to be capable but then are surprised that I am.
The other thing that is hard as a Black woman in the USA is gaining access in networking. Networking is so important because it is about who you know. Unless you have a long testimony of your work, it is a long road to get work and the trust you need from prospective clients. Through the ToP network, I have learned of many client leads in other states. It is has been beautiful for me because networking is happening faster.
How can non-Black colleagues be an ally in facilitation work?
For non-Black colleagues, I would say do more outreach toward Black colleagues. Be intentional about networking, seeking out and working with Black professionals because we are out here. Provide introductions and referrals. What is not helpful is being excluded because I was not even considered. (e.g., they say to me “Oh I did not even think of you”.)
What are your words of advice to other facilitators of color?
Expand your toolkit especially with the ToP methods because they can also be used in OD. I cannot say enough about being thoughtful with what tools you add to your toolkit. As a newer facilitator, facilitation will help with your own self-management and leading people to manage their own tasks. Facilitation can help you with setting boundaries around where people can and cannot go in conversations with each other. It helps with both erasing and moving boundaries. Facilitation is empowering.
Contact Eileen Pippins: email@example.com
Biography: Mayme has worked tirelessly as a community activist for over two decades. She brings the voices of those most marginalized in the African-American neighborhoods where she grew up. She is a senior program coordinator for the Duke Durham neighborhood partnership. She uses her skills and experiences to teach neighborhood leadership, protect and preserve local history and empower the under-served. She was awarded the Civic Change Champion award in 2019. Mayme also makes a mean pound cake, loves to play cards and put puzzles together on a lazy afternoon.
What is your background?
My area of work now is in housing and neighborhood development with Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, SE USA. My job title is like a paragraph (laughing): Assistant Vice President/Director Duke Durham Neighborhood Partnership and Community Development Office of Durham and Community Affairs.
I have to say that we are working now more holistically and more relationally than in the past. My current role is external. I work across neighborhoods and sectors – e.g., health, food, disparities, housing and community development. My role is about helping the Duke community interface and improve one’s quality of life. It is not about being benevolent but coming in from an empowering space and enabling residents to have a say in their own future. My job is to help them “marry” with some of the resources available at Duke.
How does facilitation fit into your work?
Being able to facilitate is a blessing and is essential in my work. It is about giving a voice to many of the populations that do not have a voice within Durham. I also use it to help faculty and staff target their wonderful gifts into and alongside the community work.
I know facilitation skills are essential in dealing with poor dynamics and class systems. Most of us have our patterns around class and race for example, deeply embedded in our brains. When we use facilitation methods, it can be effective in working skillfully with this ingrained thinking. It works because it helps people realize we face common issues.
Facilitation includes educating others in my community that is “OK to vision” (i.e. imagine a better, different future). Most Black Americans were not given the luxury to envision a better future because we had other, more important issues. To be able to vision in a community that does not have anything, is a journey itself. And (there is the joy of) watching the individuals in that community grow because they can see themselves in their vision. That is what I love about ToP. It provides a space for people who normally wouldn’t even know about these methods, to use them to improve their quality of life.
How does your racial heritage play out in facilitation
It has taken me some time to see how my Black heritage has affected me. I learned that it had a place in any space. It shows up in my work. I’d like to think my facilitative style is to speak truth to power and be the voice that cannot be said in the rooms. My facilitative style is not necessarily common or a language from my own Black community. My mentors or elders came from a top down hierarchical experience. They also experienced gender quite differently than me. Male role models were what people saw and experienced as leaders. I see my facilitator style being shaped by those experiences.
I have decided also to show up as a native to my neighborhood. I have to bring that “lived” experience into the space. I’m part of a village that is about empowering our Black community. I’m proud of this. Also, showing up specifically as a Black facilitator is important to me. I also know it is important for other female Black facilitators to show up for one another. How can I be all that I can be even for others who are not here today? The weight of that responsibility can be daunting.
Who are White Allies that you’ve met in your work?
It tends to be different for different allies. Some White allies I have worked with a long time and that makes a difference. What I find interesting is who might speak up ( e.g., when a racist incident happens) even before I do. It is really important that I am not always the one to bring it up. Allies who have worked with me for awhile will sometimes speak before I speak. They may not have lived my experience but they can at least see when others do something racist. Also, hearing them say, “I realize I did not see that. Now I do”, is really important. They are able to call out their own bias or inappropriate behavior.
What words of advice can you give other facilitators of color?
I would say, pace yourself. Know you can not do it all and be it all. Look for others who look like us and bring them in. Some might say to you, “I do not have the bandwidth for mentoring.” But I hope that does not discourage you. Be open to learning from whomever. Don’t stop working with mentors of color but be open to have mentors who are White. They still have something to offer. Take a chance. I took a chance because these ToP methods had something to offer me (at the time I joined, I was one of only a few people of color in the ToP network and it stayed that way for decades.) I did not see myself in the ToP group when I started, but I wanted to be part of a learning community. ToP was such a learning community and it met my values.
Contact Mayme Webb-Bledsoe: firstname.lastname@example.org
Monica D. Murphy, MPH, CTF
Biography: Monica is Founder and Lead Facilitator at Murphy Dynamics, LLC in Atlanta, GA. You can usually meet Monica on the dance floor while she’s Chicago Style Stepping or doing Detroit Ballroom dancing. She is a native of North Carolina and loves all things Carolina included the Tarheels and the Panthers. She is also a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and graduate of North Carolina Central University which is ranked as one of the top Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the South, “Eagle Pride”!!!
My work as a facilitative leader
I live and work in Atlanta, Georgia, in the southeastern USA. I have been working in public health for 12 years and have had opportunities to work in health care, community health, and state and federal government. Currently, my work centers around conducting evaluation and providing technical assistance to state health departments and national organizations that receive funding from the federal government to implement public health interventions. As a public health professional, the work I really enjoy doing is community-based, where I can really get into the weeds and be a part of efforts to improve the health of our communities. In 2017, I started feeling very removed from that type of work, so I ventured out and creating my own consulting company. Murphy Dynamics, LLC. This is my space to do all my facilitation, training, and community-based work This is what I call my “heart space” work. Through this work is I can see that I am making a difference and impacting not only individuals, but communities and organizations as well.
I love facilitation, which is interesting to me because I am an introvert. So how does an introvert, love to have all eyes on her and be full of energy and excitement for hours on end??? I don’t know how, but all I know is that its possible. I love to nurture, build and grow relationships and partnerships. Facilitation is about changing the dynamic and helping people think, talk and work together! I liken it to being “a bridge” for people to develop positive and productive relationships. I do a lot of my work with non-profits and community-based organizations, county and city governments, and most recently with health care organizations. I’ve also had the privilege of doing community organizing with neighborhood associations. In addition to facilitation, I also enjoy building the capacity of new and seasoned leaders through facilitation training. I offer public and in-house courses in GA and co-train courses in NC and Washington, DC.
I think I do these things well
I always try to infuse diversity into the room, whether at the planning or delivery stage. When I think of diversity, I think of professional and life experiences, age, as well race, ethnicity and culture. I do this by asking questions that engage this level of thinking, using quotes and community-building activities that help people acknowledge and appreciate diversity. Also, I have heard clients and participants say I am patient in my facilitation. I bring a calmness regardless of tension or unsettling vibes (vibrations) in the room. I am “overly” organized but try to make sure everyone has a positive experience. I keep the space fun even when topics are heavy by infusing light heartedness in the room.
I’ve had people come up to me and say “I am glad you are doing this”. What they are saying is that they are glad to see someone who looks like them. For those people who say that and have that feeling, I believe seeing a black female facilitator in charge of the room creates a different (positive and empowering) environment for them.
Some of the hardest things I face as a black female facilitative leader
On the flipside, there are also people who may not be as happy to have me as their facilitator. Some will try to make it hard for you by, for example, resisting engagement. Oftentimes it presents itself In smaller more discrete ways – e.g., I have to talk a lot about my experience and how qualified I am – proving that I am qualified to be there. This isn’t unique to facilitation, it’s unfortunately an ever present reality of women and people of color. There is always the added layer of pressure to perform well and be seen positively because of the systemic and institutionalized racism and bias that we experience on a daily basis.
Allies help by…
Helping me make connections. they invite me to come and facilitate in settings where opportunities can be created and connections can be made. Allies help by “being willing to share their experience with my work”. They provide testimonials based on their experience of me . Sometimes they ask “what do you want me to say (or in other words, “give me talking points”) and where shall I post it or whom do I share I with? This helps to ensure that I get my name in front of the right people. Just as important, are those allies that say “I will help you figure this out” or that agrees to help me if I ask them.
An ally is one who says, “I will help you figure this out” or, agrees to help me if I ask them.
Allies don’t help when…
In facilitation spaces, it can be the opposite of what I said above. They might say to someone “oh Monica can do that” when they do not even know if I can. That can create the space for some pretty interesting client discussions. It definitely requires me to be quick on my feet. It is important for allies to understand what I actually do, so they can be intentional about making not just making connections, but making the “right” connection. It is also not helpful for allies to say e.g., “we’ll make you a lot of good connections” but they do not take the time to really understand what I do best.
How I grow as a facilitative leader
It helps to be connected to people who are doing the facilitation work – e.g., having a mentor is great and being part of a network. I am also being more assertive and intentional about asking for what I need. As a Black woman, I think we carry that weight of always having to have the solution and having to figure out things on our own. Being a facilitator has really put me in a position to engage and not be afraid to ask others to share their wisdom or resources. Other people do it all the time and I’ve learned “it is Ok for me to do that”. These things have helped me to grow. Another place I have grown is in quieting the feeling that I don’t have what I need. For some proposals, I have hesitated because I am not sure whether I am ready for this or qualified to do it. Operating like this, I find that I can spend a lot of time talking myself out of doing something. So, instead I think of all skills and resources that I do have and will oftentimes choose to go for it. No matter the outcome, it is always a learning opportunity!
Advice to other women of color who are developing as facilitative leaders
Remember it does not happen overnight. Each small opportunity to do a conference call or contribute to a meeting is still good experience. Identify those types of opportunities and ask to do them. For example, ask: “can I make the agenda for the meeting?” People can have a whole different experience because of how you design the agenda. Or, ask if you can set up the meeting room. You may not be able to be the facilitator but you still may be able to impact the experience. They will start saying “That meeting was so different. Who did that?” And it will lead to others thinking of you as a resource and see the value of facilitation.
Know that people have different definitions of facilitation, and sometimes their definition is not what you think of as facilitation. Not everyone will see the value of facilitation as you know it. Accept that.
Finally when a request for proposal (RFP) comes in and that you are not sure you are qualified for it, but you keep thinking about it, go for it! If nothing else, it will be an exercise in writing about your skills, experience, and technical expertise in facilitation. And when you win it, it’s an opportunity to build a team of colleagues around you who can help you see it through!!