Interview by Ffionn M
When my initial interviewee (someone with a large amount of involvement and a fairly high position in anti-oppression education) had to back out part way through, my immediate reaction was to panic. Then, I remembered that, actually, even if they didn’t have particular titles, there were many people around me who had been engaged in this type of work and who had interacted with the transient ‘space’ of the workshop many times over. Luckily enough, one of these friends was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about it.
Ffionn M: As I’ve mentioned, the general theme of these interview assignments is “the lab” or spaces of knowledge production. When we got the assignment, my interest was immediately pulled in the direction of ‘spaces’ that were a little more fluid, knowledge productions that occupied a physical ‘space’ for only a short period but also transformed it into a very distinct sort of space of its own. That’s why I’ve asked you to come talk to me about — broadly defined, here, as ‘social justice’ — workshop and discussion facilitation.
To start, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your experiences facilitating workshops (what organizations, what sorts of workshops, where they were held, what led you to become a facilitator, etc.).
Theo K: Well, I first started getting involved with Queer McGill after being elected as one of the communications admins. I ended up getting very involved with Queer Concordia, the Union for Gender Empowerment at McGill, and the Centre for Gender Advocacy at Concordia as part of my communications officer duties. That was when I started getting into facilitating groups and leading discussions in general. Especially after my transition and becoming one of the only trans admins on the QM board, I was trained in Trans 101 workshops with the UGE that I facilitated for QM workshop events as well as admin safe space training programs. I ran the Trans 101 for safe space training for QC executives and volunteers as well. I also facilitated for discussion groups fairly often. Most of these were usually held in the QM office or the SSMU(mcgill student union) building’s bookable meeting spaces, or the QC office- usually spaces on campus run by students. Later on, after I’d stepped off the QM board and became more involved with the CGA, I volunteered to be trained as a facilitator for plans made by Concordia to have mandatory consent workshops in the first year residences; these plans ultimately fell through, and we were deployed to facilitate smaller workshops at Concordia’s Arts and Science frosh. I also became a facilitator for Trans Concordia for a brief period, facilitating discussion groups in the CGA meeting space generously lent to us.
FM: You mention that you were trained to facilitate Trans 101 workshops after you transitioned and became one of the only trans administrators on the Queer McGill Board of Directors. It sounds as though the responsibility fell on you because you were trans. Did it feel like that? Did that affect the way you were able to facilitate Trans 101 workshops in that space?
From your description, it also seems like this was the first type of workshop you were trained to facilitate. How do you think your own experience (personal knowledge) related to you being trained in this sort of facilitation? When you were learning to facilitate and later when you were facilitating these workshops, what sorts of knowledges do you feel you were bringing to the table and engaging with?
TK: Yes and no; Queer McGill, and a lot of queer campus resources that were student-run tend to have a bad rep in terms of being trans-friendly because of the fact that they tend to lean more towards social events, like parties. I took it upon myself when I transitioned to facilitate the workshops, since I felt that I was the only one with the depth of personal knowledge to do it, but in hindsight, I feel as though I was expected to do just that. I suppose that’s just the way it goes; people always expect the one who would benefit most from an endeavor of spreading knowledge to be the one to work hardest at doing so. Also on the flipside, being the only trans admin also gave me a sense of authority when facilitating workshops, of course. There’s a certain sort of understanding that if you’re a cis person coming to a trans 101, you’re not going to know better than the trans guy running it.
Being trans doesn’t mean that you’d know everything there is to know about trans politics, though (believe me, there are many trans folks who are still quite unaware). Of course I would have to have had training, and being involved in the construction of the actual workshop was quite enlightening as well- I was part of revamping the trans 101 that the UGE has, and I learned a lot about gender politics during that. I guess I think that being trans simply helped me make more sense of it, or gave me a perspective that is capable of a deeper understanding of gender politics than those who don’t have to live the complications of it. Improvising during a facilitation to counter questions or disagreements is also a skill that facilitators are trained in, and that deeper understanding helps immensely.
FM: I think that’s an interesting tension — that because you belong to the marginalized group, you are expected to be the bearer of knowledge but, at the same time, in certain ‘spaces,’ it also grants you a level of authority. Were there any times where you felt these two forces come into conflict in a facilitation space (or in life in general, since these ideas tend to continue outside of workshop spaces as well)?
You also mention the importance of being able to improvise during a workshop. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about this — how it comes up, how your deeper understanding of particular issues helps, what ideas those participators are bringing to the table and what it all results in.
TK: There’s never really a conflict so much as the two conflating to become taxing situations. Of course there’s the incidents that all trans people (and all marginalized people, for their respective marginalizations, for that matter) are weary of- cis people simply expecting to be educated, though they may even be resistant to this knowledge, and assuming that their journey to enlightenment is our responsibility. I usually come to workshops with the energy and expectation to deal with this, but the worst I guess is when it happens outside of workshops, in my daily life, or in my personal internet presence on social media or some such. I don’t think many people actually understand the mental labour that goes into coaxing someone to understand something new. Of course, sometimes I’m deemed too close to the issue to really be objective about it, and my authority on the matter is undermined that way- it’s a bit of a paradox. Usually employed by people who have no intention of understanding, but rather proving to themselves that they tried and that they were ultimately right.
In terms of improvising, there are always questions that ask for things not covered in the workshop. Usually I try to share a consensus with my fellow facilitators if I have any, about whether we could go over the question, or it would open up a discussion much more advanced than a 101 and that we need to skip for time concerns. Having a deeper understanding of the material helps us decide these things, or improvise ways of answering exactly what the person attending may be confused about in a short amount of time.
FM: I hear that! I have definitely, in my own experience with facilitation, noticed that there is a huge difference in the types of dialogues that are produced when you have folks who want to be better about an issue and folks who think that they’re already in the right. It’s also almost always (in my experience) the latter who expect you to educate them outside of the workshop space, at their whim — I think, maybe, those attitudes go hand-in-hand.
It’s interesting to think about this sort of participator in terms of the ‘space’ concept I mentioned at the beginning, though, as well. Maybe the lack of distinct physical space for workshops gives this type of participator the (incredibly misinformed) idea that any encounter with a marginalized person or an educator of this type is, itself, a site for facilitation? Further, what other effects do you think the temporary quality of physical spaces might have on workshop environments or how workshops and discussions are conducted?
TK: Well, the part where people just seem to expect education from marginalized people comes from a fundamental lack of empathy, in my opinion. I usually attribute it to a kind of ‘mental space’: everyone makes different mental spaces for different encounters. When with a friend, you’d make a mental space of friendliness or familiarity, or when dealing with an acquaintance you’d make a mental space of politeness or distance: I’ve found that a lot of cis or white people have treated me as if I’m some sort of kiosk (laugh). I think that there’s some sort of part where who I am (queer, poc) compromises any mental state that they would make while talking to me.
It’s actually something I’ve found because workshop spaces have such a transient nature to them- it’s usually a club office, or a rented meeting space at a restaurant/cafe. There are no assigned places for workshops the way there are for lectures or meetings, so the actual workshop space is a sort of… collective mental one that you join in on when you enter a workshop. The facilitators set the rules and boundaries for the meeting at the start of the session, and these rules hold until the end; I’m not entirely decided yet on whether or not this has a positive or negative effect on the workshop experience and endeavor in general. On one hand, the construction of the mental space makes for attendees that are more engaged and remember more; on the other, it might take away from the perceived legitimacy of the session, and consequently, the information presented in the session. I’ve found that it helps bring a more casual air to workshops, where people feel comfortable asking questions but also understand the deeply personal nature of some of the politics that are being discussed.
FM: I think a mind ‘space’ is exactly what it is. And this creation of ‘workshop’ environment in terms of the written and unwritten rules of behaviour is exactly what changes the physical space into a workshop or discussion space for a short time. How have these mind spaces met with the physical spaces in the past? Have there been particularly fruitful meetings of environment/space? have there ever been particularly poor spaces? Have the physical spaces or what might have been going on around the workshop ever ‘intruded,’ so to speak, on the workshop? If so, what was the result?
TK: I mean, spaces that can be closed off from the general public are always better. There have always been smaller interruptions, especially when the space is one that’s usually used for something else: club rooms always have someone or another coming by for something, and the SSMU general space in particular always has other students and other clubs making noise. A common interruption is when someone steps into a club room, unaware that it’s a workshop space at the moment, and the facilitators end up having to explain to them what’s going on; they either stay or leave, but the bewilderedness of finding the space reappropriated to something they weren’t expecting is still present. That’s essentially what workshops have been like for me so far- reappropriating a physical space with a mind space. The problem is when using an open space that other people already have a mental space of before the workshop space is constructed.
I remember a safe space training workshop that was held in the SSMU general; I wasn’t facilitating, but I was familiar with the material and the facilitators. We were seated around a table at the far end of the space, when somebody else, a tall white dude sat at the table and interrupted to ask what was happening. The facilitators had to re-draw the rules and boundaries for the newcomer, a bit sloppily because of time constraints, and I could feel a shift in the space to a palpably uncomfortable one that was particularly difficult for the facilitators. He kept asking questions about things that had been covered before he had arrived and taking up more time and space. The mind space of the workshop had been compromised, even though the workshop was open to everyone, this sudden interruption made the facilitators lose grasp over the space somewhat.
I’ve always enjoyed the workshops and discussions I’ve facilitated in the more closed spaces for this reason, I suppose. When I was working with the Concordia groups more extensively later on, the CGA lent us a room to use, that was upstairs in a Concordia building with a door that closed and locked. It was spacious enough to hold a good amount of people, and made for a more intimate, let’s say, environment where a certain safe space and facilitator’s authority was able to be held but people would still feel free to contribute or ask questions.
FM: I guess, in that way, you do need physical spaces that can at least work with the ‘space’ of a workshop, rather than against it. The story you told is an interesting one in terms of those rules of behaviour I mentioned earlier but also in terms of audience. I mean, I think that it is 100% the job of the privileged group to seek out knowledge, rather than the oppressed group constantly trying to provide it, but there is a tendency with workshop environments to have a certain participator in mind and it does make for a lot of familiar faces and fewer new ones, depending on the type of facilitation/discussion you’re running. Part of this could very well be due to the transient nature of the physical spaces, which makes things less accessible, but I also think that there are a lot of people who just aren’t willing to participate in this sort of knowledge production, aren’t interested in entering the mind ‘space’ of the workshop. What do you think about this problem? Do you see it as a problem? What can or should be done, in your opinion? Also, do you think that this sort of issue of audience is the same across the board for the different sorts of anti-oppression workshops you’ve run or do you think there are differences and, if so, why?
TK: Well, I guess it mostly comes down to an issue of mental and emotional labour. Of course there are going to be more belligerent attendees, and the amount of effort that it takes to deal with them aren’t necessarily fair to ask from facilitators who are of marginalized groups, whose knowledge runs a risk of being deemed too ‘subjective’ by these attendees. My personal opinion is that more privileged allies should be involved with workshops- those who can listen and help the marginalized facilitator speak from their depth of understanding, while being the one who doesn’t have to put in as much effort and is not at as much risk as the marginalized facilitator when dealing with a more resistant audience.
The knowledge being produced for an audience in a workshop is a very constructed and thought-out process designed to open up a discourse in every attendee’s life- interruptions are accounted for, and actually often lead to very interesting discussions (once during a trans 101 a discussion on preferred pronouns that hadn’t been part of the workshop was opened up and was very involved and enlightening) but it only works when the space has a clear respect for the facilitator, and subsequently for the process of knowledge production being brought to the session.
It’s a bit of a dilemma, I guess. I’ve been to many a workshop where it was simply me, the facilitator, and a bunch of people already involved with the cause and frankly didn’t need the workshop. I definitely think workshops need to reach a broader audience and those outside of the organizing groups, but that runs the risk of having attendees like the tall guy I mentioned. In an optimal world, facilitators would always be paired with one who is part of the marginalized group being taught about and one very adamant ally to sort of verbally wrassle down some of the more problematic attendees (laugh). Workshops for social justice issues still tend to be very small-scale efforts with little funding- as I mentioned earlier, Concordia had plans to integrate mandatory consent workshops for first years in the residences that fell through- and levels of security, safety, and authority are slippery things to maintain without bigger forces to back us up. And even with official sanction, it tends to become difficult to reach people with a workshop- I remember my first year in undergrad having a mandatory dorm workshop on various issues near the beginning of the year. I heard many complaints from my floormates before and after the workshop, and even found people skipping it because they found it ‘stupid’ and ‘unnecessary’ (which is quite inaccurate given the rate of sexual assault in dorms and, speaking from personal experience, the disregard for my queerness or pronouns). I very much appreciated that the RA for my floor was very strict about attendance, and felt that it did create an environment where I felt safer talking about and pointing out bad experiences than it could have been.
So. There’s no concrete solution I’ve come across yet, but I guess it comes down to that- more vigilant allyship from people and organizations in positions of power and authority.