5 Most Asked Questions for Trainers

I chatted with Erika from Training for Change about the top five questions she is asked by people curious about what it’s like to be a trainer.

In September, we hosted an Advanced Training of Social Action Trainers, a five-and-a-half day workshop led by Training for Change (TFC), a training and capacity-building organisation for activists and organisers based in the US. The method Campaign Bootcamp uses is based on TFC’s methodology, and the organisation has facilitated several trainings for Bootcamp. But this was only the second time we’ve brought their advanced training to the UK. The intensive included 15 participants, among them Bootcamp staff members and freelance trainers, Tamara-Jade, Rosie, Sue, Josh, Zuher, Sascha and Ishah.

The training is based on the an experiential methodology developed by TFC that they call Direct Education. ‘Our belief and our experience is that the wisdom and experience needed to solve a group’s problems or move a group forward is contained within the group’, says Erika Thorne, who co-facilitated the training with Matthew Armstead. ‘The facilitators’ or trainers’ job is to support the group to surface it’s own knowledge and move forward on its own power’.

I spoke to Erika the day after it finished and asked her the top five questions she is asked by people curious about what it’s like to be a trainer. In no particular order, they are:

       1. Where did Direct Education come from?

I am sad to say we don’t have a good write up of how we got this developed. It’s an oral herstory, history, and theirstory. Training for Change has taken threads and learning and pieces from other methodologies to develop an approach with three strands. First, we have an experiential approach (I call it a kick-ass methodology) that is based on supporting people to access their own power.

Second is that we tend to the personal development of the trainer. An individual trainer’s background and socialisation along race, class, gender, ability & sexual identity lines, among others, can be a source of strength, and also of self-limiting beliefs and oppressive behaviours. Trainers need to have worked with all sides of that experience in themselves in order to be effective in supporting a range of social change movements.

Third, we have politics. We’re not training people how to use excel spreadsheets.  We’re training people how to pursue fundamental social change with the use of strategic non-violence.

2. You talk a lot about mainstreams and margins. What do you mean by that and how do you apply it in your training?

This theory holds that in every group, every society, every relationship, there are multiple mainstreams and margins existing at any given time. People in the mainstream expect to have their interests favoured above the margins’, and tend to be clueless about the margins’ realities. The trainer’s job is to notice what dynamics between mainstreams and margins are ‘live’ at any given time, and support the group to address them.  

One of the reasons that we have developed the mainstream/margin frame is for addressing the very real and important power dynamics in all groups. What we saw in the US were destructive, identity-based conflicts that didn’t actually deliver power to marginalised people and also didn’t support and challenge mainstream people to change behaviour to renegotiate that power relationship. I’m talking about in movements now. We weren’t finding a way in our movements to work those conflicts in a way that ends up with people being able to work together, not denying the differences, but working with them effectively in a way that we can build power as grassroots movements.

Our mainstream/margin frame has not solved that problem, but in my own activist life (which started when I was 19, and I’m now 64), I haven’t found a better approach that allows us to acknowledge and begin to heal the damage, the pain, the wounds that characterise the margins’ experience, and that also gives space to mainstreams to shed oppressive behaviour and take up new behaviour. 

That is not a small task. And many movements have failed because they have not been able to do that. All of us are mainstream in some situations and margins in some situations, and that’s always been true our whole lives, and we need to work both ends of that.

3. Why do you often focus on people’s emotional states in this workshop?

We say very clearly we’re not therapists; this is not therapy. We don’t have that kind of training. But what we also know about trainers is that each of us has grown up in a society or a system that does not support the margins. And all of us have marginalised experiences. And certainly in the Global North all of us have mainstream experiences. So there’s a lot of life experience that has produced what we call self-limiting beliefs in each of us that reduce our effectiveness as trainers, specifically as social action trainers.

So for example, I am a white trainer living in the US, what I think of currently as the heart of white supremacy. I need to have done enough work on my own learned racism, on what being white in the midst of white supremacy means and in understanding my responsibility as a social action trainer in a multiracial group to both model to the best of my ability useful behaviour and also to be able to hold the conflicts and tensions around that. And that requires emotional work. It requires dealing with shame, dealing with early learnings. There’s a lot of personal work that needs to go on to be able to be present in a useful way.

4. Your trainings are emotionally intense and include three 11-hour days, two 9-hour days and a 4-hour opening evening. How do you have the stamina for this?

Like everything else, the answer to that is complicated. There are many people who deal with all kinds of things – chronic illness both mental and physical, visible and invisible disabilities, PTSD, being sole supporter of a family. Who is it that can take five work-week days to do a workshop like this? The structure itself limits who can do it. And we acknowledge that.

Yet the development that happens in this Advanced workshop is supported in part by its intensity and the relationships people build in that environment. Social change movements are also intense, unpredictable environments where the demands may be great. We have found that for people who are able to do it, there is valuable learning and growth that in turn strengthens their movements.

Also, it has surprised many people, including me, how I can build stamina beyond what I thought I could. I am somebody who has dealt with chronic illness from age 14 to today. I have found a way to tap resources of strength and stamina in myself that I did not know were there. I don’t mean every single person will do that in the same way, but all of us can grow our capacity in a way that is appropriate.

Ultimately, we need to build environments where we can work across difference. I’m nourished by my organisation’s work, my social change work and by this training. We have got to find a way that our movements are more nourishing for people.

5. How do you do that?

When people in the workshop see us trainers doing emotional work with a participant that helps them get through a self-limiting belief in a way that also moves many in the group; when participants experience authentic work on a tough gender dynamic, or on the chasm of experience around race between racialised people/people of colour and white people, participants do ask us, ‘How do you do that?’

Effective training using Direct Ed is a combination of a lot of work on these skills – emergent design, the cycle of experiential learning, practice with many tools, asking a series of open-ended questions – combined with our particular individual strengths. The more you practice it and work it and inquire about it, the better you get at it. But it’s not a practice that can be attained. It’s only a practice that can be practiced. There isn’t a final stage of learning in this methodology.

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