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Power of the Poker Face: Why I use neutrality as a facilitator

Power of the Poker Face: Why I use neutrality as a facilitator

By Jenny Medrano

DEI: Beyond the Buzzword.  Program Manager, Jenny Medrano shares insights and lessons learned while navigating diversity, equity and inclusion in her daily life.

Neutrality? No thank you.

The first time I experienced neutrality was at Building Bridges. I can admit, I definitely judged the facilitators who used this posture. I remember thinking, “Damn, these people are stiff and emotionless.”

What I mean by “neutrality,” is: facilitating a discussion with minimal facial expression, little to no nodding or affirmation of any kind, and rarely inserting your own opinion into any discussion.

So you could see how someone like me, an animated person who grew up in a passionate Latino household, was taken aback by this posture, and even a little unsettled.

My discomfort with neutrality began at my first training with Building Bridges. We had to participate in a lot of intense, experiential workshops that we were then going to facilitate for youth leaders.

[Image description: Photograph of Jenny Medrano, with a yellow emoji icon with straight lines for eyes and mouth overlaid on Jenny's face - suggesting no emotion being expressed.]
[Image description: Photograph of Jenny Medrano, with a yellow emoji icon with straight lines for eyes and mouth overlaid on Jenny’s face – suggesting no emotion being expressed.]

Each time I would express myself during deep discussions around identity and anti-oppression, I would get little to no reaction from either facilitator. All the participants would share their thoughts and opinions, getting emotional at times and freely showing those emotions. But the facilitators, they would just stare blankly back at us. That lack of affirmation bothered me at first, but then I grew used to it, and even came to expect it.

It’s not like the facilitators were passive in their facilitation. They were still asking thought-provoking questions, helping us hear each other out, and guiding us. They clearly had a plan, and were flexible in sticking to the plan and following where we wanted to take the topic. Yet, they would never make the discussion about them.

I thought that was so weird.

It got weirder on the last day of the training. We were enjoying the hot tub in the home that we rented out, and one of our facilitators joined us. Within minutes we were all laughing at some fart story being told by our facilitator.

I was shook.

She actually had a personality! I was surprised to learn that she was not a robot. I also learned something else, she had been using neutrality as a tool for her facilitation.

Putting it into practice. And not liking it!

When it came time for the summer youth program, our staff was expected to try out all of the facilitation skills we learned during our training, including the neutrality posture. And let me tell you, I was not happy about this.

I can remember critiquing, challenging, and being super resistant to this posture throughout the entire summer program. I would tell my director, the facilitator with the secret silly personality, that I don’t think this neutrality posture is for everyone. I told her how my Mexican culture has taught me to be warm and expressive and how I thought it was so rude that I couldn’t nod or smile at these young people.

Many times throughout the summer, I would find myself accidentally nod or smile at our youth participants as they were sharing their opinions. Mostly because I wanted to put them at ease as they put themselves in a vulnerable position. I was also tempted, and sometimes accidentally inserted my opinion into a discussion. I felt the teacher in me rise up as students seemed confused, I wanted to help them understand racism, immigration and so many other topics, but I tried my best to stick to neutrality, and when I slipped up, I would just get mad. I would think to myself, “how is acting like a robot even that helpful?!”

Coming around to the power of poker face.

It was not until recently that my mind completely changed on the neutrality.

It started changing during our year-round youth program. I realized that being a facilitator didn’t mean that I couldn’t share who I really was. Since we met in smaller groups instead of the large group during the summer, it was easier to go deeper with the youth. Inevitably, we all got to know each other a lot better, and many opportunities arose for me to share more of myself with them. As I continued to stay involved with Building Bridges as both a youth facilitator in Transform and an adult facilitator in Shift, I learned how to strategically use neutrality.

One of the biggest learning moments that happened in learning this strategy was at our past Connect Through Conflict training. At the end of the training, we got a lot of feedback from our participants about their unease and discomfort with our posture of neutrality.

As much as I could, I passionately expressed why this posture is the best and how I am Team Neutrality all the way! I tried to explain that neutrality helps facilitators not insert themselves into the discussions unnecessarily, and how neutrality helps us better navigate conflict when it arises. I told them I was apprehensive about it too at first but then I learned how to use it.

I’m pretty sure many of them were not bought into our posture by the end, their facial expressions gave that away. Amateurs.

Yet, instead of taking their constructive criticism personally, I reflected on this training with my team and we decided that we would try out something different in the future. During a recent Shift training, we introduced ourselves to the organization and also explained why we use a neutrality posture at Building Bridges. We told these adults that we may seem a little emotionless, and it might be a little weird that we don’t nod back at them, but that we choose this posture to make our trainings more about them, and less about us.

That one, little line of explanation changed the whole game. By the end, the participants of the training were sharing freely and seemed unbothered when their facilitators did not reflect back their emotions. They understood that we were there as facilitators to guide the discussion, but in the end, their group development was in their hands. In the end, the training was a huge success and the organization was able to put a plan to deepen inclusion in their workplace into effect.

Since that training, I’ve made it a habit to always explain why I use a neutrality posture. Every time, this has proven to be helpful for everyone, especially those who get anxious from sharing in groups. This is one strategic move that I’ve made with the neutrality posture, but there is another that I feel is even more important.

How neutrality has helped me.

Over the past few years, I have facilitated a fair amount of highly emotional workshops around diversity, equity and inclusion. The times that I’ve felt most grateful for the tool of neutrality, have been during discussions that start to involve the topic of women or racial minorities. It’s in those intense discussions that I am most aware of my identity as a Mexican-American woman. There’s no way I can hide this part of me.

It’s during these times, when the tension is high, and the topics being discussed either concern me or could easily offend me, that I lean on the neutrality posture. Specifically, I’m talking about times where I have had to facilitate a discussion on systemic racism in a group of majority white people, and I’m the only person of color.

Or, times when I have had to facilitate a power dynamic between a man and another woman, or even a man and myself. It’s been in these type of conversations where I have made sure to keep a stance of neutrality. In part, this stance has helped protect me. I feel protected in knowing that this posture doesn’t reveal my true emotions, so even if a participant were trying to get a reaction out of me in an effort to deter the conversation, I would not seem odd in maintaining a “poker face” (I mention this because it’s happened to me before, power does weird things to people).

Also, I’ve noticed that often times in conversations around privilege and oppression, those people with more power will look to those with less power as they express their opinions in hopes that the nod or affirmation of an oppressed person will put them at ease. For this reason, neutrality helps me save energy.  I don’t have to be that person who comforts the privileged, I am allowed to let them sit in their own discomfort.

Clearly, I’ve become a fan of using neutrality as a facilitator. One thing I know for sure is that in order for a person to become a fan or not, they are probably going to have to experience it themselves. After practicing neutrality, wrestling with it, and observing it, you might come to the same the conclusion as me, or not. But that’s all up to your own facilitation style and preference.

As for me, I’m going to keep using that puh-puh-puh, poker face, puh-puh poker faceeee.

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When White People Say, ‘That’s Bad!’ It Matters

By Abe Haile

A page from the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook photographed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Feb. 1, 2019. The page has four photos: on the top left, a portrait of Ralph in a suit and time; in the middle, a candid photo of Northam standing outside, trees in the background; bottom left is Northam seated on the ground beside a convertible; and on the right side is a candid photo of two people, the one on the left in blackface, the one on the right in a klansman's robe and hood. Below that photo states, "Alma Mater: Virginia Military Institute; Interest: Pediatrics; Quote: There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I'll have another beer."
A page from the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook photographed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Feb. 1, 2019. The page has four photos: on the top left, a portrait of Ralph in a suit and time; in the middle, a candid photo of Northam standing outside, trees in the background; bottom left is Northam seated on the ground beside a convertible; and on the right side is a candid photo of two people, the one on the left in blackface, the one on the right in a klansman’s robe and hood. Below that photo states, “Alma Mater: Virginia Military Institute; Interest: Pediatrics; Quote: There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I’ll have another beer.”

I’m willing to bet you and everyone you know had never heard of Virginian Governor Ralph Northam before this month. A racist photo from Northam’s medical yearbook surfaced depicting two individuals—one dressed in minstrel blackface and the other in full Klansman garb.

Keep in mind this year book page in question was Northam’s personal page with four pictures he handpicked and submitted to the yearbook committee.

Northam initially apologized for taking part in this 1984 racist buffoonery, then changed his story less than 24-hours later, claiming he was neither of the gentlemen in the photo. Unsolicited, he did however admit to dressing up in blackface for an unrelated Michael Jackson costume just a few months after the photo in question.

Let’s give Wreck-It Ralph the benefit of the doubt and assume he wasn’t either of the distinguished racist doctors in that ‘good ole boys’ photo. Then, let’s ask him why he—as a 25-year-old medical student—felt this picture would stand the test of time any better than a Harlem Shake tattoo.

I’m more curious about this nuance than any other aspect of the story. In fact, as an American black man, I don’t find this story all that shocking.

Blackface worn by white performers in America is synonymous with Jim Crow laws intended to keep African-Americans segregated to a lower quality of life. Blackface was one of the original racist fear-mongering tactics used in this country to spread hateful stereotypes about black citizens.

It’s not that I don’t care that Ralph Northam wore blackface. I just don’t find it all that alarming that a 25-year-old man who grew up in the capital state of the confederacy might have been a racist college kid. Call it desensitization if you please, but black people have been putting up with mainstream blackface right into this decade.

Unlike Ralph Northam, I am willing to bet you and your closest people have heard of both Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon. Within the last 20 years, both of these highly successful late-night talk show hosts have dressed up in blackface on their respective prior television gigs. Kimmel on multiple occasions went blackface as both Oprah Winfrey and Karl Malone (retired NBA Hall of Famer) on The Man Show. And Fallon donned dark brown makeup to impersonate comedian Chris Rock during a Saturday Night Live sketch.

Fox News was quick to pounce on the Jimmy’s for being the only two late night hosts to conveniently omit the Democratic Ralph Northam’s story from their monologue all week.

But the late-night hosts aren’t the only famous white people who have thrown blackface caution to the wind in recent years. In 2012, Billy Crystal wore blackface to impersonate Sammy Davis Jr. during the Academy Awards. Robert Downy Jr. found time to change out of his Iron Man suit in May 2008 and into blackface for Tropic Thunder (August 2008). The Ben Stiller-directed movie grossed $188 million worldwide and sat at #1 in the box office for four consecutive weeks.

So, excuse me for finding it odd that white politicians have for some reason chosen now to start “caring” about this extremely racist display. It just seems like this learning opportunity is being co-opted for ulterior motives.

4:39 PM – Feb 2, 2019: President Trump tweets Ralph Northam’s behavior is “Unforgivable!”

4:59 PM – Feb 9, 2019: President Trump tweets on Elizabeth Warren entering the presidential race: “…Pocahontas, joined the race for President…See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!” Trail of course referring to the Trail of Tears in which tens of thousands of Native Americans died in blatant genocide as the result of the 1830 Indian Removal Act.

6:53 AM – Feb 10, 2019: President Trump tweets: “African Americans are very angry at the double standard on full display in Virginia!”

I appreciate the President speaking on behalf of African Americans. And I’d like to add my own thoughts. Northam said in a press conference that he learned how hurtful his Michael Jackson blackface was shortly after wearing the costume thanks to a conversation he had with a person of color. The Governor says he learned from this discussion how racist blackface is and that he apologized to the man and swore to never do it again.

Look at Northam’s track record and determine for yourself if in fact he genuinely learned anything from this said transformational conversation with a person of color: He’s against Confederate statues in public, he’s advocated for Virginia’s poor by working to expand Medicaid, and he has worked to remove policies prohibiting felons from voting (credit to Dahleen Glanton of the Chicago Tribune, Feb. 4, 2019).

So, what’s it going to be America? Are we going to retroactively punish every white person who has ever donned blackface now that our racist President has deemed the act “unforgivable”?

Given that a recent poll found that 39% of white American adults say the use of blackface as part of a Halloween costume can be acceptable, I’m not sure a zero-tolerance punishment approach is going to serve us in the long-run.

Instead, I wonder how many white Americans who have worn blackface are humble and brave enough to engage in a difficult blackface conversation with a black person where they might hear how hurtful their behaviors were to a fellow American. What if Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon each held an intentional listening session with a black American on live television?

It’s that kind of accountability that can really produce results.

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Happy Black History Month!

By Raegan Quattlebaum

This post will be the first of many in a series I’d like to call The Young, The Black, and The Professional, where I will be discussing my experience as a young black professional in a white dominated space and city.

Who is this for?

Today’s message is specifically for my fellow people of color (POC) who encounter microaggressions in their daily lives. However, ff you don’t identify as a POC, don’t worry. This message applies to you too. That’s the beauty of our intersectional identities!

I promise that most people will be able to relate to some part of this post.

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Equity in Fundraising: Why Every Supporter Matters

By Jenny Medrano

This post is the first in a series called DEI: Beyond the Buzzword.  Program Manager, Jenny Medrano shares insights and lessons learned while navigating diversity, equity and inclusion in her daily life.

To say that I used to be scared of asking people for money would be an understatement.

It would be more accurate to say that I hated fundraising with a passion. Or, that I felt like I was causing all of my Mexican family- dad, mom, and all of their ancestors living and dead, a lifetime of shame by begging. Or, that by asking for money I would literally be choosing my own death as I plummeted into a tornado of anxiety before each cold call (yes, I am EXTRA but it’s true).

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Happy National Coming Out Day!

By Kim Jackson, Building Bridges Intern

Today, on National Coming Out Day, I would like to start a dialog about bullying within the LGBTQ youth community.


…picking up your child after school. And when you ask them how their day went, they burst into tears. You ask what is wrong, and they tell you that one of their classmates told them that they don’t want to be their friend anymore because their moms are lesbians, and that being gay is wrong. They pick on her because one of her mom’s doesn’t fit into what society tells us a mom should look like; they tell her that 2 women cannot get married. This is a true story that happened to my daughter.

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Predators Gonna Prey: The Impact of Language Around Assault

By Amanda A Andrews

Author’s Note: Trigger warning this article will discuss sexual assault, and the language surrounding the subject is explicit. If this is something that may upset you please we warned and do what is best for you to take care of yourself.

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Holding Space for Intersectionality

by Amanda A Andrews

Social justice movements of the 20th century, like Women’s Suffrage or the Black Power Movement, were each radical in their own way. Each gave voice to groups that had been largely overlooked politically and socially by uniting under a common goal and a single identity.

However, new justice movements in the 21st century are up against more complex systems of inequality that require a new type of unity and action to dismantle.

Cue, intersectionality.

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Looking Back, Paying It Forward: Reflections from Liz Hamel

From Liz Hamel, Director of Programs

Dear Community,

With a full heart I’m announcing that I’m leaving my position as Building Bridges Director of Programs as of August 20.  As I make this change, I’d like to share some of my many emotions and thoughts with you.

Reflective & Grateful

Image with a quote from the blog post, overlaid on a background of the northern lights.

  • When I joined Building Bridges as a Summer Facilitator in 2014, I was at a crossroads in my life. I was questioning where I fit in the social justice world, my naturally conflict-avoidant self wasn’t fully aware of how powerful cross-identity spaces could be, and I wanted to be a part of social change rooted in empathy, healing, and inclusion, not shame, denial, or dismissal.
  • In Building Bridges, I found that healing community—I could be myself and all my identities were embraced, and I was also challenged and pushed to grow. A place where power dynamics and tension were named so that systemic inequality and oppression weren’t just “society’s” fault, but were playing out in the room for us (and me) to own. A space where youth were the experts on their own lives and weren’t fed the “right” answers, but instead encouraged to speak their truth, question, disagree, and explore the line between difference and injustice. I built connections with the most amazing people I may never have met otherwise, who shared so vulnerably and listened so intently, even in the most painful moments when developing empathy is the hardest. I knew I’d found a place like no other I’d experienced and one that represented the world I want to live in.
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“White Polite” Against the Fight for What’s Right

by Amanda A Andrews

Imagine the moment where you felt the most vulnerable. Now, imagine sharing that feeling in a circle of 20 people you’ve known for one week.

A green bar over a photo of paper bags labeled “Black, White, Latinx” says, Phrases like we’re all one race the human race or why can’t we all just get along both sound great, but don’t address any of the history that created the problem or the social systems that maintain them.

For some people that can seem intimidating or even impossible, but for Building Bridges that kind of vulnerability is in the foundation of the organization.

Building Bridges was founded in 1994 to facilitate transformative dialogues between Israeli, Palestinian, and American young women. Each summer young women would join together for a two week intensive to where they could open up about their identities and the social systems that influence their lives.

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Abandoning the Shield of Perfectionism

[Image description: A dark plum colored square background with a faded graphic of a multicolored hearts in rows across the center. In the upper left is a circular closeup picture of a young adult’s smiling face. Under a blue quote mark image reads the following white text: “I am so grateful for a radically real team who challenged me to recognize the impact of my words and actions as a person with so much privilege, get over my immobilizing perfectionism, and begin moving toward personal transformation. I am learning that the oppressive systems I hope to change must first be radically transformed within myself.” Underneath the picture and quote is blue text reading: “Tabea Meyer, 2017-2018 Facilitator and Social Work Intern” Centered at the bottom of the graphic is gold text reading: “Invest Now in Youth-Led Change!” To the right of that in the bottom right corner is the Building Bridges logo, a multicolored (green, gold, plum, blue) kaleidoscope circular shape made up of layered quote box shapes with the text “Building Bridges” in blue text across the center.]

by Tabea Meyer

Wearing perfectionism like a self-defeating and conscience-soothing shield, I have found it easier to explore outward than inward for the causes of systemic oppression. I have unconsciously protected my perceived vulnerable self with excuses that maintain the status quo and perpetuate injustice.  I abdicated responsibility for the trauma I thought others had inflicted on those with marginalized identities for generations, thinking myself somehow above reproach.  How could someone else have been so unjust? What kind of person could have those thoughts or make those policies hurting marginalized groups?

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