Hi, welcome to the Prelude episode for Holding Unfolding, a podcast about facilitation.
My name is Abby Oulton and I she/her pronouns. And I’m based in East Harlem, New York City, in unceded, ancestral Lenape territory, and I’m based here for both my residence and for my work. And I work at an independent school based on the philosophy of self-directed education. It’s called the Agile Learning Center, and we’ll talk more about that in a minute. So. This podcast started from my noticing people talking about facilitation more outside of the education worlds that I’m in, and in some contexts, the way people– the ways people were talking about it resonated and reflected what I experience in caring for a self-directed community.
And in other conversations, the facilitation that people are practicing is more in corporate settings and other settings where there’s a fixed goal, a deliverable that whoever is commissioning the facilitator is actually attached to. And so, at the same time, I was hearing those conversations and noticing that nascent trend, I started reading a bunch of work. I’m kind of compulsively curious about many things. And I was thinking about how in the work where people are researching how to build more just tech ecosystems, how to design better systems, how to design better ai, I– there was — there were these discussions about facilitation popping up. And in my readings about end of life care and palliative care and, you know, death traditions,
facilitation was popping up. And in my reading about soil remediation and education work outside of schools, right, in informal, we would call it, education work that’s about restoring folk’s sense of relationship to and connection with the land, I’m, like, listening to people doing that fascinating work and again, facilitation was popping up. And in those spheres it wasn’t the same– sometimes they didn’t even call it facilitation. It– They all felt like different threads than the ones where I was noticing facilitation, you know, kind of trending in the new pop ed world.
And a lot of folks in those spaces were describing as their best practices an experience of setting a space, of removing obstacles, of flowing in a way that’s that’s responsive to the ever emerging and changing needs of the humans and other beings and processes that they’re working with… Sounded a whole lot like the days I was and am having working in our school community. And so I got curious and started interviewing facilitator friends about their their experiences and, you know, essentially I was blown away again just by how brilliant —
uh — My co-facilitators are. And I use “co-facilitators” there really broadly, more as movement co-facilitators than people I’m directly planning field trips and such with, although the first two interviews I did were with my direct co-facilitators.
So there is a layer to those interviews, a shared experience, that I don’t know yet whether that adds to the conversation or detracts from it. We’ll find out.
You can tell me. This whole podcasting thing is very new, so thanks in advance for your generosity and good humor
as I try to figure it out. I promise the content and all the nuggets folks share more than make up for however awkward my audio tech situation ends up being, and I’ll get better at editing audio and general podcast construction as I practice, as with any skill set.
Um, before we transition into the interviews, I just want to go over a couple terms and concepts that might be new to people, but that a lot of the folks I speak with are going to incorporate in their answers and kind of just take for granted as shared language. In order to do that, I’m going to start by talking about my school. So. I’m based out of the Agile Learning Center in New York City, and it’s a K-12
independent school, where intentional– or self-directed learners gather to create intentional community with… And I’m hesitating there because I was like, “well, self directed learners,” but, like, with adults who are also self-directed learners, there’s an age slippage that happens where in some conversations, like when I’m filling out paperwork to submit to different regulatory entities, who is a learner that’s a student and who is a learner that is an adult, and beyond that a learner adult that’s a staff member versus some other kind of community member, like, that’s all very important in terms of paperwork and also in daily practice, in terms of clarifying in different roles, like, what am I responsible for and who am I responsible to when I’m in this role versus that role.
But day to day, we are, in our spaces, all learners, and we are all facilitators of each other’s experiences in different ways.
And when I was out with young people in Central Park earlier this week, I was telling them about starting this podcast, and we discussed how they are also facilitators and are people I should interview once I get practiced at interviewing. Although I do need to shout out Pharaoh, who is a teen presently with us at ALC-NYC, as we affectionately call ALC-NYC, our Agile Learning Center, and who previously was at Heartwood in Atlanta. And I’ll be interviewing the Heartwood founding facilitators a little later on.
But he did the cover art for this podcast, and I’m really grateful and had a funny moment when he sent it to me of feeling some pressure to make audio content that lives up to his visual gift.
So shout out to Pharaoh and…. Yes. So there’s– I’m usually working with definitions of “learner” and “facilitator” that are much broader than what conventional ed sets us up to think. And my definition of “student” is broader. Other facilitators I’m going to be talking to, when they’re talking about learning, the understanding is that we’re always learning because we’re always noticing and experiencing and receiving information and inputs that impact how we– how we make decisions and how we move through and understand and relate to ourselves and our relationships in the world.
And the understanding from that is that education is, is all of it.
It’s– it’s everything.
My education includes both my years of formal schooling and my experiences working different jobs and volunteering and being in different relationships and trying different hobbies or traveling.
You know, your education is interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, discipline-defying, holistic, experiential…A collage. OK? I’m going to go with collage…A tapestry. Whatever works for you.
But it’s a creation that’s yours and is ongoing and– and very rich. It’s not your high school GPA, although maybe that’s part of it for you. And Agile Learning Centers, the schools that are like mine and the centers that aren’t organized as schools that are like mine all share this philosophy of self-directed education that essentially says the person learning and whose life this is, is who we’re going to center. And that’s who is trusted to be self-determining and safe to be–er, supported to be…
you know, safe and resourced and cared for while they’re self determining and figuring out, like, what does a meaningful life mean to them, what does it look like? What does it feel like, and how are they going to get from here to there? And that’s important both in that it means our facilitation is, you know, dealing with the–it — the whole, the bigger picture, right? If a kid comes to me and is like, the thing that I am trying to do is start a business selling decorative flowers and wreaths from upstate in New York City, my engagements with that kid to support them are going to, yes,
be about, like, listing out what kind of skills they’re going to need and figuring out how to develop those skills. But also accompanying them in exploring, like, what is the landscape, what are different kinds of flowers, what are– what are decorative arts? What are the ethics of gathering different biomaterial and moving it different places? Like…
It’s a very multidimensional exploration that is also aware of their social context and of mine and is made possible in large part by both the steadiness of our relationship and my lack of attachment to the process or goal looking a specific way.
And that, to go back a little bit, is part of why I wanted to talk to other learning facilitators and other people who facilitate processes that are, like, that dynamic and emergent and not about getting this particular team at this corporation to a place where they —
I don’t actually know that world enough to know what kind of concrete goals people are assigned to move teams to. But, you know, we do goal setting and inquiries and all kinds of good stuff. Like… It’s just very different when your meta goal is to be in a supportive relationship with this human
as some process is unfolding. Some process that, like, is all about them. And by all about them, I don’t mean this, this individual, per say, right, because none of us exist outside of our relationship webs.
And so… Relationship is is crucial and context is crucial to the work. But, you know, the kid getting a certain score on a test or getting the same career that a parent has pushed onto them, like, that’s not what it’s about for us. I’m not facilitating this child getting from, you know, where they are when I meet them to wherever other people are telling me they should be or stories I was fed growing up, norms I was fed,
tell me they should be.
I am accompanying them as they grow and learn more about who they are and as they discern who they’re trying to be in the world and what makes a satisfying life for them. And I thought that — There’s outside noise and I lost it — Yeah, and so that leaves space for them to articulate a goal and us to start mapping our way towards it and moving towards it and then them to come back and say, oh, actually, this experiment failed.
And with the information of that failure, I would like to make this change. Or hey, I got partway to this goal and then I had this conversation with this person and it’s super inspiring. It opened up a whole new realm of possibilities,
and I want to pause working on this goal to explore whether this other– this other arena is is calling me more.
That’s all considered valid and valuable and part of the process, which can be messy and nerve racking for those of us who
were taught and directed and controlled and managed and coerced and trained and primed and everything else, as we grew, that was about becoming what someone else wanted us to be. Or a piece that would fit into, you know, the– some situation in a place we were born into. It’s really different. And so,
sometimes when people start facilitating in our spaces, especially those of us who, as many of us here do, came up through
conventional schooling, which you’ll hear varyingly, referred to as coercive ed, institutionalized ed… Trying to think what other names…School? There are people who challenge ALC-NYC being organized here, being organized as a school officially. Because they are concerned that that means we have we will have to push kids to conform with standardizing expectations more than we should. We haven’t experienced that to be the case so far in our eight years of existence. We have… I do a lot of paperwork aside from the facilitation stuff and this past year of navigating
the covid-19 pandemic in a place that was the early US epicenter, that’s– that’s been tricky. And has been a lot more making decisions because we have to based on the situation for our collective safety. You know, there’s a lot of stuff we’ve wanted to do that we’ve– we’ve just had to say no. More than historically. But…that’s OK. The kids managed a really amazing jump to virtual schooling, and they are super engaged doing all kinds of offerings.
My co-facilitators run really rad, amazing online offerings. And we’ve been facilitating small groups, exploring the city, doing, like, all day outdoor days through all of the seasons. So. That’s one of the other cool things that becomes available once your approach to education and to learning communities is about partnership and interdisciplinary exploration, and, you know, you just have to have faith that learning is happening. There is no concern that we’re not learning. The questions become much more interesting. It’s like, what are we learning?
What can we be learning? What are the different ways we can be learning and sharing? And, you know, there’s there’s a lot of creative possibilities that that approach opens up. And it makes things much less stressful in a world where there’s plenty of other things to be stressed about. And it let us be more more flexible this past year and when we’ve needed– we needed to be– in another season where we’ve needed to be. So I think that’s
all of the context that you’re going to need from me to understand the interviews. And. I’ve done three interviews at the time that I’m recording this. I’ve got another lined up. I’m doing them in batches, presently based on center, and I’m starting with urban areas, because that’s where I am. And facilitating here… It’s a young person’s, like, process to learn to navigate the New York City subway system by themselves. Like, that’s a really interesting challenge for new facilitators here, and a cool thing and an interesting thing that isn’t applicable in other areas.
So we’re starting here, and then we’ll move to Atlanta and see where we go from there. I’m super excited and grateful, and hope that you enjoy this… this journey.