Tell me about yourself – Method of the Month: Parallel Autobiography

How did you become the person you are today? What events played a crucial role during your life? And how do you relate to the world around you?

These questions can stand at the beginning of an educational process. For many topics, it is essential to first understand who the learner is and what shaped the lens through which they approach a subject. Self-awareness marks the start to untangling societal issues.

I first came across today’s method Parallel Autobiography in the form of Parallel Citizenship Image-1Autobiographies as published in ”Under Construction – Citizenship, Youth and Europe – T-Kit on European Citizenship’‘ by Council of Europe (2003). I was searching for methods that would allow participants to reflect on their understanding of their own citizenship. Ever since I have used it in many different contexts reflecting on a diverse range of aspects. To simplify it I developed this base version just looking at the development of one’s identity, which I want to share with you as my Method of the Month for August 2019.

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DESCRIPTION

For Parallel Autobiography, the participants create two parallel running timelines Untitled_Artworkstarting from the moment of their birth to the current day. On the top line, they mark moments in their personal life that changed their understanding of themselves. On the bottom, societal or political events are chronologically arranged that affected the vision of their own identity. The participants are given a certain amount of time (usually around 25 minutes) to fill in their individual sheets. After that time, they are invited to share the autobiography if they feel comfortable.

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DEBRIEFING

In the debriefing, the trainer guides the group through a reflection of the process by following the experiential learning circle by Kolb. Possible questions could be:

  • How did the exercise make you feel?
  • Did one of the timeline feel different?
  • Was it uncomfortable, and if yes, why was it?
  • Was there a difference between the personal and the societal moments?
  • Was there something that surprised you?
  • Were there things in common within the group, and if yes, why could that be? If no, why not?
  • Does this experience impact you beyond the activity, and if yes, how?
  • How can you use this experience in understanding yourself or others better?
  • How can you use the commonalities with others for building bridges?
  • Is there a use for this experience beyond reflecting on your own identity?
  • How could you go more in-depth with it?
  • How can being aware of the history of your own identity impact the world around you?

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BENEFITS

As mentioned earlier, this exercise is extremely versatile. You can focus it on any personal aspect. Also, the systemic context of the second timeline can be drafted as narrow or broad as it makes sense. Some examples:

  • political beliefs reflected on the global economy
  • development as educator reflected on the different learning environments encountered
  • relationship to once citizenship reflected on the history of one’s country of residence

It is only essential to incorporate the dichotomy of the individual and the systemic timeline. That will allow the learner to reflect on themselves in the broader context and to find commonalities and differences with others. This last aspect is especially exciting when working with a diverse group.

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RISKS & TRAPS

Whenever it comes to self-reflection, there can be triggering moments. Participants can Image (1)carry past traumas which this exercise can open up. Therefore, a real safe-space must be established beforehand, and enough time must be allocated to address it adequately. One way to lower this risk is to frame the activity more on the surface. Choosing a focus of the reflection that is more general might allow the participants to decide by themselves how deep they go.

Nevertheless, that carries its own risk. Being too superficial might not push the participants enough to actually be challenged. One important thing is not to ”force” them to present their result. Let them choose if they want to open up to the group.

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SOME PRO-TIPS

If you want to go even further with Parallel Autobiography, try one of these pro-tips.

  • Shared Autobiography: After the participants created their individual timelines, let them group together and create a common one. That could be done either in the whole group or in logical subgroups. These subgroups could be based on geography, age, or similar aspects related to the object of the reflection. It can help the participants to discover patterns in each other’s stories or find something in common with a stranger.
  • Be vulnerable yourself: In my experience, it helps the participants to open up when I make myself vulnerable first. That is based on the authority I as the facilitator hold. If it is safe for me, it feels safer for the participants. For Parallel Autobiography, I usually do this by presenting my own timeline first and using it to explain the activity. I always make sure to share things that push my comfort zone but do not overwhelm the participants.
  • Give access: If the participants agree, I like to hang all timeline up on the wall. This gallery allows them to discover the stories of the rest of the group during breaks and to approach other participants if they have questions. It can lead to personal connections and more intimate sharing.
  • Use it for yourself: I used this exercise also just for myself when I wanted to work on developing in a certain area. So I took it for the base assessment. The gained understanding of how I came to where I was then gave me insides how to move forward. It allowed me to gain insights on my values and priorities through the moments I chose or left away. It can also be a powerful tool in a coaching setting.

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So, what do you think about Parallel Autobiography? Do you use it before? What are other variations you can think of? Do you know a similar activity?

Leave me a comment below. Also, it would help me out if you like and share this post with our fellow trainer friends!

You can download the method sheet of Parallel Autobiography here!

Love and appreciation,

Anuschka

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Why we all discriminate – Method of the Month: Sticker Discrimination

As trainer and facilitator, we often face complex concepts like discrimination and we uhm and ah about how to facilitate a personal reflection on such a difficult topic with our participants. We want to avoid platitudes like “I do not discriminate as I believe in equality”, “Only people who are racist/sexist/abelist/… discriminate” or “I am a woman/PoC/… so I cannot discriminate”. Many participants have a hard time to think beyond these platitudes and are unconscious of one basic fact: As we live and operate in a discriminatory society, we are likely to act unconsciously in discriminating ways

A simple discussion of different definitions will certainly not do the job. On the contrary, a full-on simulation might not fit in the allocated time slot within your training. This is where my first Method of the Month will come to your rescue! The method is based on “Labeling Ourselves” publish by… in ….

“Sticker Discrimination” is a short and impactful simulation that confronts participants with rules and tasks that are aimed to trigger discriminative behaviours. After mixing the participants up by standing up and walking around, the trainer invites them to close their eyes. She walks around and marks the participants’ foreheads with different stickers. Some are left with no stickers. She now instructs the group to form smaller groups according to two rule: they are not allowed to speak and can only create groups of maximum four people. [Pro tip: Variate the number of people so participants can not split evenly]

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Participant waiting with closed eyes. [picture: IUSY]

Once the groups are formed, they are tasked to think of why they grouped up, what they have in common and what makes them better than the other groups. After the presentation of each group, the trainer calls the participants back in the large circle to facilitate the debrief. She helps the group to reflect on the process of the group building and forming a group identity. Did they follow a particular strategy? Where there moments of comfort or discomfort? How did it feel when someone was left out? How did this person feel? What were the power structures within the process? What did the stickers represent? Why did they stick to/break the trainer’s rules? How does this simulation relate to reality and the societies we live in?

I used this method in my last training “Equality start with us! – Youth promoting inclusive societies and global citizenship and opposing violent extremism” for the International Union of Socialist Youth in cooperation with the Council of Europe. We were already on our second day, and it was the start of several session on the topic of discrimination that would be later connected to the reality of refugees. On our first day, we worked mostly on the issue of identity which my co-trainer and I used as foundation and point of reference for the debrief.

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Participants trying to form groups without speaking. [picture: IUSY]

In my opinion when facilitating this method the trainer already needs to be established and recognised by the group as a leader. Otherwise, the power of the rules is weakened, or participants who are facing discomfort might just leave the exercise. We choose to use a harsh and authoritarian tone to instruct the participants and not to react to approaches during the group phases. Further, we interrupted or shut down groups during their presentation and even skip one group’s presentation entirely.

Looking at the outcomes, we as facilitators were surprised that even so, we worked with a group of left-leaning political activists how ‘easily’ they fall into behaviour patterns that embraced the rules given. Not one person broke the rules or rebelled against us as facilitators. The initial group forming happened really fast, and most participants expect that they finished their task, but participants did not realise that one person was left alone. This lack of awareness shocked many of them. They were so eager to figure it out and fulfil the trainers’ expectation, that they did not question the broader context of the exercise. In the debrief the participants were able to relate this to their real life and the fact that many people do not discriminate consciously but blindly follow the rules and authorities and therefore establish and maintain a system of discrimination.

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Participants are discussing how the exercise relates to discrimination in real life. [picture: IUSY]

Possible variations could be replacing the stickers with roles or attribute. The roles could relate to the context of the living reality of the participants like professions, gender, sexuality, education, religion or ethnicity. The attributes could be different forms of greetings or movements. If you are working with a multi-ethnical group, the rule of not speaking could be replaced by only speaking in one’s native language. The debrief could be connected to a group work phase, in which the participants have to relate the structures of the exercise to common hatreds like sexism, ableism and racism.

I am convinced that “Sticker Discrimination” is a powerful and with 30 minutes relatively short exercise on discrimination. It offers a different approach to understand the mechanism of especially structural discrimination and by being non-verbal invites shyer or participants with a more substantial language barrier to take an active role in the group‘s learning process. The discomfort experienced during the exercise enables a more profound reflection.

As always leave me questions and remarks down in the comment section below. I truly appreciate you taking this time out of your day to discover the world of Affective Facilitation with me. And I would be of course delighted if you decide to share it with someone!

Love and Appreciation,

Anuschka