These basic facilitation guidelines are meant to ensure that your SNS is not just an opportunity to lecture socialist ideas into the heads of members, but rather as a program of political development that builds skills for socialist organizers: how to talk confidently and in plain-language about key socialist concepts, how to be productive member of a group discussion, how to encourage one another as comrades to participate and ask questions, and how to move a discussion in a way that encourages people to think critically about their own lives and political conditions while applying a materialist, class analysis. These are just a few general rules/suggestions that have been successful for chapters-ultimately, you will learn what works the best for you and your chapter by experimenting with different approaches!
▶ Have a pre-meeting of facilitators (main facilitator plus breakout rooms), and the main presenter if there is one. Discuss the readings together, even if briefly, and discuss what you think are the main arguments that you hope people will spend time on in the meeting. No good meeting is the result of just one person’s thought or preparation. And then you can discuss how to structure the meeting to best meet those goals.
▶ A mini lesson is really just there to open to open up the conversation, and to help include the people who were unable to do the reading. The most important aspect of political education is to get everyone else in the room talking. Usually 10-15 minutes is a good length. Occasionally, a speaker will be especially proficient on a difficult topic, or be more renowned; obviously those are different situations to assess. Slides can be very helpful, especially with cool visuals, but not required. Sometimes people screen a pre-recorded talk! (We are beginning to create a repository of these for chapters to use. For example, two talks on the subject of policing: a 20 minute talk by Rachel Himes on the origins of policing that she did for an NPEC SNS training series and a 30 minute interview with Alex Vitale on The End Of Policing from a previous NPEC event). Alternately, try having 3 or 4 people each present on a specific reading, so no one person has to do all the reading and talking!
▶ There are multiple tools at the facilitator’s disposal in the online setting:
Go-arounds of a question or questions that everyone answers. For example, what was your main takeaway from the reading/or the talk? Or, what question came up for you? Or, how would you define X?
Prepared questions for when there are lulls or to kick start a conversation. These can be personal anecdotes that you’re soliciting, or more in depth historical/theoretical questions for people. Examples of the former: what makes or made you think of yourself as a Democrat? Or, What (not who...) first got you interested in socialist politics? An example of the latter: what makes capitalism so undemocratic?
In general, go easy on the prepared questions. After all, it is best for the discussion to be around questions people in the group have, as opposed to preconceived ideas. You want to have a balance in any discussion between identifying central arguments for people to grapple with and allowing people to lead the discussion themselves, without allowing it to get too tangential.
Breakout pairs/groups: You can have pairs talk for 5-6 minutes if you know the people, or you can have small groups of 3-5 for up to 10 minutes to just share some initial thoughts or try to answer a question together. (We recommend pairs only if you know everyone because you don’t want a situation where someone toxic is alone in a “room” with an unsuspecting comrade). Or you can offer a longer time, 20-30 minutes for groups of 10 or more. It all depends on the size of the group overall. More than 25-30 people in the discussion can mean very little meaningful participation, and a lot of passive listening. So if you have a group of over 30 people, consider longer and larger breakout groups. But if there are 30 or less, maybe smaller share-pairs or grouplets may suffice, and keeping the group together for the bigger discussion could lend itself to more excitement and depth from a greater range of contributions/thoughts. A short share in a small group can be useful to building a free flowing discussion in the larger group because it helps people feel more confident about what they think or questions they want to raise.
Writing exercises: Ask people to take a few minutes at the beginning or end of a discussion to write down their thoughts about a particular question, their main takeaway, or something new they learned, and then have some people volunteer to share what they wrote.
Connecting points and reiterating questions that have been brought up by people in the discussion can help keep the thread of the conversation going, and can help highlight questions that people should try to answer. It’s harder on Zoom to stay concentrated and sometimes people just miss questions or arguments. Reminders things others have said can engage people that otherwise might lose track of the discussion.
▶ Formats can vary but here is one model that is sort of simple and often used:
Introductions. Explain the format ahead of time and establish some ground rules like comradely behavior, respecting the facilitator, don’t use the chat in a way that you wouldn’t in an in person meeting, etc. Suggest people put names and pronouns in their “name” label, and have people answer an ice-breaker question in the chat like “What’s one hobby you would master if you had the time or resources?”.
Presentation. This can be a short talk by an expert, or (more often) by one or more local political educators that summarizes and contextualizes the readings, especially for people who were not able to complete them. The presentation should be designed to prompt fruitful discussion.
Small breakouts of 5-6 people. Ask people to write some questions or thoughts down at the end of the breakout before returning to the large group.
Larger group discussion starting with what people came up with and want to share, then as necessary connect different people’s points.
Call to action. Tell attendees how to get plugged in to chapter organizing/specific WGs or campaigns!
Let the presenter wrap up! It’s a good exercise for any presenter to try to emphasize what they hope everyone learns, or come back to answer some questions that were raised. Having an experienced facilitator wrap up at the end is also a good way to avoid letting the speaker dominate the conversation.