Group dynamics & tensions about race/racism

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A group is meeting online for the last preparation session before next week’s 5-day psilocybin group retreat. Patty, who is white, shares a story about her upbringing and says something racist, unbeknownst to her. The facilitators recognize Patty’s words as racist and assume it has been offensive to others in the group. Other group members (including BIPOC and white clients) hear Patty’s comment as racist and are visibly affected by it. 

 The facilitators begin a side chat to decide what to do and decide to let Patty finish sharing and then see how to address the issue. Before she finishes sharing, someone types in the group chat, “Will someone address what Patty said?”

A series of comments follow in the chat as tension rises. Once Patty realizes and reads the comments, she is surprised, confused, and defensive. As the facilitators try to respond, two of the BIPOC participants log off the meeting upset. Everyone worries whether these tensions will jeopardize the retreat.

Ethical Themes:  bias & racism, trauma-informed care, ethical teaching standards 

Specific Tension:  How should online group facilitators respond to unexpected, offensive remarks by students which risk derailing the group’s sense of safety and respect?

  1. How might the facilitators and the organization take responsibility for their contributions to the current state of the group and to those that were most hurt?
  2. What is fair to the individuals who signed up for a retreat and still want to proceed?
  3. What may need to happen next with consideration of the complexity of the group’s dynamics?

Racism and bias are wrong and have no place in personal development or healing service settings. Organizations have many means of creating a culture which upholds the dignity of all people.  Larger organizations may have a director of diversity, equity and inclusion; other smaller organizations may not – but all organizations should have a code of conduct or a code of ethics which affirms the value of all people and denounces racism and bias. The code should be widely posted, included in employee and student training, and discussed at the beginning of employee hires, training events, and other periodic milestones. 

Organizations should also create response mechanisms to address acts of racism and bias and educate staff on appropriate responses.

If racism or bias is expressed by students, staff, or faculty, there should be a process to first clearly and unequivocally declare that discriminatory/prejudicial comments and behavior are unacceptable and counter to the organization’s values. Steps should be taken to restore safety for all participants, even those who did not feel personally threatened by the inappropriate behavior. Depending on the nature of the incident, the organization could arrange a private meeting with the offender and/or issue a public apology on the behalf of the offender and the facilitators. Administration and senior leadership should be notified of the incident and play a role in crafting a response which addresses the harm done and outlines a plan to prevent its repetition.  

Organizations should aim to set clear limits around these behaviors; some offenses may be so profound that the offender should be informed that the organization must dissociate with them and they will no longer be eligible for employment/participation. Other offenses may warrant a second chance. Such offenders should be given clear guidelines around further behavior, and any repeat offenders would have no place in the organization.  

Organizations should assume a lens of learning and provide educational opportunities for all parties. 

In this instance there are multiple points of responsibility and accountability for all impacted by Patty’s comment, including Patty herself, the BIPOC students, the facilitators, and the organization. 

There are also procedural issues: people paid for a retreat. Some participants may wish to withdraw, concerned the retreat could create further hurt and disturbance. Some may wish to proceed with the retreat, perhaps only under certain conditions. The organization should have discussions with all parties separately with the intention of promoting physical, psychological, and emotional safety. In response, Patty might express meaningful contrition, receive education, and be permitted to attend a future retreat.  Given the impending retreat schedule, the other participants may be informed that the retreat will still take place under revised circumstances (i.e. without Patty) so they feel safe to continue their healing journey.  All parties should be reminded by organizational leadership of paths to take whenever they may not feel safe or if they are to witness behaviors and actions outside the values of the organization.

In addition, the facilitators should consider how to demonstrate trustworthiness and accountability to the clients after such an incident. They should address their inability to maintain a safe space for their participants at the time of the racist comment and address how they will uphold the organization’s code of conduct moving forward to protect the experience of all their clients. The facilitators might opt to publicly apologize for Patty’s racist comments and announce that Patty will no longer be in the group, while outlining their efforts to ensure a safe and transformative experience for all. 

While our brief Commentary is limited, racism and bias are complex topics.  We advise all organizations (small or large) to invest in meaningful equity education and to implement a layered organizational ethics framework to promote dignity and respect.

None of our cases or commentaries constitute medical or legal advice; see our Disclaimers for more information.

Gather Well is currently working with ethics consultants to build a robust organizational ethics framework. Our organizational culture is rooted in humility, education, and respect for all persons. We believe everyone can make mistakes and we also believe everyone can learn and grow. 

At the beginning of all our programs, we share our values and vision with our students and (starting in 2024) will share with our students our new organizational ethics structure. For instance, we will have mechanisms in place for students (and any organizational affiliates) to reach out to ethicists and/or organizational leadership when they become aware of conduct outside the parameters of our ethical guidelines. Our leadership and/or ethicists will evaluate these inquiries and recommend a course action to uphold our commitment to safe, ethical education. 

We are also in the process of establishing 360 degree feedback: teachers evaluate students but students also provide feedback on teachers. Each training program presents an opportunity for teachers to receive anonymized summaries of their student’s feedback, along with guidance from the Gather Well administration to facilitate an improvement plan.  The evaluation forms will have a link to our ethics consultation service and provide guidance on when and how our students and teachers can request ethics support.

As Gather Well leadership considers how to establish and operate an infrastructure that is in line with our values we recognize that we are imbedded or nested in series of interconnected cultures and frameworks such as that of the mental health field, that of educational models/expertise/ and discourse, that of the non-profit industrial complex.  We see these systems and infrastructures as being deeping informed and often contributing to the very paradigms of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy that we wish to dedicate our efforts to changing. We also feel related to the social change and social justice movements and to alternative healing movements. Within these movements too there often flows the offspring of white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism such as the values of exceptionalism, perfectionism, individualism, “either/or” and “us vs. them” thinking, singular truth, and so on.  We recognize that we as an organization have internalized these values as we are made of people functioning within the dynamics of non-profit infrastructure developed by the very paradigms we hope to see change. People and organizations or institutions are informed by the culture in which they live or are formed. These values flow unconsciously through us even as we actively work to liberate ourselves of this inculturation. Sometimes we act from these unconscious places. Every person does at times and we hold our learning with accountability and with care and encouragement of growth and awareness. We also deeply value and actively engage moving at the speed of trust, collaboration, interconnectedness, contextual and system analysis, trauma-informed operations, questioning and staying curious and humble to the pain and wonders of the change and liberation process.  It is an ongoing process, and often non-linear, so we anticipate trips and stumbles and subsequent, related accountability.  

We strive to develop an organizational ethics structure that is able to meet the demands of a culture that is in flux, within shifting paradigms and perspectives, that creates solid systems of accountability to our values, relates and is responsive to the values of the greater culture(s), and also leaves room for what else might be possible or wants to emerge in the cultures constant birthing of itself, all while prioritizing the well-being and sense of safety of those we are in relationship with as an organization.  This is complex. We know it will take many minds and hearts to bring it about and to continuously improve. At Gather Well we find this effort challenging and also invigorating. It’s just the beginning for us, but we know this will be a meaningful process and hope it may also be a meaningful offering for others.

None of the cases or commentary constitute medical or legal advice; see our Disclaimers for more information.