Coaching Into Possibility

Coaching Into Possibility

Key Points

  • Coaching and consultation sessions provide space and flexibility for staff and leadership to practice how they embody the change they want to create for a more just and equitable future. 
  • Coaching provides space for folx to learn more about themselves and others in a way that grows into a different set of goals.

Key Terms

  • Coaching 
  • Consultation
  • Facilitation
  • Interrogation
  • Accountability

Much of the work that we do as an organization affords us the privilege to be able to coach people up and to cheer them on while also holding them accountable to a set of goals that is in close proximity to our mission statement:

RE-Center activates youth and adults to drive transformative change towards racially just schools and communities.

We envision an equitable and just world where all youth have what they need to grow and thrive. We envision empowered students supported by conscious, critically thinking adults and supportive and safe schools and communities. We work towards a world in which equity is institutionalized in all school systems.

We embark on this work knowing it is not  easy or simple work. Our partnerships are structured around professional and collaborative learning spaces, policy and practice review, deep data analysis, and coaching and consultation. Coaching and consultation are similar but distinct, so Natalie devised these definitions that we operate from:

Coaching: These are targeted, facilitated individual and small-group sessions of one hour that can be virtual or in-person designed to address a particular component of learning or practice for that individual or group. They are planfully informed by the person or group’s role(s), goals, starting and stuck points. They can involve resource sharing, tailored feedback loops after observation or analysis, or skill-building.  

Consultation: These are virtual or in-person technical assistance opportunities for individuals or small groups for one hour to unpack a particular issue, examine something happening sociopolitically and its impact on the work, space to examine a policy or set of goals, review of a real-time case study, and more. These will feel more like problem-solving work sessions that are focused on specific issues or topics.

As we design the ways we will partner with a school, district, or organization, we have a series of essential questions to examine the landscape we are entering and more deeply understand how we might best activate their transformation:

  • What do we understand about equity and racial justice individually and collectively?
  • What, if any, foundational learning has been covered to develop shared language and understanding? What, if any, evidence is there of this foundational learning in practice and relationship? What does our commitment to equity and racial justice look like in action? 
  • How do I/we aim to engage in the transformational change of this organization/community? 

With the answers to these questions, we design a cadence of sessions to support movement and progress toward the goals. Coaching and consultation sessions provide space and flexibility for staff and leadership to practice how they embody the change they want to create for a more just and equitable future. 

Coaching supports people through what's happening to them both mentally and emotionally. Oftentimes people want to take the off ramp very quickly when tension or uncomfortability arise, and our coaching framework is a model for supporting people's stamina in racial equity work. Cathleen reflects, “Coaching invites people to stay on the main road.” It supports folx in feeling like they are not alone. And when coaching in groups, we foster a sense of collective ability where everyone sees that they have a role in upholding a commitment to fostering equity in their space or organization.

A common question is: “What does this work look like?”

When we're asked to work with folx, they often ask, “What does it look like? What does an anti-racist school board look like? What does an anti racist foundation look like?” It’s an interesting question as it’s rooted in the mentality of “just show it to me.” Coaching complicates that question. Even if we showed examples, they’re just examples. Coaching works to allow the answer to such a question to be processed through who the partners are. 

We build in one-on-one coaching for leadership in any long term partnership. While one-on-one coaching can invite individualism in learning, it can be useful if someone is seeking support with something they name themselves and they are opting into it for a particular reason. We do, however, prioritize group coaching sessions and are interested in working towards organizational change rather than simply building individual capacity. Group learning is crucial to change making. For example, if folx in an organization have differing definitions and understandings of anti-racism, that can be revealed and collective learning can take place. With one-on-one coaching only, folx may never know where others are in their process and lose the chance to hold each other accountable to move differently in the future. In this way, group coaching invites a different layer of embeddedness and makes something else possible. 

“You are your own best case study” - Cathleen

When folx bring their own instances to unpack into a group coaching space, they begin to see how everything is connected. For instance, in a coaching session we can refer back to a conversation about values and accountability when someone shares an anecdote that points to or underscores where the ball may have been dropped. Or, a recent relational example may feel top of mind as folx are unpacking concepts like intervention, co-conspiratorship, and dismantling the influence of privilege in the workplace. We employ a racial equity inquiry lens by posing questions that ask the organization members to critically analyze various aspects of their policies, practices, daily interactions and decision making protocols. Examples might include: reflecting on an incident of harm, role-playing a conversation with a board member or potential donor, looking at past or recent social media or other external-facing communications.


The importance of group coaching and 1:1 coaching

Oftentimes in organizations, or especially in corporate settings, coaching is used to address the person that is “the problem,” rather than understanding that that person exists inside of a culture and ecosystem. Group coaching works to create collective accountability around inequity. Frequently, we uncover that there are conditions curated to not only coddle and protect the problem person or people, but actually to allow them to thrive at the expense of others. Often these folx intersect with privileged identities that typically dominate and are centered in workplaces at the expense of BIPOC folx, LGBTQIA+ folx, and folx from historically excluded identities.

Cathleen explains, “It’s about the concept of institutional memory; if you were in the room where a conversation went down or that something happened, that belongs to all of us, it doesn’t just belong to you.” And the memories stick better when there’s coaching involved. We often witness folx referencing previous conversations and the words they heard from a colleague or coach.Natalie further describes the dynamics, “With coaching, there’s an application of learning that you get to witness and come back to shared reference points. When you’re in a group, it’s more likely that more reference points will come up and spark something for other people, too.” 

Cathleen finds that, “When people hear their own words and their own verbiage, they hear how empty it is.” It is often holding a mirror up so folx can see the unexpected reflection. What we aspire to do and how we aspire to lead often do not quite manifest in practice exactly as we might imagine. She continues, “An ask to leaders is often about how they invite people into the change with them.” If they cannot easily offer ways they are embodying the equitable and inclusive leader they envision themselves to be, then we can help them move more closely in alignment with their aspiration.

One example of supporting movement for folx is a framework called the 5 Ps that Natalie & Cathleen developed in 2022 for a partner organization:

5 Ps Framework

  • People: who is most impacted? 
  • Power: how is power at play?
  • Purpose: is our intention racially equitable, clear, and directed at a measurable impact?
  • Priority: have we clearly invoked our priorities?
  • Practice: how are we embodying our values + commitment to equity and racial justice?

What this framework does is ensure a focus on those experiencing the most harm in an unjust world, interrogating power dynamics and ground work and action in purpose and values. Cathleen often asks: “Do you really want to see change?” This question serves as a nudge for our partners to name more concretely what transformation requires of them individually and collectively. It can also highlight the fears and reservations folx have about disrupting long-held norms, beliefs or practices of their organization. Natalie responds to the question of whether we really seek change by offering: “I seek change if my language is one of accountability.” 

We have witnessed how the language of accountability shifts and ultimately evolves this work for an organization that is committed to change and embodying anti-racist practices and policies. Gaining fluency in the language of accountability means:

  • Asking questions of each other that seek to uncover the barriers and stuck points,
  • Naming what voices are missing or not amplified in the conversation, and
  • Building structures that invite criticality and hold us to account to our organizational values.

“Coaching invites the knowledge in the room to surface.” - Natalie


What’s centered in a coaching relationship

We center the people in the room and we do that in the context of movement. In facilitation, objectives often get centered. In coaching, we look at the people in the room and ask, how do we get them to move? What’s the hook? Sometimes it’s the right metaphor or analogy. It’s often about inviting the knowledge in the room to surface, and not just in the context of awareness, but in movement. Movement, for example, being how do we look bylaws, or operating goals, or a strategic plan though a different lens? Coaching centers a different set of questions and a different, more intentional, layer of accountability. 

People want to be seen and people want to be heard. And we try to be strategic and bring voices to the center of the conversation that are not normally uplifted. And we see that people start to hear differently. That starts to change very subtly, but people start to value what’s being said and who’s saying it. 


Group coaching differs from facilitating professional learning sessions

In a professional learning space, there is less accountability beyond showing up, but a coaching session is about the people in it. It’s about the partners’ concerns and challenges. There is no opting out. In facilitation, only a couple of people get to have the really embodied experience with share outs and you always start to hear from the same voices. In coaching sessions, you can't hide. We'll go across the screen, or around the room if in person, and actually really hold you to account. We’ll ask, what's rising up in your body in this moment when you hear that or when your colleague shares that viewpoint, what's happening for you? 

Coaching sessions make us better facilitators because with coaching we get a little more targeted, a little more punctuated. We can say, ‘You didn't answer that question and I want to push you a little bit on that. Can you go a bit deeper?’ Facilitation tends to be about exposure and awareness building; coaching holds folx accountable to applying the knowledge gained to their practices so that changes towards equity take place.


Navigating coaching when folx are in different places 

Different configurations of coaching sessions are important. Sometimes a coaching session is about consulting around a specific objective and sometimes it’s about unpacking a specific interaction, and sometimes it’s skill building. And just like in facilitation, we have to be really attune to who is taking up the most space. We are particularly attuned to where positional power and agency lies in the thing we’re trying to do. Sometimes a group coaching session will require a follow up session with the leader of the organization. And sometimes there are individuals who need a different kind of coaching than the larger group in order not to deflect from the larger needs of an organization.


Coaching supports folx’ proximity to change

It makes the word ‘change’ and the concept of it less abstract. And by nature, it’s focused on application and action. If it’s not, it’s a miss. We coach someone to do something, to do something differently; if you’re just doing it with an end point of critical self reflection, that’s a miss. More often than not, coaching can be centered on how a particular reflection impacts you and what you are going to do next.

And typically, we're in relationship with organizations that want to do something different. They've at the very least declared that something needs to change, that they need to move differently, think differently, or have received feedback that harm is occurring. 

“When it comes to change, when people hear their own language, their own verbiage, sometimes they hear how empty it is,” says Cathleen. For example, if a partner says they are going to work with communities - what does that actually mean? Coaching provides the space to to account and explore the meaning, or lack thereof, behind our words. 


Assessing for impact

We go back to our first coaching session. We're always starting at a baseline, asking folx what they’re hoping to accomplish. What do they want to work on? And what are some stuck points for them? More often than not, we're not coaching anybody that hasn't filled out a pre-survey. There’s always some baseline data assessments. We’ve also encountered folx in a training type setting, so we have a sense of how they move.

Other assessment measures include giving homework between coaching sessions. It's harder to hold a large group of people accountable, but with a smaller group, we’re able to embed it into the structure of the coaching. So there’s an ask, there’s follow up, and there’s a cycle of learning. It’s iterative and it’s responsive with real time assessment happening throughout.  

And it’s important that people start to see the coaching space as one that isn't rigid, but is responsive. We can have goals, but sometimes we will discover that those are not the right goals. It’s like going to the gym and thinking you need to work on your calves in order to move better, but you realize the focus needs to be on your core. 


Coaching tied to concrete goals

We’ve witnessed that as folx learn more about the journey of this work, of thinking about equity and racial justice, they learn more about themselves and others in a way that they grow into a different set of goals. And it’s really important for folx to be able to own their own learning AND it can’t just be individual. For leaders especially, it’s not just about how they are understanding this work for themselves, but they are inviting people into this work with them.


Our relationship to the idea of “meeting people where they are”

It's a fraught relationship if they're starting off in a really bad place. We don't want to meet you there. We don't want to have coffee in that cafe. We practice responsiveness and for us, that is different from “meeting people where they are.” It’s about tailoring the work. Everything we say about understanding your own lens requires us to apply a lens to the person who is in front of us or the people who are in front us. It’s all with a goal of movement in mind. 

There is such a thing as people who are not coachable, or people who are not in a coachable phase of their life. They’re not willing to move. When folx enter into a coaching relationship, they have to a) want to do this and b) recognize and accept that part of this journey, part of this work together, is being pushed in ways that they may not like or that may surprise them.

Most importantly, we are coaching into possibility. The possibility of who we are coaching- who they are now, who they might be tomorrow, and what they might influence or change if they fully live into their own learning.  And that’s the coach’s mindset - we’ll see you where you are in this moment, and we’ll see what you could be and we know we can support you to get you there. 


Cathleen is a Racial Justice Strategist & Coach at RE-Center and daughter of Haitian immigrants, student of Black womanist and Pan-African thought.

Natalie is the Executive Director of RE-Center and a white Puerto Rican, cis hetero non-disabled educator, advocate, non-profit leader, & mami with significant class privilege.

Sophia is the Policy & Research Strategist at RE-Center and a white cis non-disabled woman, researcher, and advocate.