Facilitation, Education, and Transformation

Stories from my Experience

Script of a presentation given on Zoom to a group of teachers and facilitators in China on June 29, 2021

Preparation

I grew up on a farm in Iowa.

I was a teacher from childhood – I taught my sister to read when I was 6 and she was 4.  And I used to gather all the neighbourhood kids to do science experiments.

My mother was a teacher, my father had a strong global awareness – both shared these with us.

I have a BA Degree in Education and Anthropology from the University of Iowa.

I joined ICA the same year I started teaching school, right after graduation.

Washington, DC – 1970

How to be respectful and fair, yet firm

This was my first experience in a culture not my own – Black inner-city, grade 3.

Given the history of blacks and whites in the US, I struggled with how to do fair and respectful discipline in my classroom. If the kids were disruptive, I didn’t know how to be firm and respectful at the same time. 

Eventually I was given an ultimatum from the principal: manage your class or you are fired– my transformation was the same afternoon.  I couldn’t afford to be fired!

That year I discovered learning from the students – there were 2 boys named Emmanuel.

They were in Grade 3 and neither could read

I developed a way of learning to read adapted from Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s work with Maori kids in New Zealand.

They asked for words they wanted to read,

I wrote them on cards,

They traced them, said them out loud, wrote them. 

The next day, if they remembered the word on the card, they could keep it.

 If they didn’t, we threw it away, and said it was the wrong word, not that the child was wrong for not remembering. 

After a few words, we built sentences.

Chicago, 1971-2

Forming curriculum around what the students need – facilitating their voices

Black inner-city, grade 7-8 – 7 classes of 30 kids every day – taller than me

Assigned to teach music – kids needed to learn to read

First year – disaster – kids out of control – again a principal gave me an ultimatum to improve

Second year –  on the first day, I had each student make a private 10-year life plan.

Name?

How old are you now?

How old will you be in 10 years?

What do you want to be or be doing in 10 years?

What are 10 things you need to do to get where you want to be in 10 years?

What are 10 things you need to do this year to get to where you want to be?

And finally, what do you need from my class?

Their plans were private – the only thing I asked them to share was what they needed from my class.  I wrote every one of them on the blackboard and had someone copy it.  Then I clustered it all together along with the curriculum I was given, and what I knew they needed – to learn to read and believe in themselves. 

This foundation became the creation of Black Music History course – I learned a lot!

Transformation of kids – they were eager participants in my class

Transformation of me – I realized that I was successful when I could relate what I was teaching to what the students needed for their own lives

Commendation from the principal

Grade 6 Rite of Passage Journey, Summer 1974

Transforming children into youth

35 6th graders, children of staff and colleagues

Camping in tents for 6 weeks, mostly in the wilderness

Intention was to provide a rite of passage from childhood to youth, with greater responsibility

Challenging activities, such as a week-long hike, carrying all camping gear

An overnight solitary vigil for each student, with some questions to ponder

Watching the Northern Lights one night until very late – awesome

Peoria, 1974-6

Facilitating mutual learning

Group facilitation started to be known – we started to use it in facilitating community planning meetings

From facilitation and my experience in Chicago, I stood in respect for the students – they learned from me and I learned from them.

Lesson plans became session plans – a way of putting an agenda together

Egypt, 1975-78

The long-term value of building on what the community needs, creating personal and community transformation

Facilitated community planning – including all villagers

Community wanted good education in the village

Started the preschool – facilitating young non-literate village women to plan and teach

Demonstrated how to build curriculum and lead conversations

Encouraged the teachers to take literacy classes

The next year – community teachers running the preschool

Kids on the first day in the public school were not afraid

45 years later there is still a village-run preschool in the village

There are university graduates from the community, and several still doing participatory community development

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Texas, 1979-81

Facilitating as creating bridges of understanding between groups in a community

Two cultures not my own simultaneously – Mexican and Texan

In the school I did informal facilitation – creating bridges of understanding between cultures

Facilitating on-going community planning

I built the remedial reading curriculum on what kids needed – testing, talking with them – addressing underlying contradictions where they were blocked rather than creating a set lesson plan

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Murrin Bridge 1981-83

Facilitating as cultural reconciliation

I took aboriginal elders into the schools – since I was neither black or white Australian, both sides trusted me and I was a liaison between the teachers and the Aboriginal elders

The community wanted to preserve language and culture – the elders were the only ones who spoke the language – they taught black and white kids together to create self-confidence and respect.

When we did this, I facilitated conversations on what students were learning

My work was to create bridges of understanding between cultures

Chicago, 1984

Supporting youth to thrive

Student house – place where Grade 7-8 students lived while their parents were working overseas

Jamaica, 1984-86

Supporting local leadership

Worked with village preschool teachers again, and trained school teachers on request

Canada, 1986 – 2021

 Facilitation as a way to change school systems

Regina Public Schools

I trained 10% of the teachers and principals in facilitation – Focused Conversation and Consensus Workshop Method.  Many of them used the methods in their classrooms and in teacher’s meetings.  They also facilitated input into a school reorganization plan.

Eeeyou Istchee (James Bay Cree) School Board – Quebec

I facilitated strategic planning for the schools in 10 remote indigenous communities.

Then I facilitated the leadership team to bring the plans from the communities together for the whole indigenous school board.

This created a school board plan that held indigenous values.

This plan guided the school board’s decisions for more than 5 years.

Treaty 4 Education – Saskatchewan

I facilitated a strategic plan with the school board and leadership (several indigenous communities).

This facilitation included community consultations.

They created a school board that met their values as an indigenous board.

I continue to do follow-up and train staff in facilitation.

They use facilitation in all their interactions with community.

OISE – Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

OISE is the education department at the University of Toronto

The new dean wanted participation in decision-making, not something often done in universities.

500 people – faculty, staff, administration, and students participated in small groups to create values, vision, obstacles and strategies, and then representatives of those groups clustered all the results together to make one strategic plan for the department.  For each strategy, there was an action planning team to make plans for how to move forward on the strategies.

This project won an IAF Facilitation Impact Award.

The university provost commended the department for its planning, and suggested that other departments do something similar.

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Fifty Years of Facilitation

September 1, 2020 marks 50 years since I first started working with ICA. At the end of this calendar year, I will be wrapping up my career, but not my vocation. I’m still working on what that looks like — likely coaching facilitators, designing facilitator training, some writing, and continuing to make sure that the legacies of ICA Associates, Inc. and the Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs are strong and continuing into the future.

In celebration of these 50 years, I’m sharing the essay I wrote to apply for Certified Professional Facilitator: Emeritus. It is a story of my journey as a facilitator — at least that part of the story that would fit within 1500 words. I am extraordinarily grateful for all the people and events that gave me the possibility of continuous learning and contributing to create a culture of authentic participation in the world.

On September 1, 2020, I will celebrate 50 years of working as a facilitator.  Not only has the field developed over those 50 years, but so have I.

In September 1970, fresh out of university, 21 years old, with a degree in Education and Anthropology, I began teaching school and working with the Institute of Cultural Affairs simultaneously.  I was just learning to ask questions rather than having answers.  I facilitated staff meetings and also learning events.  At the time, there was little differentiation between participatory learning and facilitating a group to get results.

In 1972, I had moved to Chicago, and while I was working with ICA, I was also teaching grade 7 and 8 on the West Side, a black inner city neighbourhood.  I was assigned to teach music, which was ironic, as I was a young white farm girl, whose experience with music was far removed from my students.  The first day of school, I had each student complete a 10-year life plan.  The only thing they needed to share was what they needed from my class.  I wrote all these answers on the blackboard and had one of the kids in each class copy them down and give them to me. (Whiteboards and flipcharts had not been invented yet, never mind personal computers.) I took what they needed from my class and merged it with what I knew they needed (to learn to read, to believe in themselves), and what the music curriculum required, which fortunately was vague.  Together, then, we put together a black music history class.  I taught them to read using the words to the songs, and to believe in themselves. (There is much more to this story.) My facilitation learning from this experience was the incredible power of engaging young people, and people that everyone had written off.  I had my first lesson in trusting the group to come up with the results they needed.

In Peoria, Illinois the next year, ICA had a fascinating group of staff members with strong personalities, all of whom were older than me. My husband and I were the assigned leaders.  I learned how to manage older, stronger participants as I facilitated staff meetings. 

In 1976, our family was assigned to a participatory village development project in Egypt.  Not only did I facilitate in a language I was not fluent in, but I also had the opportunity to train local staff in facilitation. In translating the processes and understandings, I learned to identify the core understandings.  During that time I learned a number of classic facilitation techniques. The translations of words and cultural styles helped me understand how to adapt facilitation processes better.  I learned you don’t have to be an expert, or even be literate to participate successfully. There is huge wisdom in a group that can be drawn out.

Skip to 1983.  We were living in and working with an Aboriginal Australian community.  Once I started a conversation with a group, and before we reached a decision, people started to disappear.  A week later, we came back together, and it was immediately clear that there was a group consensus on the decision.  No one had talked about it meanwhile.  I learned that there are different times and ways of processing information in different cultures, and the patience to flex and adapt to the group. 

In 1984, I was directing a multi-cultural daycare centre in Sydney, Australia.  There was a major conflict over whether any curriculum should be taught.  In a facilitated conversation in a staff meeting, asked what the world would be like when the kids were adults, it became clear that none of the staff thought there would be a world then.  I suddenly understood why they weren’t planning for the future.  I had discovered the power of identifying the root cause of an issue (although at the time I couldn’t figure out how to address it).

All of this time, I was always co-facilitating, and had the self-story that things worked in spite of me.  In 1987, now in Canada, I was thrust into a situation where a rural women’s group did not want a male facilitator, and I was the only woman available.  The facilitation went very well.  Suddenly I could not escape the fact that things went well because of me, not in spite of me.

In 1988, I participated in a year-long personal training program, with one event per month.  I told the trainer that I wanted to “let go of ego-self and replace it with receptive self”. In the September session, she wanted to do a session on Aboriginal Australian culture. Since I had experience there, she asked me to do a presentation, something she never asked someone else to do.  Suddenly, as I was sharing my knowledge, I realized that everyone in the room had something important to share, if they had only been given the chance.  I instantly became curious to know what their wisdom was.  Within a week, several people complimented me on what an incredible listener I was, something I had never in my life heard before.  That curiosity became the foundation of my facilitation career, and I began to be successful at it in many different settings.

At this point I was also very involved in creating clear and simple procedures for ToP facilitation methods so that we could teach them.  This was a very deep learning experience.

One of my clients in 1989 or so was an organization that served people with developmental challenges, but was reluctant to let them participate in the facilitated planning session.  To make a long dramatic story short, I experienced that one participant could only speak in metaphor, and if I listened to that metaphor, he had wisdom that could not only add to the group’s results, but transform the whole organization with his participation.  I learned to listen past the words people say, to the wisdom that they have.

In the early 90’s I had a participant who tried to hijack a steering committee meeting by shouting that she had the only right to have an opinion on the topic.  I realized that the group had been abdicating its responsibility to handle her to me, and that that made the facilitator (me) a target.  I figured out a way (on my feet) to get the group to take responsibility for the situation, and it saved the whole process and the conference.  I learned that it was important to empower a group to help with its own process. I also learned that the facilitator can be invisible, so the that group says “we did it ourselves”. 

Also in the 90’s, I began serious work with First Nations peoples in Canada.  I learned how to adapt to indigenous cultural patterns – learning patience in dealing with groups that process at a different speed, and also to delight in the ease of seeing patterns and synthesizing rather than analyzing. I also learned that some languages hold detail better, and some hold the big picture better.

Between 1989 and 2003 I was on the Executive of the IAF Board, during some really difficult times.  I learned a lot about dealing with conflict.  I realized through this experience also that a facilitative leader needs to balance inspiring others with following the ideas of others.  I also learned that facilitating facilitators is one of the hardest challenges for a facilitator!

In 2003, I did my first online facilitation with IAF assessors to refine the IAF Facilitator Competencies, using the clunky technology that was available at the time.  

In 2010, I had 2 big long-term clients at the same time. One was a First Nations project, where I learned how to manage a huge participatory project and the top leadership of the First Nation.  The other was a university department, where I learned how to coordinate a large facilitation team that was doing most of the face-to-face work, and bring the work together to consensus.  This last project won a Facilitation Impact Award.

In the last decade, I have continued to explore online facilitation, and training facilitators in interactive online courses, using a variety of online tools.

I have also written 2 books during my career:  the first one, Art of Focused Conversation for Schools, was written with input from more than 40 facilitators.  The input and editing led to an  insight that helps refine the Focused Conversation Method.  The second, Getting to the Bottom of ToP, was begun by my husband.  When he died, I finished it, mostly doing the chapters about the methods and what makes them work.  Writing this book helped me understand the deep human principles behind the way groups think clearly and follow process. At this stage of my life, I am stepping back from facilitation, but am still continuing to train facilitators and mentor and coach others on their facilitation journeys.

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Recognizing Unconsious Bias

I have a degree in Education and Anthropology, from the University of Iowa in 1970.  Not only did I study cultures for my Anthro major, but I was active in the university’s International Centre and was good friends with people from every continent.  I came from a little rural community where the ethnic differences were between the Swedes, the Danes, and the Norwegians, so I was really open and curious, and my world was expanded greatly by my studies and friends.

Later, my husband and I were assigned to do participatory village development, shoulder to shoulder with village people in first Egypt, then Nigeria, then Mexican Texas.  Our staff was always multi-cultural, and we lived and worked together.

In 1981, we were assigned to work with an Aboriginal Australian community in Western New South Wales.  One day soon after we arrived, I was walking down the street, and an old man with very traditional Aboriginal Australian features was walking toward me.  My gut suddenly wrenched with fear and revulsion.  Then I was utterly shocked at my reaction.  I had never had this kind of reaction to anyone’s looks before!  This was not me and I was deeply ashamed. 

So I started reflecting on what had happened, to try to figure out what was going on with me.  I noted what I had seen, and noted my reaction. It took me several days to discern what memory or image in my brain had been triggered by the situation.  Then it came to me.  In my Anthropology textbook in the 60’s, there were pictures of “savages” and “primitive people”, and their depiction in the textbook looked exactly like traditional Aboriginal faces.   So my reaction was caused by that hidden and forgotten association! 

Once I identified where the reaction came from, I was freed from that unconscious association. My interpretation was that it was an unhelpful (maybe even evil) lesson, and I never had that reaction again. We went on to work shoulder to shoulder with all the people in the community and nearby town, both white and black, to share Aboriginal culture and heritage and build respect for each other.

Our biases often come from unconscious associations.  Being consciously aware of the reflective level, the associations and memories that trigger reactions, allows us to interpret the meaning of these and ask if they are relevant.  We are freed to make conscious interpretations and meaning, and follow that with resolve.

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Making Clustering Ideas Easier Using a Puzzle Image

The clustering stage of the Consensus Workshop Method is often really challenging, especially to those (most of us) who have been deeply trained to sort and categorize ideas: “Which of these is not like the other?” Somehow the capacity to see new constellations of ideas, a “gestalt” of the detailed ideas into bigger ideas that hold new insight, is a real challenge.

Once I had a participant in a course who could not understand a concept unless he had physically acted it out. Luckily, he sat at the back of the room, so his wild movements as he tried to understand were not too distracting. He could not understand the concept of clustering / gestalt, and asked for help.

So I borrowed a simple children’s puzzle from a colleague, and as the participant put it together, I talked him through the steps as a metaphor for creating a larger picture from a bunch of separate pieces. After we had done that, I realized I didn’t need to physically do that, but using putting together a puzzle as a metaphor as a story to talk through the steps with a group just before clustering their ideas would give them a sense of where we were going with clustering. They could then be somewhat relaxed with the ambiguity as the clusters developed. This has amazingly shortened the time it takes to cluster ideas.

Here is the story as I use it:

Puzzle Story for the Beginning of Clustering

DO this when groups have finished filling in their cards & have them laid out in front of themselves.

Look at the cards in front of you.  Imagine that they are all puzzle pieces. 

Imagine that you take all your puzzle pieces and throw them in the centre of the table.  What do we have?  (a mess, the sum of the parts)

Now imagine that you take them all back, and that we are going to put them together.  We don’t have the box cover, so we don’t know what we are going to have at the end. 

What’s the first thing you do when you put a puzzle together?  (find the corners, or the borders)

What do you do next? (find similar colours, patterns, lines that go together)

What happens at the end if you leave a piece out? (a hole in the puzzle, it’s not complete, frustration)

What we are going to do next is like putting together a puzzle for which we don’t have the cover picture.

First we’ll get a few different cards on the wall, then we’ll look for 4-5 similar pairs of answers to the focus question, which is like the border or corner pieces.  Then we’ll cluster the rest, a few at a time, looking for similar patterns that answer the focus question. 

In the end all the cards will get up here.

Then we will name the parts of the picture we have created.

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A Summary of My Professional Pathway as a Facilitator

I am declaring 2020 as the last year of my career, but not of my vocation!

This essay was written as a submission for IAF “Facilitator Emeritus” certification. It was limited to 1500 words, so there is a lot of the journey left out!

On September 1, 2020, I will celebrate 50 years of working as a facilitator.  Not only has the field developed over those 50 years, but so have I.

In September 1970, fresh out of university, 21 years old, with a degree in Education and Anthropology, I began teaching school and working with the Institute of Cultural Affairs simultaneously.  I was just learning to ask questions rather than having answers.  I facilitated staff meetings and also learning events.  At the time, there was little differentiation between participatory learning and facilitating a group to get results.

In 1972, I had moved to Chicago, and while I was working with ICA, I was also teaching grade 7 and 8 on the West Side, a black inner city neighbourhood.  I was assigned to teach music, which was ironic, as I was a young white farm girl, whose experience with music was far removed from my students.  The first day of school, I had each student complete a 10-year life plan.  The only thing they needed to share was what they needed from my class.  I wrote all these answers on the blackboard and had one of the kids in each class copy them down and give them to me. (Whiteboards and flipcharts had not been invented yet, never mind personal computers.) I took what they needed from my class and merged it with what I knew they needed (to learn to read, to believe in themselves), and what the music curriculum required, which fortunately was vague.  Together, then, we put together a black music history class.  I taught them to read using the words to the songs, and to believe in themselves. (There is much more to this story.) My facilitation learning from this experience was the incredible power of engaging young people, and people that everyone had written off.  I had my first lesson in trusting the group to come up with the results they needed.

In Peoria, Illinois the next year, ICA had a fascinating group of staff members with strong personalities, all of whom were older than me. My husband and I were the assigned leaders.  I learned how to manage older, stronger participants as I facilitated staff meetings. 

In 1976, our family was assigned to a participatory village development project in Egypt.  Not only did I facilitate in a language I was not fluent in, but I also had the opportunity to train local staff in facilitation. In translating the processes and understandings, I learned to identify the core understandings.  During that time I learned a number of classic facilitation techniques. The translations of words and cultural styles helped me understand how to adapt facilitation processes better.  I learned you don’t have to be an expert, or even be literate to participate successfully. There is huge wisdom in a group that can be drawn out.

Skip to 1983.  We were living in and working with an Aboriginal Australian community.  Once I started a conversation with a group, and before we reached a decision, people started to disappear.  A week later, we came back together, and it was immediately clear that there was a group consensus on the decision.  No one had talked about it meanwhile.  I learned that there are different times and ways of processing information in different cultures, and the patience to flex and adapt to the group. 

In 1984, I was directing a multi-cultural daycare centre in Sydney, Australia.  There was a major conflict over whether any curriculum should be taught.  In a facilitated conversation in a staff meeting, I asked what the world would be like when the kids were adults, it became clear that none of the staff thought there would be a world then.  I suddenly understood why they weren’t planning for the future.  I had discovered the power of identifying the root cause of an issue (although at the time I couldn’t figure out how to address it).

All of this time, I was always co-facilitating, and had the self-story that things worked in spite of me.  In 1987, now in Canada, I was thrust into a situation where a rural women’s group did not want a male facilitator, and I was the only woman available.  The facilitation went very well.  Suddenly I could not escape the fact that things went well because of me, not in spite of me.

In 1988, I participated in a year-long personal training program, with one event per month.  I told the trainer that I wanted to “let go of ego-self and replace it with receptive self”. In the September session, she wanted to do a session on Aboriginal Australian culture. Since I had experience there, she asked me to do a presentation, something she never asked someone else to do.  Suddenly, as I was sharing my knowledge, I realized that everyone in the room had something important to share, if they had only been given the chance.  I instantly became curious to know what their wisdom was.  Within a week, several people complimented me on what an incredible listener I was, something I had never in my life heard before.  That curiosity became the foundation of my facilitation career, and I began to be successful at it in many different settings.

At this point I was also very involved in creating clear and simple procedures for ToP facilitation methods so that we could teach them.  This was a very deep learning experience.

One of my clients in 1989 or so was an organization that served people with developmental challenges, but was reluctant to let them participate in the facilitated planning session.  To make a long dramatic story short, I experienced that one participant could only speak in metaphor, and if I listened to that metaphor, he had wisdom that could not only add to the group’s results, but transform the whole organization with his participation.  I learned to listen past the words people say, to the wisdom that they have.

In the early 90’s I had a participant who tried to hijack a steering committee meeting by shouting that she had the only right to have an opinion on the topic.  I realized that the group had been abdicating its responsibility to handle her to me, and that that made the facilitator (me) a target.  I figured out a way (on my feet) to get the group to take responsibility for the situation, and it saved the whole process and the conference.  I learned that it was important to empower a group to help with its own process. I also learned that the facilitator can be invisible, so the that group says “we did it ourselves”.   

Also in the 90’s, I began serious work with First Nations peoples in Canada.  I learned how to adapt to indigenous cultural patterns – learning patience in dealing with groups that process at a different speed, and also to delight in the ease of seeing patterns and synthesizing rather than analyzing. I also learned that some languages hold detail better, and some hold the big picture better.

Between 1989 and 2003 I was on the Executive of the IAF Board, during some really difficult times.  I learned a lot about dealing with conflict.  I realized through this experience also that a facilitative leader needs to balance inspiring others with following the ideas of others.  I also learned that facilitating facilitators is one of the hardest challenges for a facilitator!

In 2003, I did my first online facilitation with IAF assessors to refine the IAF Facilitator Competencies, using the clunky technology that was available at the time.  

In 2010, I had 2 big long-term clients at the same time. One was a First Nations project, where I learned how to manage a huge participatory project and the top leadership of the First Nation.  The other was a university department, where I learned how to coordinate a large facilitation team that was doing most of the face-to-face work, and bring the work together to consensus.  This last project won a Facilitation Impact Award.

In the last decade, I have continued to explore online facilitation, and training facilitators in interactive online courses, using a variety of online tools.

I have also written 2 books during my career:  the first one, Art of Focused Conversation for Schools, was written with input from more than 40 facilitators.  The input and editing led to a  insight that helps refine the Focused Conversation Method.  The second, Getting to the Bottom of ToP, was begun by my husband.  When he died, I finished it, mostly doing the chapters about the methods and what makes them work.  Writing this book helped me understand the deep human principles behind the way groups think clearly and follow process.

At this stage of my life, I am stepping back from facilitation, but am still continuing to train facilitators and mentor and coach others on their facilitation journeys. 

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Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference: Last Two Stories from the Party!

Everybody Welcome Story

Immanuel Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia,

Rev. Matthew Bucher, August 2016

On the invite to the birthday party there is an image of a sign saying “Everybody Welcome”, from East Enders Against Racism. 

The sign recalls the ones printed by Immanuel Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia during the 2016 US election.   The pastor, council and congregation started printing election style lawn signs stating “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbour”, in English, Spanish and Arabic.  Variations of that sign, like in Toronto’s East End, have appeared continent-wide. 

Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba.

For decades, housing for Indigenous families was doomed to deteriorate and was designed for “planned obsolescence”.  They were made with shoddy materials by contractors hired by the Department of Indian Affairs, and were not built to withstand Canadian weather or to last more than a few years. 

But now, new modular homes are being constructed with locally-sourced natural materials.  Families who will eventually live in these homes are the ones building them.

In 2017, prototype plans and a demonstration model were completed and took the top prize at an international design competition. 

Soon people will be moving into an energy-efficient village inspired by the ancient Cree concept of “one house, many nations”.

These are the last of many stories from a wide variety of sources and a multitude of forms contributed by people upon request for my 70th birthday.   They are posted without editing, with the attribution that was with them (these two did not have attribution with them).  I have been posting these stories regularly for over a year. If you send me others, I will post them on my Facebook page: JoFacilitator’s Stories: Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference.

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Virginia Kanyagonya’s Story: Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference

Virginia Kanyagonya’s Story

Pidia Joseph Allieu has made it his life’s work to eradicate sexual violence in Sierra Leone.

Although the precise figures are impossible to confirm, it’s estimated that more than 200,000 women were the victims of gender-based violence during the country’s devastating 1991-2002 civil war – and this legacy of abuse has endured.

In February 2019, the president of Sierra Leone, Julius Maada Bio, declared rape a national emergency.

“I am not doing my job for money. It’s a passion. Because I know it’s life-saving.”. Pidia Joseph Allieu, Husband School teacher

As a teacher at the Husband School, Pidia attempts to make fundamental changes in the arena where some of the worst crimes are committed – marriage.

He leads classes for men in a rural area in eastern Sierra Leone, inviting them to share their views on the treatment of women and helping them to build a better understanding of the consequences of their attitudes and actions.

For many of these men – some past retirement age – this is the first time they have been in a formal classroom situation, but once a week for six months they take a break from their work and voluntarily participate in the training sessions. The idea is to open their minds to the bigger picture and encourage them to embark on a different, more mutually respectful relationship with their wives.

It is also not unusual for Pidia to be the first point of contact when a family reaches crisis point and acts of violence are committed.

“People trust me because my family have always lived in this neighbourhood; it’s why they call me first rather than the police,” he says.

But, as with many NGO projects in Sierra Leone, funding for the Husband School is inconsistent and Pidia goes months on end without payment. Nevertheless, Pidia is determined to continue his work, knowing that many families in the community rely on his support.

“I am not doing my job for money,” says Pidia. “It’s a passion. Because I know it’s life-saving.”

For video and photos and more context:

https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness/2019/02/sierra-leone-husband-school-190225142951896.html

This is one of many stories from a wide variety of sources and a multitude of forms contributed by people upon request for my 70th birthday.   They are posted without editing, with the attribution that was with them.  This is the last attributed story: next week I will post the last two that don’t have names with them, and then this stream is finished. I will continue to post stories on my Facebook page as they catch my attention.

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Vicki Ziegler’s Story: Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference

Vicki Ziegler’s Story

A year ago last summer, some of us neighbourhood acquaintances were chatting as we rolled up our mats after a pleasant, early morning yoga class in the local park with which we are all loosely associated as “friends of the park”. The subject was book clubs, and the somewhat wistful lament was that most conventional book clubs never seem to work out or last: participants don’t like the books selected or feel that certain participants dominate the selections and discussions, or it’s too much pressure to finish reading and prepare for rigorous questions and analysis at the meetings, or it’s not enough about the books and more of an excuse to just drink wine and gossip.

I had recently read an article about silent book clubs and suggested that concept might be worth a try. I can’t recall the original article, but it lead to a web site for a San Francisco-based pair of readers who originally championed the concept and have built a network of clubs that share their events here: http://www.silentbook.club.

The basic premise was that a group of readers would get together in a public place, such as a coffee shop or bar, to read together quietly for an hour. That simple premise addressed so many of the complaints about book clubs … and some:

  • Readers bring to the meeting the books they’re currently reading. That means they’re reading something they want to read, not a title that has been assigned.
  • Readers who don’t necessarily know each other and/or are shy or new in town or whatever can still enjoy the company of other readers.
  • The time commitment is not onerous.
  • By assembling at a local business, no one is obliged to take on hosting duties.
  • Local businesses benefit from book club members purchasing refreshments, potentially spreading some good word of mouth and so on.

A few of us chatting after that yoga class agreed that the idea was worth a try, so we planned for a meeting in the fall. We agreed to assemble at a local coffee/book/record shop not far from the park. Four people attended that first meeting. From that modest beginning, we have assembled regularly every month at the same location and the group has grown steadily. Our meetings average between eight or nine to a dozen attendees. Most of the participants live within walking distance, but we have a regular stalwart who comes by subway from the city’s west end, we’ve had guests from Bangalore, India and Red Deer, Alberta and we’ve been contacted by someone who has just moved to our city from Boston.

Our group’s naturally evolved enhancement to the original silent reading premise is that before we start reading, we go around the table and everyone speaks about what they’ve read since the last meeting, what they plan to read during the upcoming hour, and anything else bookish they want to share. We’ve talked about Little Free Library boxes, we’ve shared information about upcoming author readings (a bunch of us from the group attended a Kate Atkinson event recently) and we’ve reminisced about favourite childhood books, among other related topics.

I think it’s safe to say the “what I’ve been reading” portion of the gathering is as much an attraction, if not more, than the hour of silent, focused reading (which, actually, is a rare commodity unto itself these days). What we share when we go around the table is both our enthusiasms and our disappointments with our current reading – constructive, useful and often elucidating. Many of our participants would attest to reading books outside their reading comfort zone on the basis of encouragement from the members of this small but mighty group. Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese is a great example of a title that has made the rounds in our group due to the trust this group has fostered.

Not only does it feel like this group has made a difference in the lives of our neighbours and reading friends and benefited a local business, but that difference has spiralled out in wonderful ways. We promote each upcoming event and the venue on Facebook each month, so others can see it, consider it and be inspired by it. We’re also listed on the international calendar featured on the silentbook.club web site. After each meeting, we compile a list of all the books discussed at the meeting, we publish that as a blog post and distribute it on social media. (The blog posts and book lists are all collected here: http://bookgagabooks.ca/category/silent-book-club/) Comments on the blog and responses on social media confirm that our silent book club is sparking interest outside our local community and inspiring a virtual community. Perhaps it will spawn gatherings in other neighbourhoods. Certainly, it is encouraging individual readers well outside our physical neighbourhood.

November 23, 2018

Post script by Jo: By December 2019 we have had to limit the number of participants to 15 for each meeting, and have scheduled 2 meetings/month to accommodate everyone!

This is one of many stories from a wide variety of sources and a multitude of forms contributed by people upon request for my 70th birthday.   They are posted without editing, with the attribution that was with them.  I have been posting these regularly for over a year. They run out in the next few weeks: if you have others to add, please send them to me!

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Susan Reynold’s Story: Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference

There is a trio of singer/songwriters in Hamilton who call themselves the Ladybird Sideshow Project. The women of this group have been friends for a decade and regardless of the changes in their lives, their love of music remains a tie that binds them to each other.

One of the Ladybirds met a cat named Oliver, who had been abandoned at a local shelter. Oliver spent a year in a cage at the shelter and was diagnosed with feline leukaemia. Although cats with feline leukaemia can live long, healthy lives, many shelters routinely euthanize cats who have this disease.

Lisa the Ladybird took Oliver home and then tried to find him a home. Thus began Ladybird Animal Sanctuary, a charitable organization of volunteers, foster homes and supporters who have rescued, vetted and rehomed hundreds of domestic animals.

Currently the Ladybirds are working on a big project—-creating a permanent sanctuary for rescued domestic and farm animals. We love the Ladybirds!

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Staci Kentish’s Story: Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference

I like to check out reddit.com every day. It’s a site where anyone can post content, readers up or down vote each post and you see content in order of what’s been upvoted the most, so readers play a role in what content reaches the most people. There are subreddits, which divide content by themes that you can subscribe to to further curate the content you see on your home feed, sort of like a Facebook feed but instead of the posts of people you have as friends it’s the popular posts from the themes (subreddits) you’ve subscribed to.

One of the subreddits I subscribe to is TwoXXChromosomes, “a subreddit for both serious and silly content, and intended for women’s perspectives.” The subjects don’t always catch my attention, but lately I’ve been seeing a lot of posts about women who have noticed other women, women they don’t know, in dangerous situations and they step in to help. An example might be a woman notices that another woman is being followed or harassed and so she steps in and pretends to know the woman and either walks her away from the situation or stays until the harasser leaves. The posts are by the women who were helped, thanking the women who stepped in, whose names they usually don’t get and who ask nothing in return, who simply help them out of a tough situation and carry on.

I love knowing that not only are women out there, being aware and present for each other when we’re vulnerable, but that those stories are being acknowledged and shared on the internet, a place that can be so cruel and inhuman at times, but in this case being used to share these stories of simple kindness/great courage and inspiring others to be aware of each other’s needs and the ways we can show the same level of care in kind.

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