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:


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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Scott Russell’s Story: Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference

One story that I heard not long ago speaks to me in a profound way about the way people impact others through small gestures – ones that acknowledge what is good and offer encouragement.

This is a story about a small act of kindness, one person sharing and teaching another, but through that act changes everything. This is an almost imperceptible moment that has rippled out into the world. The teacher has no idea, which is all the more reason I think it’s important to tell this story. We change the world without knowing it – everyone of us – with every act of kindness.

The protagonist of this story has become a woman of profound change in our community. She is a mentor, a friend, and a force that has changed my own life. I have seen her do remarkable things. She is courageous and bold. I have seen her work improve life for tens of thousands. I’ve seen her hold the hand of the suffering, unable to take their pain away, but willing to stand in witness of that moment.

There are enormous triumphs that could be written involving the unfolding work of this woman’s life. However, when asked she would tell you this is the moment that made it all possible.

The Girl Who Chops Wood By Scott Russell

Kate’s fingernails were shellacked and painted a dark forest green that set off her eyes. Her eyes were a deep blue that morning but could easily show-up as an unexpected emerald, or anything in between, depending on her mood or the light.

Her outfit was carefully picked out. A cute flannel shirt over long sleeves, a white tank top, and her jeans were tucked into new hiking books. It was a late summer trip, with seasonal temperatures expected. “Dress in layers,” was the first bullet point under “Dressing for Your Adventure.”

A new rucksack, the same one recommended by the adventure tour company, was filled with all the other items on the packing list they gave her. Each item of clothing carefully selected, rolled tightly and tucked into the pack. They even recommend an order to it, what to pack first so that it’s at the bottom – perhaps an item least likely to be required on the first day. It was all very orderly which appealed to Kate.

She loved a good checklist.

There didn’t seem to be quite enough “stuff” for three nights and four days in the woods. Her own camping trips with her husband and young family always entailed so much stuff, so many bags, toys, inflatables, cooking equipment, boat accessories, all manner of items to tame the wild and recreate some of the creature comforts of home. This was a different approach, counter-intuitive to her, but one she embraced. It reminded her of summers at the lake with her grandparents. It seemed so simple as a child, but maybe there was just as much stuff then, being fretted over by her grandmother, and lugged from the car to cottage each time by her grandfather.

This trip was going to be different for her in many ways. It was the first time away without the kids. It was the first time without her husband, Reid, since they were married 10 years earlier. At first, she wasn’t sure about the trip, signing up somewhat impulsively.

It was organized by a group of other nurses at work, imagined as part team building, part return to nature exploration. All the clinical staff on her team would have an opportunity to spend the four days getting to know each other without the daily distractions and cold institutional confines of the hospital. They would work together to build a camp, portage through the woods – they would be free of intercom systems, buzzers, bells, phones, emails and fax machines.

There would be none of the creature comforts of home. The bare simplicity of the experience promised something between a Tolkien-like heroic quest and solitary enlightenment on the mountaintop. The glossy brochure stuck in her mind for days. “Discover yourself out here,” it beckoned with images of grand landscapes, deep green foliage and people working together, smiling as they hiked and cooked over an open fire and crossed rivers in the glorious sunshine.

But something else lurked beneath the surface for Kate. One image she kept coming back to: a young woman, early twenties, maybe the same age Kate was just before she married Reid. Before the children, before she became a dance mom and dutiful wife. Before the house and the boat, the trips to Disney. Before she put her own career on hold to support Reid. The young woman in the picture was looking straight into the camera, a small streak of mud smeared down her right cheek, hair wet and sticking to her forehead.  The hood of a poncho framed her face, beads of rain dripping and running over the hood frozen in the photograph. To Kate, it was the most captivating photo. She thought she knew what the young woman was thinking, feeling. She was cold and wet, yet strong and confident, holding a whole world of possibilities in her gaze.

The brochure wasn’t all sunshine. Like life, this trip was going to go on rain or shine. “Discovery yourself out here,” it invited. She signed up as soon as the first follow-up email hit her inbox. Over dinner that night she shared the idea with Reid.

 “Do you think you can handle that, Kate?” Reid mocked. “There won’t be anywhere to plug in your curling iron.”

The joke stung a little. Since returning to nursing part-time after 6 years and 2 kids, there had been a number of occasions when Reid’s humour carried an edge of disdain. He was the breadwinner. Her work was a ‘hobby’ he would jokingly remind her when there was ever a conflict between the demands of his job and her schedule.

 “Do you think you can handle it?” Kate shot back, “you’ll be outnumbered by the kids.”

She immediately regretted reacting, demonstrating she wasn’t as confident as she let on. He only smiled, no doubt knowing his mother would be available to help with the kids in her absence. They talked about the trip very little after that conversation.

Kate went about preparing for the adventure. Procuring new clothes, new equipment – even a new pocket knife. She read all the materials in the prep package twice. Each reading brought new unknowns and new challenges – new possibilities. She grew more excited and more apprehensive at the same time.

“Perhaps I should have thought about this or that before I signed up,” she would confess nervously to one co-worker or another.

Reid grew quiet about the adventure. Kate had resolved to go, and perhaps he sensed his kidding only served to strengthen that resolve. He decided to sit back and wait for the call, certain she’d give up on the trip and come home by day two.

The weeks flew by.

She went over the checklist one last time. The adventure of a lifetime was about to begin, she thought. She was ready, in her cute flannel shirt, and eyes of blue glazing anxiously at an unknown world emerging before her.


Wendel loved the woods. He began working as a wilderness guide after his undergrad years. He travelled up and down the west coast, but gravitated back to Ontario, when he started graduate studies. Summers in the wilderness, guiding people through the wilderness, it was a passion.  He loved it. It was his calling.

“It is amazing the change you can see in humans when they unplug,” he would tell friends. “They are changed. They go back to their urban landscapes but begin to hear the pigeons that were always there but that they had forgotten because they stopped listening.”

This group, the staff team of a clinic at some hospital in the city, he forgot which one, was a good example. Twenty-four hours into the tour, Wendel was beginning to see the signs that the wilderness experience was stripping away the sanitized protective coating most people wrap themselves in. Some embrace the wild with abandon. Others confront the limits they thought were the absolute boundaries of who they are – a terrifying and sometimes paralyzing experience.

Wendel saw his job as a teacher and educator. He shared his vast knowledge of the natural world with everyone. His deepest hope was that he was facilitating a connection to the earth, source of all life, so people could find ways to reconnect to their own humanity.

The natural world is unpredictable.

Kate relished the experience. The sun on her face. The foliage, just like the brochure promised. The air, crispy and fragrant.

The first day began as planned. The group was in good spirits, eight people including Wendel, three fiberglass canoes overhead, carrying their packs and equipment about 4 kilometers. The hike took most of the morning. After a brief meal at the side of the river, they glided upriver in their canoes.

Along the way, Wendel shared stories and insights about the wildlife along the river, the plants, the changes the seasons brought. Deep into the quiet and solitude of the woods, they made camp.

It was late in the afternoon. Working as a team they made dinner. Kate led the women, 4 women in total, while her 3 male co-workers were assigned the task of securing fire wood and building the fire.  They had unconsciously divided themselves into “the boys” and the “the girls.”

Wendel led “the boys” into the woods – another opportunity to educate on what should and should not be cut down to make fire.

Following dinner, they huddled around the fire, reflecting on the day, laughing and cajoling each other. Kate found herself wondering about the kids, thinking about Reid. Her worries about the trip into the wild seemed far away. She could do this, she thought. It was a long day and she was tired. But she was happy. She slept soundly in the dark confines of her tent, her anxieties disappearing into the night.

The sun rose and for a couple hours it seemed like this would be the perfect late summer day. Then the temperature began to drop, like a sinking stone, and the clouds moved in with haste. They had already broken camp and begun the next leg of their journey. They were caught with nowhere to hunker down.

The group pushed on. Wendel’s cheerful anecdotes silenced as the group’s mood sank in the storm. By late afternoon the rains finally let up. They had made it to their next site, but everyone was in a much more somber mood. And they were behind schedule. As they made camp, day light was starting to wane. Jobs were divided out with greater specialization, in the hope of settling in before nightfall.

Kate volunteered to get fire wood. Wendel led Kate out along the trail and then through a small thicket partially sheltered by the ridge that ran above the trail.

“Here he said, we can take down this tree,” his explanation trailing off as he dug out the equipment. “We don’t have much time Kate, it’ll be dark soon. We need a fire.”

Kate watched as Wendel demonstrated how to wield the axe. Two whacks and a generous chunk of wood popped out of the tree. He passed the axe to Kate.

“After we get it down, we’ll use the saw and remove the limbs,” he said. “We’ll use all the tree tonight and tomorrow. That’s important, no waste.”

He paused. Kate looked at him. He looked at the tree and back at her.

“Oh ok,” Kate said realizing for the first time she had the axe. Clearly it was her turn.

She grabbed the axe with both hands. It felt heavy and a bit awkward as she pulled it back. Then she let it fly. But the blade struck the tree at an awkward angle and turned flat against the trunk. A jolt reverberated up her arm and the handle twisted free of her grip removing the perfectly shellacked nail on her left index finger.

Kate winced in pain and dropped the axe.

“Are you ok?” Wendel asked.

“I’m ok,” Kate said, nursing her finger and trying to shake off the tingling up and down her arm.

“Good,” Wendel said. “We have to hurry.”

“Oh, you go ahead,” Kate said. “It’ll be quicker.”

“No, no, give it another shot,” Wendel said. “That’s how you’ll learn how to do it. Loosen your grip just a bit, focus on keeping the blade flat through the swing.”

Kate picked up the axe, figuring the sooner she showed him she understood the lesson the sooner they could get back. She swung again. This time the blade dug into the tree. She struggled to wrench it free and pass it back to Wendel. He put his hands in his pockets.

“Wendel, it’s your turn,” Kate said, slightly agitated. The tingling from the first swing was still dancing up and down her arm. He refused to take the axe.

“It’s not my turn, you volunteered for fire wood. I’m just here to show you how,” he said. “That swing was much better.”

Kate was uncertain what this meant, but recognized it was genuine encouragement. Kate took the axe into both hands again as she looked back at the tree. She struck again. A small wedge popped loose. She struck again, again. Another awkward angle. Tingling pain up and down both arms. She swung again. Again she struggled to wrench the blade free. Another small wedge of wood.

This is going to take all night at this rate, she thought to herself. She can’t do this. All doubts about the trip came rushing back. What was she doing here? Her feet were wet, neck and shoulders tired. She looked up at Wendel.

“You’re doing great,” he said. “But we need to move faster.”

“I can’t do it,” she said.

“You already are doing it,” he responded. “We need a fire Kate, everyone’s counting on you.”

She chopped away at the tree, enlivened with her sense of duty to the tribe, until finally it fell. She was exhausted. Her hands blistered and soar. A stabbing pain had wound its way up her arm and planted itself behind her right ear. She was exhausted.

“Great work, Kate,” Wendel beamed taking the axe off her hands, “now, let me show you how to take the limbs off.”

Kate’s felt nauseous at the thought of taking the rest of the tree apart. It was impossible. The sky was grey as twilight descended. There was a looming sense of time running out.

She watched Wendel demonstrate with the saw. It seemed so easy. She was envious. His self-assured approach to the tree, the saw in hand. She wanted some of that – the confidence that comes from being fully in the moment, unafraid of life. Isn’t that what she had come out here for? Wendel finished demonstrating how to remove the branches and passed her the saw.

“Do you think you can handle it, Kate?” Isn’t that what Reid asked, she thought as a wave of doubts washed over her. But Wendel asked the question innocently, no derision, with only empathy. He could sense her vulnerability in that moment, her fragility.

Can she handle it? She wondered. Tears welled in her eyes but she pushed them down.

“We need to hurry.  Go get the others to help carry,” she said. “I can do this.”

Gripping the saw she went to work dismantling the tree as night fell. Wendel watched as she worked with fierce determination. She barely noticed as he slipped away, moving back down the trail to recruit a few more hands to collect the wood.

In the dim glow of the day’s remaining light she stood over the now fallen tree, in pieces at her feet, her blade in hand. Hands burning, arms exhausted, she surveyed what she had done, knowing something had happened to her in this moment. Something changed. She had become a girl who chops wood.

There was a fire that night, more laughter, and in the morning a world of possibilities awaited.

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 will be posting these regularly until they run out in the next few weeks: if you have others to add, please send them to me.

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Sandy Powell’s Stories: Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference

I want to highlight the work of two women here in Costa Rica. 

Leticia began a small NGO in a town in the resort area of Guanacaste (not far from the Nicaraguan border). She’s been doing excellent work the past few years with delinquent teenagers and local women, focused on vocational training and opening future options that were unavailable to them before. She has a small thrift store with donated goods, after-school care and other programs that she runs on a shoestring budget.

Leonor is working in an area near Turrialba, an agricultural region that also caters to tourists from cruise ships that stop in Limon. She recently left a well-paying job here in San Jose, prompted in part by the plight of refugees from Nicaragua.

In case you’re unaware, Nicaragua is in melt-down with demonstrations, strikes and Ortega’s refusal to abdicate. He is encouraging the ongoing murder of peaceful demonstrators. Many shops are empty, so food is scarce; large resorts have closed, usually in areas where they employ 200-1000+ local people. Thus, unemployment, especially in already poor areas, is increasing rapidly. It’s a desperate situation with no sign of relief in the future. This has led to a large influx of Nicaraguan immigrants into Costa Rica.

Both of these women have begun efforts to provide housing, health care, work and education to these refugees. They’re creating networks of care from their personal contacts. It’s like a phone tree—-they know someone who knows another someone and another until there’s a web of doctors, teachers, people with space in their houses or money or food or whatever is needed. One refugee fled without adequate medication for a chronic illness, and a doctor was found who could provide it. Children are getting instruction that will keep their education on track. Families are finding a safe space to recuperate before returning – and it appears that many have a vision they’ll be able to go home. 

We celebrate ordinary people making extraordinary interventions!

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Sandra Pace’s Story of Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference

From Patricia Pain, one of the most wonderful teachers I’ve ever known:

I’d like to share this beautifully serendipitous experience between myself, a friend, and a perfect stranger….

One of my closest friends works for a company called Beauty Counter and she posted an intriguing article about how snake plants help to remove impurities from the air. Every year I buy plants for my students and I place one on every table group as one of the ways I create opportunities for my students to be responsible for and care for something other than themselves. It becomes a common ground, a bind that ties them. Something they can take pride in. It’s also something they can solve when one of their peers has a bad day, or a bad morning, or a bad evening the night before and snips off a leaf out of anger and silent words. It’s an opportunity to strategize and/or to forgive.

Shortly after I saw that article, I was scrolling through Facebook Marketplace and I came across someone who was selling snake plants. I messaged him and he eventually asked me what I was buying them for. I explained it all to him. I also explained how this year our class composition is especially in need of this opportunity, so finding these had come at the perfect time.

He responded by saying that he would look to see what else he had at the nursery that he could donate. After much back and forth, this kind man–this perfect stranger– had 12 plants for myself, my teaching partner, and Heather, who posted that intriguing article. Not only did he gift us these additional plants, but he gifted us with these words:

“I am very thankful to educators like yourself who give 100 percent, it is a very tough job, no doubt in my mind. On the tough days just remember, there are many out there who see and appreciate the effort and sacrifices you make on a daily basis. I know it is sometimes a thankless job, so THANK YOU and I hope these plants do well for you and your students. 😁 I sent 12 plants: there are sansevieria, pothos, aglaonema, and one schefflera trinette. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me 😁👍”

Thank you, Adam. Your kindness is not just in these plants, but your sincere words and appreciation. You are part of the village that helps our students see beyond themselves. You selflessly contributed to this “heartwork” we call teaching.

It is in moments like these, where it’s almost as though perfect strangers seem to have been waiting for years to meet…and this was our time.

I can’t wait to show the kids tomorrow ♥️

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 will be posting these regularly until they run soon: if you have others to add, please send them to me.

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Rosemary Cairns’ Stories: Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference

I have been collecting stories of people changing the world for (can it be) almost two decades now. It really grew out of my Human Security and Peacebuilding thesis, when I explored how people built peace for themselves in Brcko (northern Bosnia) and Somaliland. When I was thinking about how to share my research, the university said I could use Moodle (which we use for teaching) or a wiki.

I wasn’t familiar with a wiki, but figured if I was going to learn how to use it, I might as well use it for something practical. So all those stories I had been coming across – stories of how people were doing something extraordinary in their community, or their country – came to mind. Here was the way to share peoples’ achievements – and by sharing that knowledge, encouraging others elsewhere to do the same thing, or something similar.

The very first story I ever put on Hopebuilding wiki was this one:

Molly Letela was principal of a school in the tiny state of Lesotho, nestled inside South Africa’s borders. She was getting repeated complaints from some of her teachers about how their students couldn’t concentrate, and so weren’t learning. But she knew that most of the problem was that her students were hungry – not unruly or deliberately disruptive – and she had, for a while, dreamed a dream about how to address that.

On the empty land around her school, she imagined crops that would feed her hungry students. But she was a wise woman, and knew that if she told the parents what to do, it wouldn’t work nearly as well as if they thought of the idea themselves. So gradually, in conversations, she subtly helped the parents realize the possibilities that came from all the land around the school, and their agricultural knowledge. And one day, they came and proposed to her that they create a garden in the empty land around the school.

Once the parents shared her vision, she found a small South African NGO that specialized in how to multi-crop on land, so that the school could grow more than one crop in a season, and that knew how to work respectfully with the local farmers and parents to build on what they already knew.

The parents planted the new crops, the home economics class made breakfasts and lunches, and the students were well-fed and able to work. The community’s health and food security improved, too, as people used the new ideas in their own farming at home.

Soon, a nearby community came to see what their neighbours had accomplished. And the knowledge spread, in what the Community Development Resource Association in Cape Town, South Africa, describes as “horizontal learning” – neighbours learning from neighbours. Soon, there were hundreds of similar school meal programs in the district – without any donor funding or aid agencies being involved, apart from the small amount of funding Mrs. Letela used to bring in the small South African NGO at the very beginning.

I love this idea of ‘horizontal learning’. It is so different from how people have often conceptualized ‘learning’ as being a process where neophytes learn from ‘experts’ – ‘vertical learning.’

The second story begins with a South African couple who used to collect tiny glass ornaments that depicted African animals. But then one day, they realized that they hadn’t seen any of the ornaments for a while. So they decided to find out what had happened to their favourite collectibles.

Their journey took them to Swaziland, where they discovered that the glass factory (started eight years earlier with funding from a Scandinavian aid agency) had shut down. So they decided – even though they knew nothing about glassblowing or factory operation – to find a way to restart the factory, and thus continue to create work for local people.

The factory, which had been started in 1979, had been quite successful. From 1981 til 1985, when it closed down, the factory was run entirely by local people. Two local people had learned glassblowing from some of the world’s experts.

The Prettejohn family re-opened the Ngwenya factory in June 1987. They use only recycled glass, and they pay local school teams and citizens for used glass bottles. So people from all over Swaziland collect old bottles and are paid per kilo for clean glass. As well as providing raw materials for the factory, this also (of course) makes the area much tidier.

The factory now employs 70 people, which includes two of the original blowers (who teach new apprentices) and four of the other original staff. Every piece of glasswork is handmade and mouth blown.

Not only is the factory concerned about the small animal figurines it sells – it also cares for the real animals and their environment. The company organizes regular cleanup days along main roads in their area, and it launched the Kingdom’s most successful wildlife conservation fund – the Ngwenya Glass Rhino and Elephant Fund – which is dedicated to saving endangered rhinos and elephants. A percentage of Ngwenya Glass’s worldwide sales are donated to the Fund.

I love this story because, for me, it shows that if the developmental focus is local, people can see all kinds of linkages between things that outsiders would never see. And it also suggests the power of curiosity and serendipity – this couple loved the small glass figurines they collected and then became curious enough, when the figures stopped coming, to find out what had happened. And their curiosity, and determination, led to all kinds of things they never could have imagined.

Using recycled glass means that, as well as making figurines for sale and creating jobs in the community and attracting tourists to the factory and its local shop, the factory inspires people to keep the area clean by collecting and delivering all local bottles and glasses. A project that was created using the kind of ‘silos’ that so many projects fall within, would have been so much less likely to do three or four things simultaneously. People locally see these kind of connections, and act on them. This is ‘win-win-win-win-win’….. 🙂


And finally, because I am at the ‘granny’ age these days, a third story that I have always loved…….the story of the Wakefield Grannies and the joy of serendipity.

The Wakefield Grannies have been supporting grandmothers in one South African township since 2002. Wakefield is a small, historic village of about 4,000 people located in western Quebec just half an hour’s drive from the Canadian capital city, Ottawa. It began in 1830 as a village of immigrants – from Ireland, Scotland and England – and while its focus is now tourism and art, rather than timber, its well-traveled residents know they live in an interdependent world. Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson, whose invention of international peacekeeping in 1956 found a creative way to resolve world conflicts, is buried in the village. Like him, Wakefield’s grandmothers know that changing the world begins with small steps.

The story of how they developed a strong friendship with 40 South African grandmothers living in a crowded township near the South African capital of Johannesburg began with film-makers Brenda and Robert Rooney, who had worked with the Canadian International Development Agency and Vision TV in 2002 to make a documentary film entitled Condoms Fish and Circus Tricks. Shot in Malawi, South Africa, and Zambia, the film offered an intimate look at the people who are dying, those who are caring for them and why AIDS has had such a devastating impact on African society. They screened the film at Wakefield’s United Church and raised $1,000 for the church’s AIDS campaign.

In the audience was Thomas Minde, a doctor at Wakefield’s hospital, whose parents had just returned from a year in South Africa. His mother, Nina, a child psychologist, had volunteered at a children’s mental health clinic in Alexandra township, a tightly packed ghetto that is home to nearly 340,000 people. Shocked to see more and more children being brought to the clinic by their grandmothers because their parents were dead or dying from AIDS, and herself a grandmother, Nina offered to run a support group with clinic head nurse Rose Letwaba.

While not much attention was being paid to grandparents in 2002, Rose saw them as the silent victims of AIDS. She invited three grannies to a meeting and they told their stories and everyone cried a lot. The next week, there were five, and then there were 10 and there was no more room in Rose’s office. The grannies said they needed help in getting over the loss of their daughters and raising their grandchildren, who were often sad and angry; many of them had been plunged back into poverty. But as they met, and became more confident in their own abilities and shared their knowledge, they started to blossom and become more joyful.

Thomas told the story to minister Gisele Gilfillen, who invited Nina to speak at a morning service. She showed pictures of the East Bank Clinic and told the congregation about Rose, who soon would be attending a conference in Canada. Nina promised to bring Rose to Wakefield. And so, one Saturday night in October 2004, Rose painted a picture of a whole generation of South Africans lost to AIDS and grieving mothers left to carry the burden of raising their grandchildren to be healthy, educated, socially responsible adults. Rose described the 40 Grannies who were meeting at her clinic for sewing classes, gardening and moral support. An impromptu collection raised about $900, but that didn’t seem enough to 81-year-old Norma Geggie. She wanted to do more.

When Norma happened to meet Nina and Rose the next day, she asked “what if a group of women in Wakefield were to partner with these women?” They exchanged e-mail addresses, and Norma began making phone calls. When the Wakefield Grannies met for the first time in November 2004, each drew the name of an Alex Gogo – the Zulu word for grandmother – from a jar. It was the start of a relationship that was both personal, and collective.

The whole community was behind the grannies. They supported fundraising events, sent cheques, and businesses donated money, which was sent to Rose, who decided how it should be spent – for food, sewing equipment, winter blankets and track suits for HIV positive children who are highly susceptible to cold, and occasionally, overnight and weekend breaks for gogos and Alex teens who were heads of their households.

Knowing that grannies on the other side of the world cared so much about them gave the Alex Gogos tremendous hope, and helped dissolve the stigma that often affects such families. Within a year, as people heard about the Wakefield Grannies, other granny groups began in Canada and the United States. In the spring of 2006, the Stephen Lewis Foundation launched a Grandmother to Grandmother campaign that inspired the creation of hundreds of granny groups across Canada, and Lewis came to meet the Wakefield Grannies.

Robert Rooney had been filming the story from the start and soon realized it was a story about women, not about AIDS. In 2006, the Rooneys travelled to South Africa to film the Alex Gogos and then filmed several Wakefield Grannies at the Grandmother to Grandmother gathering. The story came full circle when Rose and three of the Alex gogos visited Wakefield on August 15, 2006. The resulting 80-minute documentary, The Great Granny Revolution, fittingly, had its world premiere in Wakefield on May 5, 2007.

This work is inspiring many younger people. Says one: “If grey-haired old women believe they can impact a change in the world, then why can’t our generation?” Near the end of the film, Rose Letwaba is speaking at the Wakefield United Church. “If everyone was like the people of Wakefield,” she says, “the world would be a better place to live in.”

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 in November 2018.   They are posted without editing, with the attribution that was with them.  I will be posting these regularly until they run out. There are about 7 more to go! If you have others to add, please send them to me soon!

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