Facilitating for engagement in isolated communities

April 24th, 2013

There are ways to facilitate meetings and events of all sorts that encourage participation and engagement. This week, while working in Papua New Guinea and helping community leaders learn how to facilitate in isolated communities, I’ve come to understand the following.

Facilitation can help the redistribution of power dynamics in a community

Many standard meeting processes, especially those used in communities, are based on the one-to-many model: speaker to talk to the masses and then take questions; discussions in large plenary groups where women, youth and children’s voices are drowned out by male community leaders; well-intentioned NGOs bringing in pre-determined agendas of what they think is important. Using processes that reduce the opportunity for the ‘usual suspects’ to grandstand can contribute to the redistribution of power and provide a voice to those previously silenced. These processes include World Cafe, Open Space and sociometry.

Poor literacy amongst participants is no reason to abandon participation and engagement

It’s often used as an excuse – community members are generally illiterate, therefore facilitation won’t work. It’s true, many facilitation process are not appropriate if there’s poor literacy. But that’s no excuse – it’s up to us to redesign those processes so as they are friendlier for illiterate people. Examples include using smiley faces for prioritising, sociometry again, small group discussions, graphic facilitation, music and found objects. It’s just not good enough to default to one-to-many processes simply because it’s easier.

Use everything

With a big nod to ¬†Rob Poynton, this has never been truer than when working in isolated rural communities. Don’t assume anything. Meetings might take place under a mango tree. It requires a big dose of letting go and noticing what is actually available to support participation and engagement.

Today I was demonstrating Open Space in a building with no walls. That led to a dilemma as to where or how to organise the agenda ‘wall’. Right in front of me was a chain link fence. I just wasn’t seeing it. When my brain finally decided to see what was actually there, instead of focusing on the walls that weren’t there, I saw the fence as the ideal agenda ‘wall’. Duh!

Storytelling can reveal the unspeakable

When people have little or no power, and are suffering terrible deprivations – physical and sexual abuse, discrimination and gender-based violence – storytelling can be a window to safely explore and share their experiences – as long as those listening are open to hearing. This listening activity encourages deep listening and is drawn from Playback Theatre. In groups of five, one person tells a short personal, true story. The others in the group are given one of the following to listen for: the story in three sentences; the essence of the story; a metaphor or image ; and what’s not said. Good listeners can listen for all of these at the same time. This activity trains us to listen with intention.

And I was reminded how a troupe of travelling Playback Theatre performers could do wonders by visiting isolated communities; hearing their stories and playing back those stories thus building connections across the community. I’ve written about that before. If I ever had access to vast amounts of philanthropic funds, this is what I’d do.

We don’t have to ‘dumb down’ facilitation¬†

Just because people live in isolated communities, may be illiterate, and have little or no access to modern resources, are not reasons to drop our standards of facilitation. People are people, with all the same feelings, emotions, needs and wants as someone living in the most modern of cities.

4 Comments so far

  1. Amanda on April 25, 2013 1:48 pm

    Nice post, Viv. Today I was thinking about what really torches my soul about my work and what popped in my mind is designing processes to hear every voice and for those voices to be heard and witnessed – what you so eloquently named as “providing a voice to those previously silenced”.

    And thanks for the Playback activity – I will definitely be borrowing this!

  2. Relton Samuel on April 30, 2013 3:30 am

    Hi Viv, privilege to be a participant in RDMT workshops,learned many facilitation skills and applied in the workshops/capacity building programs. Fully agree with you “Storytelling can reveal the unspeakable”

    Thanks VIV.

  3. Viv McWaters on April 30, 2013 5:19 pm

    Thanks Amanda. There’s really something quite humbling about working with people who know they won’t have access to what most of us take for granted, and that most of their participants will be illiterate. I’m keen to discover more processes that enable all people of all abilities to participate in workshops and meetings.

    Ah, Relton, it’s always good to have you in workshops. I think there’s a lot more we could do with storytelling to enable people to share some of their experiences, both the unspeakable and the uplifting. I know that you in the RDMt have many stories of both types.

  4. Dwain on June 20, 2013 11:35 am

    Kia ora Viv,

    I really enjoyed the post. I too have used a storytelling approach to community facilitation in PNG; for many Pasifika peoples, storytelling and community events are synonymous, a reflection of the oral culture that continues to define communities.

    The time of the day very much dictates who attends so I’ve experimented with the timing of community meetings and one method I have used in community facilitation is to bring a projector, a generator and a film usually of Pasifika origin and screen this after meal time which allows the mothers particularly to participate in the training while the children watch the film. At other times we have used film to provide the starting point for storytelling and then moved into smaller groups with men, women and children.

    I’ve also found that communities want to hear our stories as facilitators. I’ve found that some of the most deep and meaningful learnings I have had with communities have come from weaving a story and customs from home and then seeing communities opening up when they realise that I am not just spending time with their community to take their stories but to share from my culture too.

    Hei kona,


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