Leveraging Facilitation Skills To Advance Climate Conversation

Born and raised in Uganda, my ambition was to become a medical doctor, which was the most envied profession at that time. Well, I ended up studying Conservation Biology and eventually landed a job with a local Non-Governmental Organization seeking to educate children and young adults about the value of protecting the environment. We organized outreaches to schools and universities to form Conservation Clubs. My enthusiasm to inspire young people led me to traverse various parts of the country. East, West, Central, and South, we spread school conservation programs across Uganda. One sunny Monday morning, my Manager skeptically mentioned having received an invitation to participate in games and a climate change workshop. You could literally see the disbelief on the face of my workmates. None of us ever imagined that adults could be thinking about games while the burden to provide clean water for low-income urban people. Clearly, we had no time for games. After a lengthy discussion, my Manager chose me to represent the organization at this workshop. Like this, I got introduced to the “word and world” of facilitation.

Our facilitators highly valued interactivity and provided enormous opportunities for participants to guide groups. I looked forward to each session with anticipation. My imagination oscillated between the ongoing workshop and planning the next school outreach. I already pictured school children playing the games introduced. Well, at the end of the second day, I was invited to co-facilitate a recap session. Three days went by so fast. On the fourth day, we were ready for pre-testing the games in north-eastern Uganda. Well, Local government leaders, NGO workers, and other community representatives gathered in a town hall and we were ready for the show. Lead facilitators introduced the “what and why of the workshop” and handed it over to us. Throughout the day the hall was filled with laughter and whispers of strategy. For the first time in my life, I discovered a profession that matched my passion and personality. Years later, I went to New York and pursued a Master’s degree in Climate and Society at Columbia University. Here I noticed how scientific jargon was too hectic for the common person to understand. Whether it is Mayors and city council, or the volunteers at a local Red Cross Red Crescent chapter, scientific jargon is not their preference. I realized the need to leverage facilitation skills as a bridge for climate science and climate action. And this is part of my job at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.

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Traveling in cities and villages across Africa, I have witnessed children suffering from hunger and pastoralists losing their livestock, women enduring scorching heat to earn a living. Devastating droughts and extreme floods have robbed low-income earners, destroying roads, hospitals and paralyzing access to basic healthcare and education. The situation is even more challenging for developing countries that have limited financial and human capacity to anticipate and take action to reduce the impacts of pending hazards. From my academic background, I know that science has confirmed beyond doubt that we need to expedite actions to tackle the changing climate. Explaining this science to non-climate scientists making decisions has become part of my calling as a facilitator. One day you will find me training Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers in the most remote part of Africa and the other day I will be in the City hall guiding councilors, academicians, and the slum-dwellers to come up with City climate actions. Occasionally I get opportunities to moderate global dialogues in Europe too, ranging from; scaling up promising disaster risk reduction measures to futurizing about migration patterns and possible policy actions. My job continuously demands that I find, test, and deploy cutting-edge facilitation techniques overcoming limitations of facilitating across cultures, and literacy levels, as well as juggling the online-offline dynamics. I have been privileged to be part of the innovative team that is responsible for creating, adapting, and promoting interactive methods at the Red Cross Climate Centre. This role led us to partner with the Applied Improv network which introduced me to liberating structures. These were quite helpful until the pandemic took the world by surprise.

With the coming of the global pandemic, pressure to adjust to online facilitation significantly increased. Like many other entities, we in the humanitarian agencies were inadequately prepared to sustain interest and attention in meetings and webinars. The innovative team embarked on the task of adopting offline activities for online meetings. The search for more interactive virtual facilitation techniques grew.

On a calm evening, as I perused through the internet while listening to birds chirping behind my office backyard, I landed on the Voltage Control website. I signed up for the facilitation labs and delved into the resource tab and got access to more facilitation tools including the session lab. During one of the facilitation labs, we got the announcement for an upcoming certification course. The content was attractive and I quickly reached out to my manager for permission to undertake the Certification course. I recall mentioning to my workmates this opportunity and they were inquisitive to learn about the skills and knowledge provided by the Voltage Control Team.

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While I had adequate exposure to facilitation techniques through the Applied Improv, I had never done soul searching about my “facilitation superpower” as well as discovering my growth areas. Yes, I now know that I enjoy facilitating because it gives me an opportunity to encourage collaborative learning, creating connections and warmth among participants. Facts emerging from climate scientists often spell doom and the experiences on the ground confirm this, so in each meeting, conference, or workshop I design or facilitate, I add some flavor of humor to encourage creativity. I used to do this without much forethought, but now it is intentional. Well, just after finalizing the course I had two workshops to facilitate. Down at the shores of Lake Victoria in the historical town of Entebbe-Uganda. I was to gather over 30 people to discuss the future of early warning systems in Uganda. This predominantly science-saturated group was keen to meet, with a clear purpose, at least on paper. I already had some background information about the tension that existed among the expected participants. Now it was time to design the two-day workshop with this in mind. The “Art of Gathering” by Priya Parker, a book I got exposed to during the facilitation course, brought to my knowledge the necessity to ask the big “Why” for any meeting. I convened four online meetings with leaders and co-organizers trying to reveal the real reason for organizing the workshop. Well, the iterative questions although did not actually unearth the root course of existing tensions, they eased them.

I wish I had stumbled upon the concept of clarifying every purpose of the meeting beyond cliches much earlier in my facilitation career. Asking the big WHY has become my new compass and my new lens that informs design for every workshop and meeting. On D-day, a dark cloud covered the skies and the wave sounds could be heard in our workshop hall located 200 meters off the beautiful shores of Lake Victoria. Our local superstitions would have predicted doom but I chose faith over fear. Like many meetings in this part of the world, an opening prayer would set the tone to clear the stage for the big boss’s opening remarks. An hour into the workshop, the energy levels were nose-diving, egos between department leads became dominant and mid-level officers went quiet. Of course, this was a good time to embrace the Applied Improv attitude of flexibility coupled with liberating structure techniques. Following a mini-break, I invited participants to brainstorm challenges and opportunities for early warning systems; first as individuals, then in pairs and in fours before sharing in plenary. This 1-2-4-All method has since become very handy in areas where I anticipate or experience very strong power games that are likely to hinder idea generation. In African culture, what the superior says is right and final therefore designing mechanisms to get everyone’s voice heard is critical.

“I wish I had stumbled upon the concept of clarifying every purpose of the meeting beyond cliches much earlier in my facilitation career. Asking the big WHY has become my new compass and my new lens that informs design for every workshop and meeting.”

I am reminded of the bilateral conversation we had during the course about Parker’s idea of “ exclusion with purpose”. Well, it is a very important idea that encourages selecting the right people to meet the purpose of any given meeting. Once we got started, Shift and Share plus some humor coupled with storytelling always helped us overcome polarization and obscured non-aligned motivations. Probably every person I have met in a workshop or conference knows the story about my grandmother, my life growing up in informal settlements of Kampala and much more. I tell stories of where I have been around Africa, the food, the diverse cultures, and the multiple languages. I tell stories of my passion for Africa and the African-bred solutions to her challenges. Well, back to the workshop, by the end of day two, we had generated a clear roadmap to get alerts to those who need it most on time. Most of all, I witnessed some genuine laughter between superiors and the people they lead, a sign of an emerging shift in perspective.

A month later, I went down to the laid-back city of Zanzibar where representatives including City Officials, Disaster Managers, University Professors, Civil Society organizations, Climate Scientists, Red Cross staff, and community members gathered to chart the course of a five-year resilience building project. The successful implementation of the project ambitions was highly dependent on the cohesion and harmonization of the interests of this diverse group. In my choice of interactive energizers, I ensured that none contradicted Moslem norms and practices that are highly valued there. Lack of this awareness almost ruined a three-day workshop in Hargeisa, Somaliland back in 2015. In Somaliland, I was quite excited about using a six-sided die to explain weather forecast probabilities. To this end, we developed a game that involved taking decisions based on what is expected as an outcome of the rolls. As I invited participants to think about actions to prevent losses based on their expectations, a brave young man called out “Mr. Eddie, it is haram to bet”! Without any hesitation, I apologized and ended the game session but moved on with the rest of the agenda. In Zanzibar, I carefully chose culturally acceptable interactive exercises from Game Storming, another gift book from the facilitation course. My favorite is the “Low-tech social network”. After the official opening, I handed each participant a piece of paper and invited them to develop their business card that includes an illustrated portrait, what they do, and one fun fact or ambition. It was hilarious as each participant introduced another using the handcrafted business card. The business cards would then be uploaded (stuck) on the wall for participants later to find and connect with people with similar interests. This was the start of relationships that would be nurtured and leveraged during the design workshop and hopefully project implementation. I continue to draw from the wealth of knowledge from the facilitation course to enrich my skills. I have infused some knowledge and techniques in our internal facilitation capacity-building program for Red Cross Red Crescent staff and volunteers. This was an excellent opportunity to sharpen my facilitation skills and advance humanitarian work in Africa.

Finally, I had never thought of developing a facilitation portfolio and indeed the word was strange to me. Going through the process of developing the portfolio revealed my strength as a facilitator, my motivation for facilitation, and finally my growth areas. I would have not articulated what I can offer to the world in a precise way. I continue to collect my facilitation artifacts to improve my portfolio as new opportunities emerge.

“Going through the process of developing the portfolio revealed my strength as a facilitator, my motivation for facilitation, and finally my growth areas.”

If you are an enthusiastic facilitator early in your career or a legend who wants to sharpen your skills further and widen your network, I recommend the facilitation course. You will find practical skills and be challenged by like-minded colleagues from different walks of life.