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Stratos Partner Barb Sweazey on the Art of Convening

DATE: August 13, 2021

Bringing the right people together to solve today’s complex problems is both a core value and service at Stratos. As head of the organization’s convening, engagement, and facilitation practice, Barb Sweazey is an expert creating the space and conversations needed to generate pivotal and meaningful solutions.

Like other members of the Stratos team, Barb’s work is driven by a passion for sustainability, combined with subject matter expertise shaped by academic, professional, and personal experiences.

Her interest in the environment stemmed from childhood: growing up in a rural village surrounded by farmland; summers exploring northern Ontario’s lakes and forests; and formative years as a Girl Guide in both New Zealand and Canada. An interdisciplinary thinker from a young age, Barb has a degree in environmental studies from the University of Waterloo.

“I still use that degree every single day,” she explains. “It was really based on engaging with all the different actors that are involved in whatever environmental issue you’re working on.”

Barb started her career by co-creating a waste management consultancy based in Ottawa. Later, after serving as a Regulatory Affairs Manager with Environment Canada, she joined Stratos in 2005.

Advancing as the Manager of Training and Facilitation Practice, Barb found her intuitive talent for group leadership being called upon as an essential and powerful tool in her toolkit of management consulting skills. In 2010, she formalized her facilitation practice, becoming a certified facilitator under the rigorous International Association of Facilitators (IAF), a designation that is recertified every four years. Her commitment to the IAF runs deep, having served as Co-Chair for the North American conference hosted by Canada in 2018.

Today, she’s the go-to person at Stratos for anything workshop-related. “People often know what they’re trying to accomplish with a client, but they will come chat with me to get advice about how they might do it in an effective, meaningful, and creative way.”

Barb draws on the scores of engagements she has facilitated in the past decade, ranging in attendance from groups of five to more than 500. In addition to designing and delivering training in almost a dozen countries, she has facilitated events in virtually every province and territory across Canada, and often facilitates US-Canada meetings on transboundary resource issues.

One of Barb’s first large-scale facilitation projects with Stratos was working with the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to support cross-Canada national consultations to inform the design of the siting process to be used to find willing and informed communities to host the repository for Canada’s used nuclear fuel.

“This engagement event was fairly controversial,” recalls Barb. “From the get-go it was about curating a balance of diverse perspectives and designing these conversations to be helpful to NWMO and at the same time letting people have a safe space to talk and have their ideas heard.”

The NWMO engagement illustrates the unique strength of a Stratos convening. “We’ve got a really great blend of content and subject matter expertise as well as the know-how to create meaningful conversations for a range of actors,” says Barb, referencing the organization’s relationship with government, industry, Indigenous peoples, and civil society groups.

These networks, knowledge, and expertise enable Stratos consultants to listen to clients and define concrete meeting objectives, design thoughtful approaches to conversations, and shape targeted discussion questions that will generate the ideas, input, and/or decisions needed to create successful outcomes.

But, as Barb indicates, there is always something new to learn, practice, or consider in preparing for engagements.

In recent years, she has worked alongside Indigenous facilitators and participants to learn ways of holding meaningful and safe spaces for conversations involving Indigenous voices. Rarely working alone on leadership of such engagements, Barb has become acutely aware of the importance of ceremony, time, voice, silence, respect, and preparation, as she strives to ensure Indigenous participants are empowered to shape and contribute to conversations. Building on her learnings, she has co-delivered seminars at a selection of conferences on how to meaningfully design for and engage Indigenous voices in facilitated sessions.

Says Barb on the art of convening: “It’s about having a really good sense of what it is you’re aiming for from a conversation, but also having enough intuition, agility, and confidence to see when things need to pivot, make sure you’ve got permission to do that, and then, when necessary, bring things back on track.”

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