By Karen Kun, President

As 2019 comes to a close and a new decade is upon us, a natural process of reflection emerges and I look forward to sharing some thoughts from the year past, some program highlights, learnings and Waterlution’s focus on leadership in the current state of the world.

We live in a polarizing time with differing views on climate change and varying styles of leadership. How many people ask themselves regularly ‘why is this person in a leadership role? Are these individuals or organizations able to offer a vision for what the world needs right now?’ I ask myself this often. In contrast, I also see leaders that I feel have the capacity to lead much larger entities or have the skills to really step into influential roles, and wonder what, or more precisely, who, is holding them back?  

I am in countless meetings and gatherings every year, and so often there is not nearly enough diversity in the viewpoints presented, nor in the representation of those making decisions. At Waterlution, we need to continue welcoming diverse viewpoints and elevate the voices of people and communities facing water challenges and communities with heightened climate change risks. We choose our partners carefully, and are truly grateful to the strong leadership we have with so many of our Canadian and global partners (and who push us to be bolder than ever).

Leadership is an evolving skill that requires discipline, constant learning, and an exceptional ability to steer towards a larger vision while navigating multiple hurdles. Even for those experienced in leadership roles, the context is often changing, so adaptability is constantly a skill in use. It is likely helpful to look to those core skills that shape visionary leaders.  

Danyka (centre) and Shamily (right) are two past Youth Advisory Board members who we have watched become strong land courageous leaders

A lot of these skills have something very crucial at the center—they are humanizing skills—vulnerability, empathy, conversational, connection, inclusivity, adaptability, community and approachability. These skills are at the core of our work at Waterlution, from youth advisory board training and in-school workshops, to how artists engage with communities, and within the entire design of our global programs. All of these human skills are more important now than ever before. When looking at examples of these qualities in others, it is important to have role models. 


When trying to understand how to lead or know what to look for in leadership, it’s often a lot more accessible to find someone you can relate to. Starting with people in leadership roles in your own community where you can ask questions and meet in person which can provide relatable examples to help you develop these skills right where you live. Also, there is the added bonus of meeting people in your community and connecting in ways that strengthen your skills in other areas, like listening. 


A key skill in leadership is knowing how and when to listen. You cannot successfully lead if you don’t have a sense of what and where the need is. Listening allows others to contribute and also to help lead themselves. Building on this listening skill, is an ability to ask questions that encourage dialogue.


I consider myself so very fortunate that I get to do the work I do, and I am forever grateful that I get to work with the talented team we have in place at Waterlution. We do great work and have a positive impact on the lives of many people because of the role each of the following individuals play and because of what they offer day after day.

So please allow me to elevate this incredible team – they are the shining stars of my world.

No one balances more platters, plates, saucers, cups, spoons (you get the picture) than Dona Geagea, our multi-talented Global Lead on Water Innovation Labs (WILs). In 2019, she embarked on delivering 2 WILs (Lebanon and Mexico) in vastly different geographies, with different themes, different partners, and navigating between three languages. What she accomplished was a mammoth feat. It was stressful, insightful and uplifting. As Dona has said to me many times, it all comes down to training and supporting youth leaders, most of whom do not have access to this type of opportunity. Dona has inspired so many people with her facilitation style, her sensitive and caring nature, her pursuit of inclusivity and her quick decision making when curve balls came at us (how many curve balls, Dona?). Key take away from Dona:

Build a great local team, give them important roles and co-create, the outcome is so much richer and rewarding to all those involved.

Karen and Dona together promoting Waterlution’s work to achieved SDG 6

As we host Great Art for Great Lakes (GAGL) on the Greatness website, I feel our Creative Director Chris McLeod doesn’t get all the praise he deserves. For those that know Waterlution, our effort to blend water learning and arts-based experiences is not new, yet it is fully because of Chris’ vision that GAGL delivers the beautiful work it does. Do check out the website (there is so much more to come in 2020)! Chris does a marvelous job of putting artists first, working closely with them to bring their skills around participatory dialogic art to life and shows up at pretty much every workshop and event to ensure the artist, community, and partner interactions are meaningful. Key take away from Chris:

Arts-based experiences, combined with local story-telling make learning about water so much richer and weaving these elements together are part of building community resiliency.

Karen and Chris at Six Nations Community Centre for the release of “Song for the Water” co-written by Logan Staats, Rob Lamothe, and 250 students

Someone else who has 25 tabs open at all times, balancing our national youth and school programs is Olivia Allen. Olivia is integral to the Waterlution team, and she has been my guide so many times within the Great Canoe Journey project by developing numerous learning opportunities to increase our Indigenous Knowledge as an organization. She regularly updates me on the realities that many Indigenous youth face and with compassion and openness, she seeks ways to collaborate with others, and encourage Indigenous-led approaches. She also possesses one of my favourite skills – she picks up the phone and calls people!  Key learning from Olivia:

Listen to youth, give them every single chance possible to be front and centre (and as a result, I know our youth programming is so much stronger).

Karen and Olivia in B.C. for training the Youth Advisory Board with their helper Max

Another key member of our team, is Dawn Fleming, who leads WIL Brasil. Like Dona, she navigated many complex elements as she steered the local team towards the exceptional program they delivered in November in the northeast part of Brazil. She has such a unique blend of incredible skills combining art, strategy, facilitation and play into most aspects of her work. WIL Brasil would not exist without her precision to critical details and her ability to grow partnerships (so much so that our first lead partner for WIL Global 2020 is our WIL Brasil partner, negotiated with Dawn’s leadership). Key learning from Dawn: 

Listen carefully to how to align our vision with that of partners, and then develop something stronger together.

Karen and Dawn working together on WIL Brasil 2019

Our up and coming team members, Laina Timberg and Megan Cornall who have worked closely with Olivia and myself have really embraced our organizational culture over the last few months and are rolling up the sleeves and diving into to whatever needs attention.  I enjoy watching you grow and take on more and more tasks and this will continue well into 2020 (we have a lot to get you involved with across our programs).

Karen, Laina and Megan all together at WIL Canada 2019

We have a much bigger team than our website indicates and I cherish the way we collaborate with others. Two other team members that we are all so dependent on are Alex Trasiewicz who manages our website, graphic design, communications materials, she graciously accepts our multiple changes, nuanced needs and hilariously has spent many days/weeks working with languages she doesn’t speak.  And Suzanne Zandbergen who leads our social media (and a bit like Alex gets things shared with her in so many languages and all hours of the day/night and somehow to keeps our social media rhythm so consistent).

We said goodbye to our media and communications lead, Laura Palumbo, who is navigating the work-life balance of a young family (I think we may be able to bring her back on GAGL in the summer and am working on it).

And to these exceptional people who made 2019 happen: Sue Roppel, Doug Wright, Bassel Daher, Sara Dia, George Gharios, Melissa Soto, Roque Saenz, Jonas Heffels, Emily Taylor, Alejandra Burchard-Levine, Igor Vieria, Monica Queiroz, Rodolpho Martins and so many others.

While I would never claim Waterlution to be perfect, I am very pleased when I look at the leadership skills our team embodies. Most importantly, I have witnessed this year how keen the team is to transfer their skills and knowledge to other newer members of the team or to our volunteers. We really do have a “roll-up the sleeves” learn, share, deliver attitude and care deeply about communities, volunteers, youth, water and the arts. 

Collectively, these individuals are problem-solvers, creative thinkers, yes people (or no people when appropriate), empathetic, balanced, open-minded, strong communicators. They are not scared away by tough moments, moments of discomfort and elevate us all with the teachings they receive from Indigenous Elders and leaders so that we can continuously improve ourselves to decolonize our thinking, systems and patterns.


Strong leaders also know when to say yes, when to say no, when to compromise and when to say not now. Here is an examples from Harvard Business Review of leadership skills used at the highest level. Everyone, not just those in high positions, should look at these qualities and see that it’s within themselves to also be leaders. It may start in your own workplace, friend group and family. We simply cannot wait for others to be adults for us and lead. The journey starts at different times for different people, yet youth are really showcasing their voice globally at the moment, and I hope that our network is full of youth champions. 


Collaboration is a crucial piece to leadership and connecting with others. We won’t always see the world the same way as others, and so we need to find something that connects us that we can use as an anchor to build from. Finding common ground can start by agreeing that water is so important and from there building out what different collaborators bring to the table to make something better than it was before. 

Karen in B.C. for meetings and the beginning stages of planning WIL Global 2020

There is always so much more than can be shared, yet I will leave you with what is coming up as we lean into 2020:

  • What are we focussing on in 2020? 

WIL Global in British Columbia, Canada is a big focus, and our team is working to bring all aspects of what we do into the program. WIL Global will have places for WIL Alumni from our Global network and across Canada, and will welcome new young water leaders to get involved. We are also looking to bring many of our global partners to WIL Global as well.  Applications will open around mid- February – so stay connected on social media and we hope to see many of you there.

Karen and Megan have already started working on WIL Global 2020 which will take place in B.C.

WIL Brasil, Lebanon and Mexico updates will also be coming in the first quarter of 2020, and we are working very hard on multiple WILs across Africa while exploring new partnerships in India and Europe.

  • Indigenous learning is a priority for Waterlution, and we will keep developing relationships in 2020, and listening on how we can work together and build inclusive programming. 
  • Looking for a summer job and want to work with us? Now is the time to get in touch. We cannot guarantee we have a job for everyone yet we cannot consider you, if we don’t know you are looking. Please drop Olivia Allen a brief email with your CV.

From our team we wish everyone a calm end to 2019, Happy Holidays to those that celebrate, and look forward to working together in 2020,