by Olivia Allen, Project Lead for Youth Programs
March 2021, marks my fourth year employment anniversary at Waterlution and my fifth year of involvement with the organization. Before my one year leave, I wanted to reflect and share about some pivotal skills learned along the way.
Stepping into Waterlution means stepping into the world of facilitation.Olivia Allen
Developing and growing facilitation skills is a unique experience, I say it offers space for personal growth alongside acquiring the professional skill itself. Facilitating training workshops and online gatherings that offer participants meaningful opportunities to interact and engage with meaningful dialogue is not as simple as hosting for example a panel of speakers or presenters, it goes much deeper to actually engage participants, not only educate them.
I was lucky to be mentored by a team of excellent facilitators and experienced their work as a Waterlution participant before becoming part of the staff team. As soon as I met Dona and Karen at the Youth Advisory Board training when I was a volunteer, I was captivated by the way they crafted and curated our learning experiences. Waterlution created a space where I could learn from experts, learn from my peers, network with peers, laugh with my peers, learn about and challenge myself. The ah-ha moments, motivation and new learnings I got from this experience was something I wanted to pass on to others. After joining the staff team and taking training through the Art of Hosting, my journey as a facilitator began.
Facilitating isn’t just about hosting an event, knowing the agenda, and making sure it goes smoothly! It’s about good questions, curating a well thought interactive agenda, hosting yourself, hosting others, and managing the flow of the interaction.
Early on in planning training sessions and workshops, I found myself lacking confidence and asking myself, what would Dona do? Or what would Karen do? Which was helpful but I quickly learned that I needed to be myself as a facilitator. Embracing your unique energy and personality in your facilitation style is so important, facilitators are not all supposed to be the same.
The more you embrace yourself and your natural tendencies, the more confident you will become. This makes it easier to grow and continue to build your skills set.
Once you find your confidence as a facilitator, the next step is to master crafting questions that will create the type of conversations you want your participants to engage in. The conversations that happen between participants set the stage for how deeply they connect and what they learn from each other. Without good questions and well-planned opportunities for participants to engage in dialogue with each other (especially in an online setting) building networks and community is nearly impossible!
A good facilitator knows how to host oneself. I learned how crucial giving yourself the time and space to mentally prepare for before an event by observing Karen and Dona in the days ahead of a retreat, a Water Innovation Lab (WIL), or even in the few moments before an online workshop. It’s a natural tendency, especially when we are quite busy or stressed to put the needs of others and work above our own needs. It takes a few times of learning the hard way, that to be a good facilitator, you must be well-rested, hydrated, and stress-free. This means giving yourself 10-30 minutes before an event starts to step away from the computer screen, decompress, get excited about what is about to unfold, and look forward to the hours ahead.
Being in this rested and positive headspace allows you to truly be present during a workshop or training, you can engage with the participants, host, and also read the room (or read the ZOOM). Perhaps the biggest learning I’ve had as a facilitator is how adaptability is just as important as having a well planned program. If somethings not working and the group energy isn’t right, pivot! If you’re expecting 20 participants and 35 show up (or vice versa) you have to just go with it!
Being agile and adaptable when we’ve put so much time into planning can be difficult. Learning to let go of what was planned and accepting what is happening takes some courage. At the moment you might feel like others think you seem disorganized or like you’re just winging it, but this is not the case. After hosting many workshops and training sessions, adapting when things don’t work out as planned is something that I’ve been complimented on the most throughout my time working with the Youth Advisory Board. This gets easier to do with experience, as you learn what works best with different group sizes, dynamics and participants personalities.
Leading a volunteer team of young professionals, meant peer-mentoring became a huge piece of my work, and this required some serious personal development in the early days. As the Project Lead for Waterlution’s youth programs I have held a very unique role, developing and delivering school-age projects that engage students in building their connection to water, (like our current storytelling contest Young Water Speaks), while also training, mentoring, and coordinating Youth Advisory Board volunteers. The YAB members are typically in their 20’s and volunteer to help develop and deliver Waterlution’s grade school projects.
I was 24 years old when I started this job – so I was mentoring people around my age and people who were older than me. At first this was really challenging and at times uncomfortable for me in my less confident moments. I felt I had nothing to offer to the volunteers who were my age or older. Now, four years later peer-to-peer mentoring has got to be one of the most exciting and rewarding pieces of my work.
In a most obvious and formal way, I mentor volunteers by helping them create materials and content for the school programs, by giving guidance, and feedback along the way. However after reviewing the feedback surveys from the first YAB cohort I led in 2017, I realised the hidden pieces of mentoring.
- Building someone’s confidence.
- Helping them recognize their own strengths and how to work with them.
- Guiding them on how to lean into the strengths of others.
These may be perhaps the most important pieces! (And according to the surveys, I was doing this type of mentoring this without even realizing).
I think keeping my own ego in check was a really important step in becoming a good peer mentor. Letting go of ego allows you to acknowledge your own weaknesses and fully embrace what others bring to the table. Getting to truly know the people you are mentoring allows you, as a leader, to know who to call upon for certain opportunities, not everyone is good at research and not everyone is good at editing written work, but if you have a dynamic team, there is always someone who can bring the skill you need, building that person up by acknowledging their strength and calling upon them to use it is a key piece of mentorship.
Equally important is to help the people you are mentoring acknowledge and accept what they maybe are not the best at, in a friendly way. These two acts paired together keep projects moving forward by playing to team strengths (not saying you cannot work on and improve skills, but I love motivating people to work with their strengths, typically we like doing the things we are good at!).
Acknowledging my own strengths, weaknesses, and knowledge gaps in this peer-mentorship setting has given me some of the greatest friendships with Youth Advisory Board members and Waterlution colleagues. These friendships are authentic but also have a flare of professionalism, because we continue to teach each other (this blog would be too long if I went into detail about each of these friendships but I’ll share a few examples!) .
Over the years, Waterlution has strived to bring Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous volunteers in our community and school projects. This space is an excellent example of where as a leader and mentor, I need to step back and let others lead. I cannot put into words how much I’ve learned from some of our Indigenous volunteers, summer staff and resource guests – particularlyI must thank Stephanie Pheasant and Rebecca Osawamick, who I was able to spend some one on one time with, for all they have taught me (and continue to teach me) about working together, mindfulness, and seeing things through new and diverse perspectives and much more!
Some volunteers challenged me, we pushed each other’s buttons at times, and it took time to discover how our personalities and strengths worked together (a great early career learning in itself). These people taught me so much about myself and about navigating challenging conversations. Today, I am lucky to call these people my friends and we can continue to rely on each other for peer-support/mentorship opportunities. All this is possible because we value each other’s opinions, differences, and honesty.
Someone else I’ve been lucky enough to work with, throughout their own experience as a Youth Advisory Board volunteer and in their early career development at Waterlution, is Laina Timberg! We’ve been able to grow together professionally over the last year and I’m happy to share that Laina will be leading Young Water Speaks and the Youth Advisory Board over the next year while I am on maternity leave.