As the owner of a public relations firm and the president of a non-governmental organization (NGO), I’m constantly working with the leaders of our Santa Barbara, California community. One thing stands out consistently: we all find ourselves reaching out for answers, information, and resources for situations that can almost be described as impossible.
As I talk to business owners, heads of other non-profits, elected officials, and people on the street, it seems clear that a new approach to our challenges is essential. We know that meaningful economic and social change is in order. But how do we address these challenges as opportunities with a new sense of enthusiasm and the confidence that something positive can happen and solutions will appear?
Recently I was faced with an issue I would describe as impossible. I’m the new president for the United Nations Association (UNA) for the Tri-Counties, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo (www.unasb.org). Our major goal over the next few years is to work locally with other non-profit organizations to create World Harmony and a non-violent world, which is our charter from the UN itself.
As part of our efforts, we invite a speaker to present a fifteen-minute overview of their work or about their NGO at our monthly board meetings. Our September speaker presented the facts about the March 11, 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe in Japan. Our UNA, as part of the United Nations, was invited to assist in raising public awareness about the ongoing release of unknown amounts of radioactivity and the undetermined global and local threat to public health and the environment.
We were surprised by this request and even more astonished by the knowledge that “Fukushima” was still a major health threat. It was a compelling challenge and a noble opportunity for our little organization to step forward to take on a new, more proactive platform in our community.
Given the seriousness of the situation, we believed that we needed to move forward sooner rather than later. We had a little more than a month to develop, organize, market, and deliver a day-long conference for UN Day, October 24th 2013. We needed experts— authors, nuclear engineers, medical doctors—and willing, engaged participants. And we needed them fast.
We decided that a town meeting format was an appropriate approach for the day-long event, followed by an evening presentation for the community to become informed about this nuclear situation. There was so little time and so much to do that we needed to let go of the usual leadership approach for conference development. Instead, we focused on collaboration to help manage and direct all of our actions.
A subcommittee was formed and met each Thursday morning for breakfast and planning. One speaker was also invited to join us to educate us (this also helped us form a bond with the speaker to determine how best to feature his or her participation on the day itself). We felt that if we could keep the conference volunteers—and we were all volunteers—on the same page by keeping them informed and engaged, we could make this a newsworthy event.
We expanded the collaboration to the community and other NGOs. We found that there was an unquenched interest in the subject that seemed to ignite as we presented the idea. Each speaker was personally invited to participate. Our list included a Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist, two nuclear engineers, emergency responders, medical professionals, and scientific and environmental authors. No one turned us down.
Several times in the process we found ourselves wondering whether we were on track, but we realized that if we trusted in engaging others and consistently established collaborative meetings, phone calls, and actions, we’d keep moving forward. And we did—faster and faster. Some of our collaborative approaches included:
* Having a large number of speakers and keeping their presentations to twenty minutes or less, expanding the information offered by providing a larger, more diverse pool of data.
* Developing a ninety-minute breakout session after the first set of speakers, asking each attendee to bring the wisdom from their life experiences to the group. This helped people process what they’d been hearing while also engaging them. We divided them into thirteen subgroups of five to seven people. A trained facilitator guided their creative thinking to generate as many alternative strategies as possible. Their job was to maintain a neutral point of view with questions, listen for possible solutions, and “follow the heat” (pursue exciting topics and ideas) with additional discussion.
* Inviting other NGOs to be part of the facilitator process. Half of the facilitators were from other organizations. Everyone got to shine; everyone had to engage.
* Training the fifteen volunteer facilitators in a neutrality process, an essential protocol of the UN, developed by one of our board members. (The feedback from the attendees about the quality of our facilitators was exceptional.)
* Selecting one speaker from each subgroup to make a short summary presentation about their strategies to the entire conference. As their information mingled with the presentations by the invited speakers, it created a collage of information in which everyone felt involved and contributory, adding to the collaborative feeling.
* Having a conference master of ceremonies (MC) leader totally committed to collaboration, “setting the tone for building coalition, teamwork and a caring
esprit de corps throughout the day and evening,” as one participant noted. The MC was trained in collaborative, conversational, and interactive skills.
The public evening meeting at a local church opened up a new level of inclusion as we shared the energy and information from the day. The speakers and many of the participants joined in the new venue. This too was a collaborative event, with elected officials joining us.
Both events were beyond successful. The collective wisdom of our ninety international daytime participants at the Santa Barbara University Club was our gold mine/gold mind. Gathered were doctors, scientists, and leaders from Japan, Hawaii, Alaska, Arizona, and California (Santa Barbara). We had accumulated hundreds of ideas and opportunities presented in many different ways to help find possible hidden messages and solutions to the magnitude of this nuclear situation.
The net result of this conference, especially the small group sessions, was a new mindset that anyone can have impact, input, and stimulate change about any situation, no matter how serious, including the Fukushima meltdown, which led attendees to take action. Letters to the editor were written and printed in all the local newspapers. Our local NPR station announced the evening event. The next day, Friday, a respected doctor sent an e-mail describing the potential risks to our health and the environment in which he stated, “I’m not an alarmist, but I’m alarmed.” His e-mail became the inspiration for what was to become the “Santa Barbara Protocol–Fukushima,” which was written by our board members with the assistance of an attorney on our board. An emergency board meeting was called the following Monday, and the Santa Barbara Protocol was unanimously approved.
The creation of the Protocol, too, was a collaborative process and event. Bringing everyone involved with the conference together almost immediately after the event allowed us to review the day, evaluate the experience, review the feedback, and most importantly honor what happened and what was achieved. The Protocol was the final step in this collegial endeavor. Not only did it allow all of us to clarify the experience and acknowledge the magnitude of the concepts and ideas that evolved, but it also didn’t let us rest on our laurels. It helped us step forward and take this endeavor to its next level of evolution—and most importantly to do it together, collaboratively. The Protocol is a story in itself, and if anyone would like to know more, please follow this link to our website www.SantaBarbaraProtocol.com
While we on the planning committee felt that the UNA’s convention had been powerfully productive and collaborative, it was the participants’ feedback that told us it was a revolutionary success. In their evaluations, participants reported that the most exciting part of the day was the small-group collaborative thinking session—their contribution to
the creative stream of connections that led to new strategies and hope.
In fact, afterward, the e-mails came pouring in, including one from a participant who ended her e-mail, “May it be that Fukushima and many other crises humanity faces will break us open to ingenious, collaborative solutions!” Another wrote, “interesting variety of speakers…a shakening awakening.” One week after the conference, the same noted doctor mentioned earlier held a noontime seminar at the local hospital for more than 200 members of the medical community. His PowerPoint presentation is now on YouTube and at www.unasb.org.
In the end, our Santa Barbara Protocol made the November Good News Agency\\\'s publication, which was e-mailed to 10,000 media and editorial journalists in 54 countries, 3,000 NGOs, and 1,500 high schools and colleges, as well as to more than 24,000 Rotarians around the world, in three language editions: English, Italian, and Portuguese. Our little chapter in Santa Barbara turned the impossible into an international alert.
When the impossible is thrown at you, turn to collaboration as an avenue for solutions. We used the collaboration process from beginning to end of this endeavor. It kept us energized, moving forward, and put no limitations on what was possible. Our “unconventional convention” gave the world the Santa Barbara Protocol, a call to action born from the framework of collaboration. We trusted that the wisdom of collaboration would guide us, and it did. It was truly a shakening awakening!