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Facilitating Collaboration (Guest Blog by Tal Fitzpatrick)

As the coordinator of the Natural Disaster Resilience Leadership Project it has been my job over the past two and a half years to bring together community leaders from across various sectors in order to explore their role in building community resilience. After delivering this project in over 13 locations around the state as well as presenting about it both interstate and internationally my key lesson from this work is that in order to encourage and enable successful collaboration, particularly across sectors, it is critical that someone helps to facilitate this process. The following is a short exploration of my learnings, including a brief reflection on my experience facilitating collaboration in the disaster resilience space as a young woman.

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The aim of the Resilience Leadership Project is for the participants to walk away with practical ‘action plans’ which outline what actions they can take at each phase of emergency management (PPRR: preparation, prevention, response, recovery) and what actions, events, initiatives and project they can develop and deliver in order to increase community resilience in their local area.  In order to do this over the four day of training the project focusses on build leadership capacity and improving participant’s understandings for emergency management and community resilience.

The project was designed based on Volunteering Qld’s longstanding work in developing grassroots leadership capacity and supported with best practice emergency management and community resilience thinking from around the world. Central to the thinking behind this project are the four adaptive capacities of a resilient community which are:

1)            Information and communication

2)            Community competence

3)            Economic development

4)            Social capital

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Each of these four adaptive capacities of a resilient community all rely heavily on collaboration: collaboration between people, between organizations, agencies and businesses, collaboration between sectors and indeed collaboration between communities and between states and nations; which of course works great in theory, but in practice is incredibly hard to pull off.

Arguably one of the most difficult parts of delivering this project is getting people from different sectors in the community (agencies, community, nonprofit, business, education, and government) to think about how they can break out of their silos and work laterally to achieve common goals. Collaboration is challenging as each agent has their own sets of drivers, agendas, biases, timelines and resource restrictions. Cross-sectorial collaboration is additionally problematic for several reasons such as a lack of cross-sectorial understandings, the use of sector specific language, competing priorities and disparate access resourcing all of which cause unequal power relations between collaborative partners. My challenge has therefore has been to break down the barriers (perceived or otherwise) between people from different sectors in order to get them to collaborate on strategies that build community resilience.

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Additionally to this, I have had to overcome the more personal challenge of delivering this training as woman in my early 20’s with a background in contemporary arts and no previous experience in the field of emergency management. Initially this was really difficult and I felt significant pressure from each new group I worked with to prove myself and justify why I was the one delivering this training. However over time I worked out that by simply reframing my role in the participants minds from trainer as ‘expert’ to trainer as facilitator I was able to completely disarm any uncertainty about my capacity. The key difference between these two approaches to training, or leadership for that matter, is that instead of providing problem diagnosis and prescribe solutions a facilitator acknowledges the expertise, ideas and concerns of those in the room and acts as a catalyst, inciting meaningful dialogue through enabling participants to make a diagnosis and develop their own solutions based on common set of values, a collaborative approach and on reciprocity.

In my experience working with a range of communities what people find most frustrating about collaboration is the fact it often significantly delays and inhibits action.  Collaboration is meaningless if it doesn’t produce some type of outcome. Whether is a practical physical outcome or a change in attitudes, behaviours or beliefs, successful collaborations needs to have a focus on turning discussion into action. Both the Resilience Leadership Project and the UNESCO Youth Looking Beyond Disasters forums have a strong focus on getting groups of people to come together and develop ‘Action plans’. To facilitate the creation of these action plans participants are supported through a collaborative  project planning process that requires them to outline what action their group is going to take and what steps and individual actions are necessary to enable this.

In the different locations where the Resilience Leadership Project has been delivered the types of action plans developed by participants have varied greatly. The action plans developed are always a response to the challenges being faced by the participants in their local area and some examples of the action plans developed include: personal preparedness plans, community education events, ‘get ready’ days, mental health campaigns, interagency continuity plans and resilience leadership networks that work in with local disaster managed plans. These complex action plans are more sophisticated, thought out and innovative as a result of the collaborative process which allows for peer-to-peer support and resource sharing and enables participants to address their core adaptive challenges.

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As is broadly discussed and acknowledged in this blog: reciprocal collaboration between a broad cross section of stakeholders fosters innovation and resilience. The adaptive challenges faced by disaster affected or at-risk communities can only be addressed through broad scale collaboration as addressing these challenges requires ideological, cultural, social, behavioural and economic change; and this type of change can’t be dictated by hierarchies or become systemic as a result of grassroots movements. What I would like to stress is that 1) this type of collaboration often needs a helping hand to get started and to ensure reciprocity, and 2) facilitated collaboration works because it enables a space where all stakeholders are valued equally and are given the chance to contribute and be heard while disarming people’s tendencies to be critical or suspicious of people in positions of leadership and expertise. Going forward I hope that more thought and emphasis is placed on developing the skills and practices necessary for facilitating complex collaborative projects in order to increase the number and support granted to these types of projects.

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Tal Fitzpatrick is a Project Coordinator, Education Research and Policy Unit, Volunteering Qld.

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