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Tales from the Trenches with Kimbra White

Tell us a bit about yourself.
Hi I’m Kimbra White. I’m based in Melbourne and am originally from Tasmania, a place that I will always feel a deep attachment to with its beautiful landscape and coastline.

Kimbra must be an ‘island’ name. The only Kimbra I have met is from Tasmania and, strangely enough, she works in the community engagement for Hobart City Council – the very place I started my career in the 1970s. The only other Kimbra I know of (whom I haven’t met) is a singer from one of the New Zealand islands.

Tell us a bit about your organisation.
MosaicLab was established by my colleagues Nicole Hunter, Keith Greaves and myself about four years ago. Our aim was to work collaboratively on large, deliberative engagement projects. The journey so far has been filled with learning and opportunities – we have facilitated citizens’ juries and community panels on a wide range of issues – from the City of Melbourne’s Ten Year Financial Plan to the Democracy in Geelong project. We have a shared philosophy of sharing our learnings, and provide a lot of resources and materials for free on our website.

What does your role involve?
Primarily I plan and facilitate or co-facilitate conversations across a range of topics and formats: from small group conversations to large scale outrage meetings and multi-day deliberations.

What would be a typical day in your working life?
I love facilitation because every conversation is different and it is great to stand alongside a group as they come together to tackle and address difficult issues. On an average work day, I am either working with an organisation to plan an engagement process that will help them to bring their community or stakeholders into a decision or issue, designing facilitation processes in collaboration with my colleagues, or facilitating a session with a group.

Can you share some of the good and bad experiences you have encountered over your career and how they have helped you grow as an engagement professional and person?
I am always having great experiences. One of my favourite parts of the job is working with a panel or jury on their final day as they come to agreement (or getting any sort of agreement on difficult, polarising issues like whether dogs are allowed on beaches).
There are some negative experiences that stay with you: not sufficiently supporting the bloke no one in the room wanted to listen to (the bloke who then turned out to have the wisest advice); or a meeting that erupted into outrage in the first five minutes unexpectedly. But I learn from every experience – from the ‘hot’, memorable moments to those quiet thoughts that run through your mind as you leave every meeting. Overall, I have learnt that the group is always your best guide as to what they require from you as a facilitator.

If you are working on a project at the moment would you like to share the journey to date? What principles did you find most useful in carrying out this project? Did you come across any surprises on this project?
At MosaicLab we worked to a fairly well designed set of deliberation principles that have been developed by those in the deliberation field over many years (you can view these principles on our website). Some of our learnings over the last couple of years include:
• the importance of a really clear, strong remit (the task the jury or panel has been asked to complete),
• the value in helping people to think critically when deliberating
• the difficulties of working with a polarised, yes/no issue such as nuclear waste in South Australia or whether Geelong should have a council elected or popularly elected Mayor.

What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of working in this field?
Just talking with people really! And walking alongside people as they take part in difficult conversations and influencing decisions, and in doing so become active citizens in the democratic process.
In my former role as an IAP2 board member I worked alongside others to establish a federation of countries at the international level. This was extremely rewarding, as it has allowed IAP2 to flourish and grow (from 100 Australasian members when I first joined to over 1,000 members today).

What do you see as the most challenging part of your role or working in engagement in general?
Working with the community is often the easy part. The harder part is working with some clients who say they are committed to engagement but find it very hard to step back and share power with the community. This work is about sharing power and that is a very hard step for many people.

What prompted you to enter engagement professionally?
It was an accident really. I had returned from five years living in Houston, Texas and was doing a lot of local and state government strategy work when I realised that it was the engagement part of strategy that I enjoyed the most. I loved meetings! So I went in search of training and professional associations and found the Australian Facilitators Network and IAP2 and it just grew from there.

What are the three biggest professional or personal lessons that you have learnt from working on this field?
From a facilitation perspective:
1. listening is critical,
2. well-designed meeting processes work,
3. the group does have the wisdom they need to do the work.

What advice would you give newbies entering engagement?
Work with others, learn from others in the field, seek out different experiences (some of my best learning have come from applied improv) and always be open and honest with the community.