Image shared with permission from Elaine Alec

With gratitude to Elaine Alec for passing along this important teaching

From social inequity to climate change to COVID-19, communities face an array of multifaceted and interconnected challenges that cannot be solved by a single agency, institution, group or individual alone. Rather, complex challenges require collaborative solutions and the involvement of local communities in the design and delivery of them. Community engagement, which we see as a robust and inclusive process by which citizens learn about and tackle community issues together, is therefore crucial to the functioning of modern democracies and healthy, vibrant communities.

Yet the quality of the engagement process, and inclusivity of the spaces in which community members are gathered, plays a significant role in the determination of outcomes, and the experience of those participating.

To extend our learning in how to create inclusive spaces, where all participants feel heard and at ease, WCS Engagement + Planning hosted a virtual workshop attended by 21 Whistler-based professionals in the non-profit sector on “Cultivating Safe Spaces” on September 15th led by Elaine Alec (she/her). Elaine is a Syilx and Secwepemc author, political advisor, women’s advocate and spiritual thought leader and teacher with over two decades of experience as a leading expert in Indigenous community planning, health advocacy and creating safe spaces utilizing Indigenous approaches and ceremony.

Over the course of an afternoon, Elaine guided the group through decolonized practices and practical tips that enable process participants to contribute to collective decision-making and joint solutions as their authentic selves. At the heart of her approach are four protocols – Wellbeing, Inclusion, Validation, and Freedom- grounded in four perspectives – Tradition, Relationship, Innovation and Action. After laying the groundwork for this approach, and sharing a bit about her lived experience, Elaine invited all participants to introduce themselves by answering three questions: 1) Who am I?; 2) Who do I belong to?; and 3) What is on your heart? One by one, participants took turns answering these questions and listening to others around a virtual sharing circle, a process designed to deepen self and group awareness, while promoting wellbeing (caring for one another and oneself), inclusion (everyone having the opportunity to speak from the heart), and validation (through the practice of listening and witnessing). Freedom was fostered by encouraging participants to take breaks, eat, and practice self-care.

For many in the session, this beautiful and pragmatic approach to facilitation resonated deeply. “You can’t change or heal what you don’t acknowledge,” was one of several lessons that really hit home. This teaching underscores the importance of truth and openness in the context of any relationship-building or healing process; a teaching that takes on special significance in the context of Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. Furthermore, it invites a deeper contemplation and integration of holistic health in community engagement processes, which illuminates the need for (re)orienting those processes around restoring and strengthening connections between Self, Family, Community and Land.

Another lesson came in the form of Elaine’s commitment to open-ended, relationship-building processes that don’t always adhere to strict timelines and agendas. Her view that the essential work comes through the “What’s on your heart?” sharing circle is a powerful perspective on how to decolonize processes and centre relationships.

We highly recommend Elaine’s workshops to anyone interested in creating deeper, more meaningful relationships through engagement processes and/or in their workplaces. We’re looking forward to applying her perspectives and protocols in our own facilitation practices, and continuing our learning journey to create safer, more inclusive spaces. For information on Elaine and her next workshop, visit: