I established the Fresh Outlook Foundation in 2006, to expand on the public outreach and engagement work I was doing for local governments throughout BC. My overarching goal was to create events that engaged whole communities in vigorous conversations about important sustainability issues.
It’s now 2019, and I’m thrilled with what I’ve learned from the dozens of FOF events we’ve hosted, including the Building SustainABLE Communities (BSC) conferences, CommUnity Innovation Lab, Eco-Blast Kids Camps, Reel Change SustainAbility Film Fest, Breakfast of Champions, and Women 4 SustainAbility.
Now I’m embarking on what seems to me like the natural next step… the HEADS UP! Community Mental Health Summit planned for the spring of 2020. Designed to reflect successful strategies and tools from seven BSCs in Kelowna, and a CommUnity Innovation Lab in Kamloops, the Summit will holistically explore a range of mental health challenges, successes, and opportunities at the individual, family, workplace, and community scales.
But why me? And why again… isn’t eight major conferences enough?
BEING THE BUZZ…
Deeply rooted inside me is the need to connect with others, and to help others also connect more broadly. So, since childhood I’ve created dozens of opportunities for people to share their challenges, successes, and opportunities in service to what I thought was “the greater good” at the time. This expression of who I am spiritually consistently set the stage for what I did in the physical realm.
So, what’s the “buzz” all about? Actually, there are two buzzes of note here.
The Buzz in the Room
Buzz number one is the actual sound of genuine human engagement. All FOF events are designed to encourage either guided or free conversations among participants. At a large event such as Building SustainABLE Communities, that “buzz” in the room — what sounds like total chaos — actually echoes the hum of communal reflection… an outward coming together of participants’ inward insights, ideas, and passions.
When I’m in a room with that noise it’s like I’ve been plugged into a light socket. My whole body vibrates with the purpose and potential of it all.
Imagine this metaphor… you walk into in a room full of musicians preparing for a big performance. Each person is warming up individually, playing notes that show great technique and feeling. What you notice, as practice time passes, is the rising swell of discordant sounds. That represents my buzz in the room… the collective reverberation of people’s ability, capacity, and enthusiasm as they practice opening up authentically in time with their own internal melody.
Back to the room. Now imagine that the conductor taps his/her stick on the podium. Heads turn toward him/her as the musicians focus on a truly interactive performance with shared accountability. Amazing harmonies result from a truly collaborative effort.
I see myself as that conductor… the person who harnesses the buzz in the room to move participants from information to inspiration to action. I believe that if I can get people in the same room looking at the same song sheet (i.e., exploring a specific mental health challenge or opportunity), I can then help steer conversations in ways that systematically move individual input to collective outcomes.
The Buzz in My Being
Buzz number two has been with me much longer. While buzz number one feels exhilarating and full of promise, buzz number two does not.
Buzz number two is the dreaded feel of acute anxiety that I experienced starting in childhood. It’s the intense heat that starts in my chest and quickly moves to my arms and then the rest of my body. It’s the racing heart, the nausea, the dry mouth, and the inability to eat or sleep. Above all else, it’s the fear. The fear of nothing… and of everything. The anguish associated with bank lines, bridges, and bombings at the local school. The horror of living forever in an extreme state of imbalance… combined with the terror of thinking that maybe death might not be the worst way out.
Fortunately for me and my family, I’m one of the lucky folks who responds well to treatment for acute anxiety and moderate depression. Over the years I’ve discovered that a combination of medication, good nutrition, restful sleep, regular exercise, talk therapy, and support from family and friends provides the balance I need to live a happy and productive life.
But what about people whose situations are different? Those who are biologically wired for mental illness that doesn’t respond to treatment? Those with addictions, traumatic brain injuries, or prenatal damage? Those who live on the street with no safe place to call home? Those who struggle to survive, let alone thrive?
And what about those who are left behind to cope with the fall-out… parents who also struggle with mental illness… families that can’t provide needed support… communities that have lost loved ones to mental illness… places where the safety nets are few and far between?
My heart hurts for these people and their loved ones… and I feel helpless. How can I possibly help move the needle toward the needed transformations?
As I’m discovering, the answer is twofold: vulnerability and focus.
As noted by Brené Brown in her book Dare to Lead, people opt out of vital conversations because “they fear looking wrong, saying something wrong, or being wrong.” This “corrodes trust and moves us away from meaningful and lasting change.” One antidote? Vulnerability.
I shared my own mental health story for two reasons. One, I want Summit participants to know that I have experienced mental health challenges. This understanding will be reflected in the calibre of the program and the speakers chosen. Two, I also want people to know that my mental health experiences continue to make me a stronger and more compassionate and courageous person. By facing and embracing my fears, I’ve been able to help others deal with theirs.
And then there’s focus. I’m learning that the best way for me to move beyond helplessness is to do what I do best… to connect people in ways that generate robust and profound conversations across all ages, genders, cultures, and sectors. But a community conversation is only as valuable as the actions it inspires. To that end, the dialogue must be designed, facilitated, and/or documented in ways that motivate transformative change by supporting the evolution of responsive and compassionate relationships and cultures.
As Brené Brown also says in Dare to Lead, “If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmored, whole hearts—so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people—we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.”
Our planning team will being doing just that to guarantee Summit outcomes support the change needed by our citizens where they live, work, learn, and play.
Please help us by joining in… this is a conversation that truly counts!
Joanne de Vries is a communications professional who provides public education and consultation services to businesses, non-profits, and different levels of government. She is one of the principals of Alliance Communications, and the Founder and CEO of the Fresh Outlook Foundation.