Vancouver Dialogue Oct 2015: Interview with Jessie Hemphill

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Living Well to Affect Change in the World

By Mike Meyer


Via the magic of the internet, I had the pleasure of speaking with Jessie Hemphill regarding her experience at a Deep Democracy Dialogue event that she and I attended on October 3rd. The dialogue was around the topic ‘is hope bullshit’, and featured the use of a number of techniques and methods in the Deep Democracy toolkit. The major insight that Jessie took away from the event is something that I think all of us could benefit from learning. Keep reading to learn more!

Tell me a little about yourself and why you went to the event.

Jessie Hemphill is a Community Planning Consultant, mostly working with First Nations, and a City Councilor for Port Hardy on the North end of Vancouver Island. Jessie has some Deep Democracy training through her connection to Aftab Erfan, with whom she met during Aftab’s PHD work. She and Aftab have been close friends ever since that work and continue to keep in touch.  Jessie’s friendship with Aftab is the main reason for her attending the event. In Jessie’s own words “… everything she does is awesome so I’m onboard no matter what it is.”

Other reasons that Jessie sited for attending the event were her recent completion of the third level of Deep Democracy training, and a personal and professional connection with the topic (is hope bullshit?). On reflecting upon her role as a community planner and City Councilor, a lot of what Jessie does is working with communities to not only articulate their vision, but to help them realize that vision as well. In that work however, Jessie recognizes that there are some large scale challenges that the global community is facing. Challenges like climate change, ensuing geopolitical unrest, and declining levels of health, happiness and connection in people’s lives. Doing small-scale community planning work for a “future that might not look anything like what we think it’s going to” is an idea that Jessie wrestles with in her own work. So she went into the event thinking that maybe hope is bullshit and she was looking forward to hearing other people’s opinions on that.

What happened at the session?

At this point I should mention that Jessie was a volunteer at the event. She was one of a number of generous people that agreed to help facilitate and set up the day’s activities.

In answering this question Jessie reflected upon the various activities of the day; highlighting techniques, tools, and methods that are a part of the Deep Democracy repertoire. She remembered the event starting off with a short debriefing session with the rest of the volunteers as they prepared for the day. Later, Myrna and Aftab framed the day when attendees arrived. This consisted of sitting in small groups, outlining what Deep Democracy was about, a discussion on role theory and the methods that would be employed throughout the day. Followed by a small group check-in to introduce the attendees, how they were doing, and why they came to the event.

She remembered moving the chairs to the side, after checking in, and doing a Soft Shoe Shuffle around the topic of ‘is hope bullshit’, with the facilitators amplifying the ideas, thoughts, and feelings of participants. Jessie recalled that “at a certain point, the sort of conflict arose, the tension between those that felt that hope is bullshit and those that felt that it absolutely isn’t.” This was immediately preceded by the use of a related technique; The Argument. The argument being a technique that she described as being a good way of depersonalizing the conflict around a given topic, and symbolically placing it in the center of the room. With each side of the room having opposing viewpoints and taking turns ‘throwing arrows’, or saying all of the things that they can think of at the other side, “as represented by a facilitator.” Jessie remembered starting off on the ‘hope is not bullshit’ side, and feeling resolute in staying there, but slowly being pulled to the other side after hearing what participants had to say. She would remain on that side until the end of the activity.

Participants took a break after the argument, where Jessie took the opportunity to catch up with friends that were there, in her words “serendipitously”, and enjoy the lunch that was provided.

After lunch the group came back together for another activity; Open Space. During the activity participants volunteered fourteen topics for small group discussion, and the room dispersed. Jessie remembered agreeing to host a group talking about “public expression of grief and rage.” Jessie was feeling upset about the thing that hit home for her most during the argument. As someone that works mostly in First Nations communities, she works in traumatized communities, where there’s this pressure in the planning world for facilitation to focus on the positive, the strengths, and not dwell on the negative. The “grain of truth” that stuck for Jessie was that “by not creating space for grief and anger and rage and trauma,” maybe she was doing these communities a great disservice. That maybe there should be a safe space to be angry and to focus on the negative.

This topic was a popular one, as Jessie remembered there being about fifteen to twenty folks in her break-out group. She started the discussion by asking people why they chose that topic and what it was that resonated with them; “taking an intellectual approach.” Jessie graciously passed the reins to Myrna Lewis who suggested that rather than talking about grief and rage, and the need to express those feelings publicly, why not actually do that. Myrna led the group through a “multi-step process digging into what exactly, as individuals, [they] were feeling around the grief or the rage [and] why that was coming up as a topic.” Jessie admitted that it was one of those things that is impossible to describe well in words, but “experientially it was fantastic.” Lots of the participants were crying, sharing the reasons that they were feeling grief, what images were coming to mind, and what their takeaways were. Jessie remembered participants crying, sitting in stunned silence, and collectively experiencing this introspective moment around the theme of grief and rage. She described the activity as a profound one for her, especially given personal circumstances in that moment of her life. Jessie’s work consists of traveling to communities and trying to teach people to live better by connecting to their communities and their families, staying healthy, and staying connected to nature. “That’s sort of the nature of my work,” she said, “and yet I’m so busy doing that, that I’m not actually doing any of those things myself.” She recognized the importance of, in convincingly leading people to make positive changes in their life, doing that for herself is necessary. The discussion seemed to be a beautiful and powerful one for her. The group wrapped up the break-out session by holding hands and expressing their feelings, and attempting to reconcile the emotion that had been felt and shared. Though some were happy to forgo this last step and dwell on the rage, which Jessie felt was great too.

Afterwards, they rejoined the rest of the group who were “happy and pleasant”, while Jessie’s small group was “all weepy and depressed and angry… holding the role of being angry and sad on behalf of everybody else.”

What did you learn or what insights did you take home?

Though much of her insights came through in discussing what went on in the event, Jessie offered an elegant summary of what she learned:

“If my goal is to support community development, by encouraging people to live well, I need to live well myself to be able to affect that change in the world”

A lesson I think that anyone practising planning work of any kind would benefit from learning.

What do you notice about the method used at the event that was unique or different?

Jessie took note of many things that are different about the Deep Democracy method employed at the event. Most important from her experience, was that the method doesn’t run away from conflict, emotion, anger, chaos, and unpredictability. It really embraces those things, and is unique in that regard. “There are not a lot of facilitation tools that dive into those areas, instead of just trying to manage them or move away from them,” she said. This was especially true for Jessie, in witnessing the work that Myrna was doing, as an experienced facilitator and clinical psychologist; experiencing grief, integrating it, and trying to learn from it. An experience that Jessie called cathartic, and that she thought our society could benefit more from. In her words, “I know this method has a lot of potential to be really moving in that way”.

I’d like to offer a special thank you to Jessie Hemphill for taking the time to talk to me about her experience at the Deep Democracy Dialogue on October 3rd. Her insights were certainly helpful for me in reflecting on my future planning work, and hopefully they will be for you.