A former international security analyst discovers the magic of dialogue
Sebastian Merz. Photo by Greg Ehlers.
“I have the opportunity to do something I care deeply about: helping people understand each other and work together toward better solutions.”
Growing up in Germany, Sebastian Merz once aspired to follow in Sir David Attenborough’s footsteps. But it was human interactions rather than wildlife that became the focus of his career when he studied political science and peace research at the universities of Freiburg and Uppsala. Since moving to Vancouver and completing SFU’s Dialogue and Civic Engagement Certificate, he’s joined the Civic Engage team at SFU’s Centre for Dialogue. We recently chatted with Sebastian about his work and how the program helped prepare him to make a difference in his community.
Sebastian, tell us about the work you’re currently doing.
I am part of the Civic Engage team at the Centre for Dialogue. We work to strengthen the democratic process by helping governments and citizens work collaboratively on policy decisions. Civic Engage is a social enterprise, so we reinvest any profits into the field of public engagement in the form of knowledge, resources or capacity building. Since I joined Civic Engage in early 2015, we have, among other things, helped the District of North Vancouver resolve conflicts over parking in Deep Cove, worked with the City of New Westminster to develop a new public engagement strategy, and launched a community of practice on public engagement for elected officials across B.C.
What’s the most rewarding thing about your work?
The moment when you are working with a group of citizens or stakeholders and you notice something in the room is starting to shift. There may have been apprehension, tension or conflict among the group and then it suddenly changes to a collaborative spirit. That’s the magic of dialogue. As a facilitator you can’t “will” such a shift, but you can create the right conditions and help deliver it.
How did you know you wanted to do this kind of work?
My background is in peace research and political science, and I started my career working in international security analysis. I loved that work, but I was looking for ways to get involved more practically in resolving conflicts and facilitating collaboration. I wanted to make a difference in my own community. It was clear that there was a lot of work to do in this area.
What motivated you to take SFU’s Dialogue and Civic Engagement program?
I was looking for a program to hone my skills with a focus on real-world application. I met one of the instructors, who recommended the program to me. The particular combination of dialogue and engagement appealed to me. Dialogue in itself can be an abstract concept, while public engagement often gets reduced to communications. The program struck a good balance in bringing these lenses together.
What was it like going back to school for a professional development program?
It didn't really feel like going back to school. For me, the program was an opportunity to enrich my own work with insights and shared learning from a group of amazing teachers, mentors and peers.
What sort of challenges did you face?
Perhaps the toughest thing was to find time for a useful and rewarding practicum project while working full time. I was lucky that I was able to connect my practicum with the work I was already doing and had the support from my supervisor. I was part of a team that hosted four regional citizen dialogues on road pricing as a way to fund transportation improvements. My practicum combined working on those dialogues and subsequently analyzing the engagement process.
What’s your favourite memory or moment from the program?
The course on engagement between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples stood out for me. There were powerful moments when the group confronted the past and present of oppression, challenging our roles as engagement practitioners and the privileges many of us benefit from.
How did the program prepare you for the work you’re doing now?
It forms a strong foundation for how I approach public engagement and how I facilitate dialogue. I often refer back to what I learned, like asking powerful questions, thinking through the purpose of engagement, and addressing power imbalances in dialogue settings.
What advice would you offer someone considering this program?
Be realistic about what you can achieve with your practicum project. You don't have to convene a dialogue with 100 people to expand your knowledge and toolkit. If you look closely, you'll find dialogue and engagement opportunities in your workplace, your neighbourhood, your strata, housing co-op, etc. Some of the most interesting facilitation experiences I've had were with small groups.
What academic or career achievements are you most proud of?
I am more grateful than proud that I have the opportunity to do something I care deeply about: helping people understand each other and work together toward better solutions.
Sebastian Merz. Photo by Greg Ehlers.
More about Sebastian
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to film nature documentaries. I discovered, however, that observing and working with people is just as fascinating.
What are you reading now?
I've read some of Joseph Boyden's works recently. Three Day Road is one of the best books I've read in a long time.
If you could have a drink (or dinner) with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
If it can be a walk, I’ll go with David Attenborough (see above).
What’s one food you would never give up?
A loaf of good bread—I grew up in Germany and gluten keeps my body together.
Where is your favourite place to travel and why?
B.C. Just take a look around.
Do you have any hidden talents?
Always looking... although I can be found playing the guitar and harmonica, occasionally both at the same time.