Marissa Lawrence, former Provincial Outreach Coordinator at SFU Public Square.

Squaring Off with Marissa Lawrence

Thu, 08 Dec 2022

Doug Hamilton-Evans
Communications Manager, SFU Public Square

Welcome to the second installment of Squaring Off – a new series where we catch up with past colleagues and collaborators to reflect on our ten years of community engagement.

For this edition, we spoke with Marissa Lawrence, who worked at SFU Public Square way back in 2013 and has gone on to have a tremendous career in designing, programming and convening community-bridging intercultural dialogue and engagement.

For Marissa Lawrence, supporting First Nations and municipalities to build partnerships and collaboratively plan for mutually beneficial community economic development isn’t just a job. It’s in service to a deep, overriding passion.

Marissa works on the Community Economic Development Initiative (CEDI) at the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers (Cando) – an Indigenous-led not for profit with the mandate to support the economic development of Indigenous communities across Canada through capacity building.

On how her work plays a part in something greater, she says “I think there is a very clear social responsibility in this country to figure out how to be in better relationship with First Nations, and to take action with respect for the inherent title and rights of Indigenous peoples.”

“I wholeheartedly believe that if we don’t address this in a sincere and meaningful way, if we don’t truthfully follow the leadership of so many incredible Indigenous leaders and voices, then we as a country are fatally flawed.”

Marissa is constantly learning more about engagement, dialogue, community-bridging and facilitation at Cando, building on a passion that was ignited during her years at SFU and in the orbit of SFU Public Square and the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

Foundations laid at SFU

Like many of our former colleagues, Marissa came to SFU Public Square by doing a Semester in Dialogue during her undergraduate degree. “It completely changed not only the way that I wanted to learn, but the way that I wanted to work; it opened up a realm of a career that I had no idea even existed,” she said.

“It was really in that semester that I learned about community and how to communicate with others. I learned about my own communication style, how I’m perceived or received as a communicator, and how to successfully convene community in dialogue,” she says.

“We communicate a lot, but it doesn’t always have great meaning or it can be fairly surface-level. But how we structure and engage and really encourage one another to have more impactful communication really interested me. I would say that would be the throughline from SFU Public Square to my career to date.”

After her Semester in Dialogue in 2012, Marissa discovered SFU Public Square, which was then a brand new initiative. “To me, it brought everything that I was interested in together.”

Marissa started as a volunteer intern, but Shauna Sylvester and Janet Webber, our first executive director and first program manager, recognized her talent and passion and found roles for her both as the B.C. project coordinator for Democracy Talks with Samara Canada and as the provincial outreach coordinator for SFU Public Square’s community summit on B.C.’s economic future.

“SFU Public Square really pushed me to dive headfirst into the work, knowing that I was going to make mistakes and that I was going to learn. I think the team was really important in my professional growth and I felt really encouraged by two strong women in the world to really find my passion.”

Learning and unlearning with 100 Community Conversations

It was as the provincial outreach coordinator for 2013’s Charting BC’s Economic Future where Marissa did some of the groundwork learning – and unlearning – that set up the next stages of her career.

As part of our 100 Community Conversations initiative, Marissa travelled to seven communities across B.C. to facilitate discussions around our province’s economic future. In reflecting on this road trip nine years ago, Marissa says that her experience with the Okanagan Nation Alliance stands out.

“We worked with Pauline Terbasket there and I learned so much from the way that she led and held space,” Marissa says. “I would say, in hindsight, I was starting to learn what could be possible between First Nation and municipal governments or organizations for economic development.”

She also learned that to successfully engage with Indigenous communities, institutions like universities and municipalities must rethink the way they do things – spending more time listening than talking and relying less on rigid colonial structures and processes.

Relationship building at Cando

After SFU Public Square, Marissa kept on learning and unlearning through positions at Reconciliation CanadaRADIUS SFU and on to Cando, where her roots in dialogue, engagement and relationship building continue to ground her and allow her to grow.

Through CEDI, First Nations and neighbouring municipalities come together in a partnership of choice without imposed responsibility or mandate, but a mutual commitment to collaboration and the betterment of their community members’ lives.

“What I love about our program is that communities self identify as being ready for this work,” she says. “We’re working with communities where they’re at.”

However, Marissa points out that First Nations and municipalities are vastly different forms of government.

“First Nations have to take on federal, provincial, municipal levels of responsibility and municipalities do not. First Nations also have inherent rights, laws, protocols and ways of being that far outlast any colonial structures in this country. So it’s very important to not simplify a First Nation-municipal relationship,” she says.

Marissa’s roots in engagement and facilitation support her at this relationship-building level.

One of the primary values that CEDI brings to these conversations is that they come as a third-party neutral facilitator, Marissa says. CEDI has both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people on the team, and they work to ensure that both First Nations and municipalities feel represented and understood.

Marissa is cognizant of her position as a white settler in this work and pays attention to how she can best be of service to these partnerships.

“I feel very fortunate to have been welcomed into many communities. I have learned a lot, but I’ll never have lived experience, I will always be a white settler,” she says. “I’m also a white settler who can have frank conversations with municipalities. I have a role to play in calling to task other settlers. It’s a careful dance and a sensitive one, but I feel it’s a place where I can add value.”

“What we are really trying to work towards is a better life for community members and citizens and ensuring we are living in more respectful ways,” she says.

(un)learning to adapt

In reflecting on what she has learned since the start of her career, Marissa once again returns to the unlearning that is often at the core of learning in a decolonial way.

“The space of facilitation and dialogic design… it’s a very basic thing if you actually step away from it. We simply use different tools, processes and structures to make sure that participants feel safe and that they’re in a space that can support inclusive engagement,” she says.

“Many of the structures around facilitation and process design have been over complicated by settler perspectives. We didn’t create this. This is before us.”

Marissa finds that to build constructive spaces for dialogue often means having to throw out a highly structured dialogic process.

“I will never be done learning,” she says. “I am working in partnerships right now where something that has worked in the past is not the right fit so it’s a constant re-evaluation and redesign in collaboration with communities.”

In the end, Marissa returns to the fundamental questions about how we truly communicate that inspired her in the Semester in Dialogue and that continues to drive her work:

“I return to the most basic forms of communication: give people space to show up, ask them to tell each other about how they want to be in that space together, and invite them to share their own knowledge and wisdom. Understand that the knowledge, wisdom, local solutions to the problems and barriers exist in that room. So, our job is simply to give the space for those things to emerge.”

“We just have to remain open,” she says.