From Sackville to Sumbawa

Mar 16, 2011

One of the best things about being an environmental and public policy mediator is the wide range of topics I have to learn about, the great people I meet and get to work with, and the diverse places I get to work. I am constantly challenged by the scientific, economic, and social information and am stretched to figure out how to apply my experience to new policy contexts. My work also pushes my introverted self out of my comfort, to constantly meet and interact intensely with new people. We work on problems with partners everywhere. Sometimes the everywhere is all in one week….

RESOLVE works with an amazing travel agent—which is good. A year ago, a mediator friend in Europe asked me if I could take over her project because she hurt her back and could not travel. I talked to the sponsor—a UN program. They told me the date and location of the in-person meeting. I replied, dubiously, that I would call our travel agent.

“Jerry, this is Juliana, can I get from Winnipeg, Canada on Wednesday night if the meeting ends at 6:00pm to Bangkok, Thailand for a meeting on Saturday morning?”


“Are you sure?”


“Can you try?”

….through the miracle of flight and benefit of time changes, Jerry Feldman flew me from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Toronto, to Dubai, to Bangkok. I made it to the hotel in time to nap, shower, eat breakfast, and go to a planning meeting with the chairs, country sponsors, and UN staff.

Thanks to Jerry, I have also flown from Vieques, Puerto Rico to Pretoria, South Africa…

The travel, of course, is one challenge. The bigger and more stimulating intellectual challenge is to go from regional infrastructure planning in Canada to financing for chemicals and hazardous materials in the UN system. But through experience, I find that I learn the issues, history, policy and decision-making context, negotiation and collaboration culture, leaders and stakeholders faster now than I did early in my career. I am also much more comfortable beginning projects asking everyone to tell me what I need to know and learning quickly from my key informants. I used to be afraid to let on that I did not know it already. Good mediators do not know everything but they are flexible and can learn in the moment. After many years of experience we also reach a point where we have a deep, rich set of experiences to draw on, allowing us to see patterns that can help our partners find solutions and reach agreements. There is also sometimes a benefit to a fresh perspective. In some circumstances stakeholders need help from a collaborative leader who is also an expert on their issues. In other circumstances, an experienced mediator, with a fresh eye on issues and relationships can see new things and unlock new potential.


On March 24, I will be facilitating a meeting in Sackville, New Brunswick Canada to develop the beginnings of recommendations on the process to revise the Maritime Forest Stewardship Certification standard. Then I fly from Moncton, to Toronto, to Hong Kong, to Bali, to Sumbawa, Indonesia to train community and gold mine staff to improve their conflict management skills.

I will once again suspend my attachment to time zones, let the rich set of experiences, relationships, and interests take hold, and fully expect that what I help stakeholders achieve in Canada will bring value to my partners in Hong Kong, Bali, and Sumbawa.

The really good news here is that our field continues to expand its horizons and will strengthen as its adapts to the needs, interests, cultures, histories, and new approaches of our global partners.

- Juliana Birkhoff

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