Bearing Witness

Posted on May 8, 2018
By Liz Weaver

woman sitting on bench with mountains-465171-editedThe Suncor Energy Foundation (SEF) regularly convenes key strategic partners to consider current and future trends impacting our connected worlds.  There are four outcomes for this gathering: 

  • connecting existing work and initiatives;
  • taking a system-wide view;
  • exploring a variety of perspectives and;
  • strengthening partnerships. The gathering is a unique opportunity for participants to dialogue and explore a wide range of topics such as leading on the edges of the possible; there is no us and them - the nature of paradox and braiding sweet grass - the value of creative tension. 

This year, the SEF invited nine individuals into the role of witness.  The role of a witness comes from traditional Potlach ceremonies where the witness is responsible for validating the ceremony and sharing it further.  In the context of the SEF gathering, witnesses were provided with the following instruction:

As a witness it is your responsibility to remember these events and pass on the knowledge. Those who accept the invitation to bear witness have a responsibility to remember and to take the story forward. It means opening yourself to the truth of others, allowing yourself and others to be changed by it. In essence, relating what was said or done, not what you think was said or done. The Elders in ceremonies I have witnessed were masters at what we call today “Deep Listening.” How do you think the understanding of the Two Row Wampum belt have survived, the Covenant Chain and many others? It was through witnesses and the retelling of the importance and significance of these events.

Nine individuals were asked to witness the SEF gathering and shared their perspectives at the conclusion of the event.  Together, the witness brought a variety of perspectives about what they had seen, heard and thought about their time at the gathering. 

I was honoured to be asked to witness the gathering and felt the weight of being a witness.  It had me listening more intently and considering the interconnectivity of the individuals and ideas.  Deep listening is a challenging practice.  I find that when I listen, my mind often is racing to other places and conclusions.  Deep listening requires that you quiet your mind and are present in the conversation.  There is a mindfulness to the practice of deep listening. 

Bearing witness is also about the experience of connection and conversation.  The SEF gathering challenged its changemakers to dive deep into conversations exploring paradox, tension and the possible.  In our fast-paced lives, we do not build in time for conversation, reflection and action.  Despite bringing together changemakers from a wide range of perspectives, there is more similarity than difference.  The conversation also enabled participants to surface tough questions about power, representation and inclusion of diverse voices.  These are questions that the Suncor Energy Foundation team is seeking to address and questions that we all need to consider.  

However, gatherings like these are also a call to action.  The witnesses are asked to share their learning beyond the gathering.  But is this enough?  A colleague witness, in his remarks asked the question ‘Is our bark more than our bite?’   This is an important reminder to all changemakers that while conversation is important, we need to bite into the challenges in meaningful ways to get traction, impact and change.  As a witness, I commit myself to both barking and biting.  What about you?

Further Resources


Collective Impact, Collaborative Leadership, Liz Weaver

Liz Weaver

By Liz Weaver

Liz is passionate about the power and potential of communities getting to impact on complex issues. Liz is Tamarack’s Co-CEO and Director, Learning Centre. In this role she provides strategic direction to the organization and leads many of its key learning activities including collective impact capacity building services for the Ontario Trillium Foundation. Liz is one of Tamarack's highly regarded trainers and has developed and delivered curriculum on a variety of workshop topics including collaborative governance, leadership, collective impact, community innovation, influencing policy change and social media for impact and engagement.

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