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26 Jan 2015

Pamela Boyce Simms on convening faith groups


Pamela Boyce Simms is convener of the Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub, which brings together and supports Transition groups from southern Connecticut to Virginia in the US. She is also a very active Transition trainer and is also involved in interfaith work.  Given our ongoing exploration of the theme of ‘The Power to Convene’, there is much that we can learn from Pamela’s work in bringing different faith groups together, in particular an event she recently convened around the release of the film ‘Noah’.  So we called her via Skype to find out more…

You wrote recently “we often hesitate to override inertia and consistently and compassionately reach out to those who don’t look like us, sound like us, think like us, and who rarely attend Transition events”. Could you expand on that a little bit more? What’s the challenge for Transition groups, do you think?

First, beginning with the idea of convening in and of itself, this particular region and the way I like to approach it, is to create space. To just create an open-ended safe place for possibilities for people to self-express. That permeates the way the operations of the network, the dynamic, and when we convene groups of people that are not necessarily used to being in the same room and spending time with each other, that is particularly important to create that spaciousness. That’s what convening means for us.

We have in this area a mega-city corridor. It’s a megalopolis of cities from New York, Philadephia, Baltimore, Wilmington, Washington DC down to Virginia, Norfolk etc. The diversity in this area is unbelievable. It’s off the chart. I don’t know if there’s a corridor like this anywhere else. Within that we have every country on the globe represented and every faith group represented as well.


It behoves us as Transitioners to try to diffuse a message to invite people to consider how we’re moving towns and villages and hamlets towards resilience to create that space, because we bump up against so many different types of people here. It’s never imposing a matrix, it’s always creating space.  For faith groups, given what we see sweeping the planet at this point, it is particularly important to listen deeply, and to give people the opportunity to understand what it means to respect each other deeply in this space. That doesn’t automatically happen.

So convening in this region, with this diversity, with this number of faith groups, just means creating a spacious environment that’s safe for people.

You ask the question “what outreach tools can we develop to reach and organise faith communities?” What are some of those tools that you’ve found to be useful?

Adopting a mindset that is a listening mindset. There’s no set of coalition building or alliance building or community organising toolkits that can be used in this domain of extending oneself to another person. It is getting oneself in a place where you are seeing through someone else’s lenses. You are not ‘othering’ them, you are opening to who is in front of you.

It takes practice. It takes a dynamic within one’s own Initiating Group, or within one’s group, so that you’re already doing that amongst yourselves, so that you can offer that and be that for groups that are not like your initiating group, or different from you. It’s a mindset as opposed to the community organising toolkit per se.

You wrote very interestingly about the recent film Noah which touches on issues about climate change, but in a faith context. Could you just tell us that story about how you used that film as a way of bringing different faith groups together?

We were putting together a resilient response group. We no longer use the term ‘emergency preparedness’ around here. This included every faith tradition that was in our area. The very open-ended faith traditions as well as very established faith traditions. We had the Jewish congregation, Baptists, all denominations of Christian faiths as well as Buddhists, and we had been talking for a time on how to create resilience in our area when Noah came on the horizon.

It came as an opportunity/catalyst to bring people together around some really difficult questions that it’s difficult for people to walk up to. So the Rabbi offered the temple as a place for fellowship and we developed a set of questions. It was a big potluck thing, very Transition-esque.

All the people at the meeting about resilient response developed a set of questions that really boiled down to how prepared people were. The visual of the film itself went right to the limbic system, the non-thinking brain. The brain that thematically takes in images so you don’t have to preach, don’t have to say anything to anyone. Russell Crowe and the cast of Noah did it for us.

They made those points, and from there we were able to discuss with people having that visual. Then prior to the movie, we had dinner together. We did a round table thing, kind of a World Café discussion of the questions to prompt thought. Went to the movie together and then debriefed once people had internalised just that set of possibilities of walking in deluge.

It was a fascinating discussion. People were put right in front of how little preparedness had taken place in their community, in a very safe environment, and then was brought home without a lot of verbage. Then people’s very deep emotional reactions afterwards was the learning for everyone. It wasn’t mass prescriptive, or “we’re going to do this”, or the next steps. Then the debrief was – my goodness, this is what this has brought up for me. Let me take this deeper into my understanding of what I should be doing myself and for my family and my community…

I’d like to discuss the practicalities of convening, bringing people together. What’s the best preparation that you can do in advance? What’s the best way to invite people? What are your thoughts on that?

Really the best way, when you have the time to do it, is slow going. We are actually rolling out a programme, a curriculum called ‘Transition Neighbourhoods’ in the mega-cities along the coast at the moment. There is what we call a prequel in that curriculum. The prequel is specifically to figure out how to feel into your neighbourhood, feel into the different groups, ethnic groups, racial groups, socio-economic groups, networks that are in your neighbourhood.

It’s to sit and contemplate for a moment who’s there. Why are they there? How did they get there? What is their history? Do they intersect? Who are the mavens in your community? Is there a café where everyone hangs out or spends time, where people are very comfortable with each other and is heavily trafficked? Who owns that, who is part of that? Go to the places, and consider the places where people already are comfortable. Be there, connect with people and it is a person to person – can I have coffee with you, can we get a bite to eat?


Let me tell you about this interesting way of community building against the backdrop of climate change with conversation. If you have the time person to person, really having scoped out what’s going on in your neighbourhood is the best bet. Call people. Invite them over. Invite small groups of people. Then start coalescing and convening groups of people once you’re friends already.

That’s how that resilient response group came together that orchestrated the Noah event. We were friends. We actually brought together a number of different interfaith councils. I had been representing actually a monastery on one of the inter-faith councils that spearheaded this, that actually convenes a lot of the inter-faith folks. So we were all friends and had been meeting together for a while. That’s what really needs to happen. It’s very labour intensive and very slow going but it is a person to person kind of thing. Email blasts are lovely after the fact, social media are lovely after the fact, but it’s the relationships that cement it.

In terms of the event itself, when you get people together. What’s the best way to host that and to prepare the space in which it’s going to happen?

Food is essential! We’re doing something on January 21st in New York City that’s bringing together all the different boroughs and different neighbourhoods within the boroughs. Everyone is asked to bring a dish that represents their national heritage. We have an international cuisine tasting event that sets up the entire tone of celebration of who’s in the room before we start talking about Transition Neighbourhoods or Transition. In and of itself, a colourful buffet is truly representative of who’s in the room.


Questions, as opposed to heavy-duty programming. Questions that you and your group have thought might spark discussion, inviting questions on the spot, and just facilitating in such a way that people feel like they can say anything they want and it’s going to be honoured, as long as it doesn’t harm another person, obviously. It’s the Transition way.

There are ground rules, and there’s a container and there’s a spaciousness and anything goes. Let it go wherever it wants to go, basically. But convening is always about openness – I believe anyway. It produces the best results, as opposed to having a trajectory that’s already laid out that you try not to deviate from.  That’s very constrictive.

Once you’ve run your event, you mentioned using email after that. How would you harvest and distribute the outcomes from that?

Immediately the day after the event, a follow-up gratitude email goes out. And all the people who you’ve noticed in that meeting are on fire about what you talked about. Whoever the group is convening goes into that meeting really watching and observing and listening deeply for the people who are your champions just naturally ‘get it’ and want to run with it.

There’s also the email blast, which is a gratitude email the next day. Preferably the next morning, but definitely within the next 24 hours. Those people, the champions, get a call and then the cultivation of the relationships with those champions that go back to their groups or go back to their neighbourhoods and are your ambassadors.  It’s not always you speaking. You’re automatically diffusing and decentralising the message with people who can be champions where they are.

This is followed by an offering of something tangible, a tool people can use, whether it is an event that is on mission with what you talked about that evening, that’s happening in the area. A really interesting article that ties into what you’ve talked about during the evening, bringing up quotes from some of the conversations that people will remember from the evening.

Noah event

You’re anchoring over and over again what a great time everybody had, that their contribution was very much appreciated and that this is about spreading the root system, the mycelium, the web of Transition, so reach out and share your enthusiasm with everyone else. Once you’ve communicated that, and your champions are taking the message out after your meeting, then a strategically timed email or newsletter, or something that does not clog up inboxes with too much. 

Time it strategically so they’re getting a feeling that they’re connected to a network of people that’s not flapping in the breeze thinking “that was a nice experience, but it’s a flash in the pan that doesn’t connect to anything”. In those connective follow-up emails the message is constantly ‘belonging’, ‘part of’, ‘the network’ and ‘the community that we’re building’.

Those terms are also a part of whatever you’re sending out. It’s always that balance between too much and too little, knowing when to time it, when people are at their computers, when they’re most likely to be in a receptive mode. So follow up can be very strategic, but very friendly, very connecting. The idea is don’t let the ball drop after you’ve done an event.

Lastly, do you have any last thoughts for Transition groups who are thinking “we’re not doing this convening thing very well. We can see that in order to be more effective we need to get more different organisations, different people from different backgrounds in the room together”. What would your last bits of advice be for them?

Your Initiating Group, whoever is hosting, whoever is creating the space, would be wise to deeply and compassionately understand each other, your own motivations for doing this work, your own reasons and motivations for reaching out to people who are not like you. Why this is important to you? Get on the same page before you open the door to your potluck to invite people in.

Take the time to consider group dynamics, not in a formal organisational development way of forming, norming, storming etc. But literally understand who you are, personally, together as a group because anyone walking into your space will feel who you are, will know who you are intuitively.  The degree to which that hangs together and your groups can continue to move forward and make things happen and gain traction and momentum is a direct function of how well you know yourselves and know each other as a group and how truly open you are, having explored this, to the people you’re inviting into your space.

A superficial “we should do this because it’s a good idea” will be felt by the people walking in the door at some point. Maybe not that night, but as you begin to work with them, if you continue your outreach effort, things start to fray and melt and become diffuse and people drop away because they feel your intent and how well you know each other and what your intent is in reaching out to them. So it’s a very Inner Transition process that I suggest that people do before opening the doors to anyone. Anyone period, but especially folks that you don’t typically reach out to in your work.

Here is the podcast of our full conversation: