Member Profile: Barbara Lewis

POSITION President, Catalyst Inc., and co-founder of Rocky Mountain Center for Positive Change.

How long have you been in P2, and where have you worked? I started doing community outreach work for a statewide non-profit where the high point was the Colorado Mine Walk, a walk across much of the state to raise awareness of mining issues.

I then went to graduate school in Water Resources Management with a concentration in economics and decided to look for a consulting gig.  Marty Rozelle saw my resume; liked the combination of public outreach, water resources and economics; and hired me to join her in the Phoenix office of Dames & Moore, an international engineering and environmental consulting firm.  

While I started out doing a mix of water resources, economics and public involvement, I found public involvement to be the most dynamic; I discovered that data and tables weren’t my sweet spot after all.  And, it was fun to be in on the ground floor of an evolving field. Thanks to Marty’s leadership, Dames & Moore was one of the few firms at that time (in the mid-80’s) that was committed to public involvement as a core strength.  At one point, one of the founders, Bill Moore, Sr., commented that he could hire many engineers to do the same job, but that public involvement required more unique skills and capabilities. (Many well-known members of IAP2 – John Godec, Debra Duerr, and Jeanne Lawson – worked with us at Dames & Moore.)

I worked at the Phoenix office from 1984 to ’88, then moved to manage the Denver public involvement practice.  In 1998, I formed my own firm, Catalyst Inc. I am still President of that company but my passion these days is the Rocky Mountain Center for Positive Change, where I specialize in Appreciative Inquiry.   IAP2 helped me develop my competency in and passion for Appreciative Inquiry, first giving me the opportunity to bring it to the organization as program chair for the 2004 conference in Madison and then, honoring my first Appreciative Inquiry project, the City of Longmont citywide strategic plan, with the Project of the Year award in 2006.  More recently, I was delighted to launch the 2017 Denver conference with an appreciative “we-note,” focused on connecting participants with each other and their hopes for the conference.

Can you think of any big wins – or projects that were “lessons-learned”?

My first project at Dames & Moore was both! I was the recorder at a meeting that went badly off the rails and then turned into a great success story. Those who have taken the IAP2 Foundations training will recall the landfill case study.  The disastrous standing-room only meeting with the woman lighting the landfill liner on fire was my first public meeting experience with my new firm. That night, I thought that I had made a really bad career choice.

The story is that the County needed a new landfill site. They identified a few sites and then went to the public to announce them. There was no prior contact, and people were furious! People were concerned about property values and water quality and traffic and noise.

One of our technical experts passed around a piece of the liner that was going to be used to prevent landfill waste from leaching into the soil. A woman went outside and set a match to it. She brought this burning hunk back into the meeting and declared, “See? This liner won’t protect us! It burns!”

Of course, that was a triumph of perception over reality: as a landfill liner, it wouldn’t have had enough oxygen to burn, but the image was there.

So, we hit the “pause” button.

With Dames & Moore’s guidance, the county convened an advisory committee and took them through a credible siting process. There were also larger public meetings, and in the end, the committee helped select a preferred alternative.  The process turned into such a success, that the Environmental Protection Agency used it in a manual on solid waste management.

Another high point was in Canada, working on Calgary’s GoPlan. In response to a transportation project that went horribly wrong (complete with a road going nowhere), the Calgary City Council adopted principles for public involvement. They were fairly lofty principles, too, so when we came in as the public involvement consultants, we designed a process that lived up to those principles. Calgary gave us the luxury of conducting interviews and research before designing the public involvement process (imagine that!) and it mattered.  Working with Lonny Gabinet and Terry Koch, we were able to reach 100,000 people – and this was in the days before the internet.

Far more important than the number of people reached was the credibility of the process.  One of the things we did was convene a community-based coordinating committee that helped with the public outreach. They facilitated meetings, went to events, conducted surveys and became the face – and, especially the ears – of the project.

GoPlan also benefited from a substantive relationship between the city, the consultants and the community members.  We had milestone meetings at each of four decision points: the community committee members, half of city council and the staff team came together to reach consensus on how to move forward.

GoPlan opened the door for Calgary to do their Engage project, one of the first communities to engage the community to determine how to ….well, engage the community.  Engage! is still a significant strength of the city’s culture today.


How do you see the state of dialogue in America these days?

Like everyone, I’m distressed by how tribal we’ve become. We’ve learned to see people who disagree with us as the enemy or the “other”. Early in my career, I felt that people placed a much higher value on fairness than they do today. In the past, if people felt that we were sincere and had designed a fair process, they could accept outcomes even if they weren’t in their individual best interest. I see that less today, and it makes collaborative processes considerably more difficult.

Why do you think we’ve gotten this tribal?

There’s the influence of politics in an era when you can reach lots of people with similar interests or values through the internet and TV.  I think the internet has helped drive people into their silos. Another factor is that we are so busy today, that we don’t take time to dig deeply into issues, so we’re vulnerable to superficial messaging.

But I’m an optimist and I specialize in Appreciative Inquiry, so I believe that with crisis comes opportunity and sometimes our cages need to get rattled so we can see what’s going on.  I try to flip the problem to an opportunity, so I think we have an opportunity now to look at how we interact with each other and how to make democracy work again.

I was just presenting at the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation conference in Denver about an appreciative inquiry process to develop a culturally inclusive vision for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.  It was challenging because we were engaging people who didn’t have a relationship with the museum, many of whom viewed the museum as an edifice of white privilege. Four community members joined us to present at the conference. They said they were honored to be invited to help transform the museum and that they were able to see that the museum not only listened to them but acted on what they suggested.  In the end, we heard people say that the process transformed their lives. Their enthusiasm and commitment gave me a lot of hope.

What’s on your plate these days?

I’m doing more and more Appreciative Inquiry work and training. I just finished a project for a school district using Appreciative Inquiry to develop a strategic plan. More than 7000 people contributed to the plan’s development in just seven months, culminating in a large “summit” event with almost 250 people.  I am proud of that work because I believe we were innovative in integrating impactful in-person interviews and meetings with online inquiries. The plan had substantive community and staff support within the District, and …. drum roll please … just last week, voters approved a ballot initiative to fund the prioritized investments that were identified in the strategic plan.   

What did it mean to receive the Greater Good Award this year?

It was gratifying and humbling at the same time.

If I could imagine the award I’d want to receive, it would be called the Greater Good Award – for mentoring and advancing positive change — and it is especially gratifying coming from IAP2 since I’ve had some of my best and most rewarding experiences with this organization.

Those of us who started decades ago have gone from being called the “milk-and-cookies lady” and having our work referred to as “fluff” to becoming key strategic partners.  IAP2 has done a phenomenal job of raising the status of public participation as a profession, and I am proud of my part in that, especially helping to create the IAP2 Foundations training, as a developer of the Techniques course and a “master” trainer.

It made me especially happy to get the award in Canada, because one of my peak IAP2 experiences was the initial train-the-trainer academy for the first class of Foundations trainers in Kananaskis (Alberta). We had so much fun and got to innovate on the fly.  Many of the people who are superstar trainers today were in that academy. At that time, IAP2 training was still in the incubator stage, and it has since blossomed so beautifully. I’m proud to have been one of many sparks to make that happen.

The humbled part comes from following on the footsteps of Jim Creighton’s receiving this award in Denver.  So many have contributed so much to grow our practice and IAP2 as an organization. I am also humbled by the promise of how today’s emerging leaders in public participation will take our profession to the next level, to be recognized as a major force in building and rebuilding the public voice and influence in the world.


If you had something to say to someone just starting in the business …

  1. Embrace the power of relationships.  I am often inspired by a short quote from a storyteller in Denver, Opalanga Pugh, “Connection before content.” These days, I realize that I may have undervalued the importance of nurturing our connections as people in my early days in this field.  That was probably my economist/scientist ego speaking but I now realize that people connections are foundational to positive change.
  2. Fully understand the decision-making process, because that’s what makes public participation strategic, moving from being an activity or an event to truly influencing decisions.
  3. Have fun finding your treasured friends within IAP2. I do believe that other professions are often more competitive than ours. At our best, we collaborate and support each other, focused on advancing the higher purpose and impact of our work…and having fun along the way.

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