My Strength in our Difference - a SIETAR BC UNCONFERENCE

Written by: Yamila Michelle Franco Pena

On Saturday February 2nd we met on the traditional, unceded, sacred territories of the Musqueam First Nation to host our third annual Unconference. The theme was “Finding Strength through Difference”.

I thought about the many times communities were divided for looking at their differences as a threat and not as a strength. I pondered on Nelson Mandela’s quote:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

How would we, as a team, hold the space to have these deep conversations. What will result from opening up our hearts? What will I learn from this experience?

How can we break the barrier of fear so we can ask difficult questions?

As people arrived a feeling of peace and excitement filled the room, I knew we were walking in with our open hearts.

As we broke into smaller groups to discuss the topics, our intentions were clearly set. We had created a safe and welcoming space by opening up and sharing stories from places and events we hold dear to our heart. The inspiration to the opening activity came from the Community Mapping Project at the University of Victoria. I had the honor to adapt and guide this welcoming activity and, I have to be honest, guiding an activity can feel very different than participating in it. I observed how simple guided activities and intentionally inviting people to participate in a safe space changed our interactions as a group.

Our First Unconference Discussion

An activity where everyone writes words that describe them and people go around sharing their words and marking everything they find in common with someone else. This will be like finding commonalities and finding our strengths.

What kind of activities and/or learning opportunities can organizations build and implement to involve employees in developing an inclusive and diverse organizational culture?

I naturally gravitated towards this table. Working with organizations and in community-centered projects has been at the heart of my practice but when it came to building bridges among cultures, teaching how to connect and sharing my own cultural values… it has been and still is a challenge.

Our activity broke down into smaller steps:

1) Write words or phrases that describe you in a paper - your identity and who you are as a person.

2) Once everyone is done writing, pass the piece of paper around in a circle. Every person who holds the paper will draw a circle around the words they identify with.

3) At the end of the activity, the words that represent our similarities and strengths will be obvious. The ones that were circled the most by participants is what we share in common, while the ones that were not circled are our strengths.

As we passed around our papers I could see how this could make anyone feel vulnerable. Based on every society there are easy, more welcomed ways to describe ourselves. For example - loving, caring, passionate, empathetic - but when we dig deeper and ask ourselves, who am I… when we engage in a meditative inquiry process we might be afraid to share what we hold closest to our heart. Words like - queer, immigrant, temperamental, indecisive, afraid, energy healer, Indigenous… - and the fear of sharing, or being, is real.

Self-identity plays an important role in our daily relationships and our sense of belonging, as shared by Brené Brown

“Belonging to ourselves means being called to stand alone — to brave the wilderness of uncertainty, vulnerability and criticism. And with the world feeling like a political and ideological combat zone, this is remarkably tough. We seem to have forgotten that even when we’re utterly alone, we’re connected to one another by something greater than group membership, politics and ideology — we’re connected by love and the human spirit. No matter how separated we are by what we think and believe, we are part of the same spiritual story

The space I shared with the group in the round table allowed for some of our insecurities to rise, but they were welcomed with pride. There might be only one Indigenous person, or one queer person on the table yet we looked at our self-identities from a lens of celebration and honoring. Our discussions moved from the vocabulary we use to celebrate our differences to ways we can give a voice to those who need it the most.

Creating and holding safe spaces can change the whole dynamics of a group. It can encourage equity, and invite more participation, creating a true team.

“Especially for the people who would be afraid to engage in those conversations… those are the conversations we need to hear” … “ from those who are in fear, who are impacted” participant

The power of this activity?

"It is important we start with our similarities. For example, within culture in the workplace, because this is not their underlying culture but the work’s inherent culture. It has to start small because people are not necessarily there… we might be working with people who experience culture shock, who are not seekers, who are not already there. We need to start small”


Creating and holding spaces like this are necessary if we are to move forward as nations and a collective in the world. Our differences, our strengths are valuable and if we learn to cherish them it will certainly help us break those preconceived barriers, fostering inclusivity and valuing diversity. Stories help us connect with each other and share our perspectives. It helps us build relationships, empathy and connections.


Community Mapping Activity from the University of Victoria

Finding our Way to True Belonging - Brené Brown


Thank you, everyone, who attended the unconference and created the magical, welcoming space to learn and grow.

Thank you Mackenzie, Leili, Emma and the rest of the SIETAR team for organizing this.

Thank you Sanchit for the idea and activity

Thanks to myself for having the courage to speak and being open to the knowledge

The views expressed in this blog are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of the SIETAR BC. SIETAR BC monitors posts and comments to ensure all content complies with the SIETAR BC Guidelines on Blogging.