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A Journey of Discovery

Mary Jo Smrekar of Reston and Sue Ries Lamb of Alexandria facilitate The Women’s Collaborative.

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Susan Brown, who attended the 2012 Women’s Collaborative program, created a mural of the group’s experience, adding a bit each night as the women sat in the kitchen and continued their talks after-hours. As part of the program, each woman gives a presentation on one of her “brilliances.” “And it is brilliant,” said co-founder/facilitator Sue Ries Lamb. “All sorts of performances or activities. We constantly surprise each other and ourselves. It’s our favorite part of the sessions.”

“Join With Us in Discovery.” That’s the header on the invitation for the 2013 Women’s Collaborative, a “journey of discovery” that takes place in three four-day sessions at Meadowkirk Retreat and Conference Center in Middleburg. The first session takes place Thursday, May 30, through Sunday, June 2; the second takes place in August; and the last is in October. They all promise to “create a container that is safe and strong enough to allow us to be in authentic relationship with each other … to learn … about being in harmony and community with ourselves, each other and our world.”

The designers and facilitators of this journey, Mary Jo Smrekar and Sue Ries Lamb, know a thing or two about building and maintaining relationships. After all, they met in 1972 as employees of American University, and have been friends—and occasionally colleagues—ever since. As young professional women in the ‘70’s, it’s no wonder that they became at first interested, and ultimately passionate, about what was then simply “the women’s movement,” and what some historians today describe as the “second wave of feminism.”

IN THE MORE THAN 40 YEARS since their first meeting, both women have gone on to enjoy successful careers. Lamb has worked as an organizational development consultant for more than 30 years with a variety of organizations from locations in Washington, D.C., to Kabul, Afghanistan. Smrekar is a licensed clinical psychologist currently in private practice in Reston and has worked with organizations from the Peace Corps to federal law enforcement agencies. She is also certified in EMDR, a therapy that has been successful in treating people suffering from trauma, post traumatic stress, anxiety and other emotional issues. But even the demands of ultra-busy professional and personal lives did not keep Smrekar and Lamb from coming together time after time to explore the role of women in the world and in society. “Asking and maybe answering questions about who we are as women,” said Smrekar, “how we can connect more deeply with others, how our pasts as women have shaped us, what we need to leave behind, what we want going forward.”

Their interests in exploring these questions brought them to a process that began in the 1980’s in Boston, founded by Alexandra Merrill and Joyce Weir, that ultimately took shape as The Women’s Leadership Collaborative. No surprise that Smrekar and Lamb took that three-year journey, attending the first Women’s Leadership Collaborative at the Hope Springs Institute in Ohio, meeting for five days, two times per year, for three consecutive years. “It was an amazing experience,” declared Lamb. “We knew, after that,” added Smrekar, “that this was something, particularly with our backgrounds, that we wanted to take and share with the women of our area.”

Consulting with Merrill, and with the two mentors they worked with at Hope Springs, Lamb and Smrekar created their local Women’s Collaborative. “We’re the third generation,” Lamb said, “starting with Alexandra, then with Suzanne and Patricia (the organizers of the Hope Springs meeting). We wanted to be true to the legacy, but bring our unique gifts to the process.”

One difference between this local workshop and the Hope Springs gatherings is size. “We want to keep the group more manageable. Smaller means getting to know each other more deeply and getting to learn about ourselves in more depth, as well,” said Smrekar. Lamb added, “If you get too big a group, you risk building cliques, instead of connections.”

Diversity is also a key objective for both women when considering the ideal collaborative group. “Part of what we explore is how to value and support our diversity in all aspects; race, religion, socio-economic, cultural, sexual orientation, whatever,” explained Lamb. “The more diverse the group, the more we learn about each other and ourselves.”

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Planning the 2013 Women’s Collaborative sessions are, from left, Sue Ries Lamb of Alexandria and Mary Jo Smrekar of Reston.

THE 2013 COLLABORATIVE SESSIONS will be the third for Smrekar and Lamb, who design the course and co-facilitate, “and learn, too, and make more wonderful friends,” said Lamb with a smile. They stay in contact with the “graduates” of the programs and are pleased that the first two gatherings have resulted in building a close network among the women who attended. Since there are no topics that can’t be brought to the table, they also talk about women who have used their experiences with the collaborative to resolve life issues, to clarify and achieve goals, and to improve their relationship and leadership skills both in their personal lives and in working situations, too. Stephanie Brown of Alexandria, who attended the 2012 groups, agrees that the program has made a positive impact on her life. “As a relative newcomer to the area, I felt like I had one real friend when I started the collaborative program,” she said. “Now I have 13 good friends, and the circle keeps widening. Those sessions brought me a new level of self-confidence and a compassion that I use everyday.”

Mary Jo Smrekar and Susan Ries Lamb are enthusiastic and dedicated guides on this journey of exploration. They invite women interested in checking out this enlightening trip to contact them at suerieslamb@mac.com or mjsmrekar@aol.com. The website, www.womenscollaborative2013.com, will also provide additional information.