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Everything in life is inextricably interconnected. Yet, there is global dominance of neoliberalism, an ideology that is fundamentally based on disconnection. We are living a contradiction, treading a tightrope between cooperation and competition, trying to reform a worldview that is fundamentally at variance with the wellbeing of humanity and the planet. This is a remarkable moment in history: never before has a political system been this successfully destructive; but never before have the ideas, knowledge and skills to build a world of sustainability, peace and justice been at our fingertips.

Crisis is a chance for change

The choices we have made have consequences that have taken life on Earth into a multiplicity of crises, shunting humanity and the natural world of which it is part to the brink of extinction. Climate change, a coronavirus pandemic, species extinction, rising sea levels, environmental degradation … are not limited by national boundaries, but reminders of our planetary interdependence, our responsibility for the health of each other and the planet. At the same time, White supremacy is expressing itself in a resurgence of a Far-Right politics of disconnection, of individualism, greed, Brexit, the nationalistic building of walls, targeting all those other than the privileged. This intersectional, neoliberal project interweaves in a tapestry of structural discrimination its threads of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, disablism … and a strange hatred of our next generation, the hope for humanity’s future! We have, quite literally, been stitched up!

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The Map is not the Territory. (Bateson, 1972)

We see the world, not as it is but as we are – or as we are conditioned to see it. (Covey, 2004)

We have explored so far two elements of participatory practice that are key to transformative change and, in doing so, we have indicated that neither can achieve that potential without the third element: critical reflection. While we can start to open up the spaces for engagement with story and dialogue, to sow the seeds of individual and collective learning for change, reflection and reflexivity need to be interwoven into those elements to create the fabric of critical knowledge and thoughtful action. This cannot be an added extra but has to be integral to all we do. We can encourage people to tell their stories of lived experience and we can enter into dialogue together about what we hear, but this will remain a surface activity unless we add critical reflection for learning to happen. So, this chapter will explore what we mean by critical reflection and offer some conceptual ideas taken from critical and other theorists to help in the facilitation of critical reflection, particularly concerning power, both for ourselves and others.

At the core is the art of questioning the taken-for-granteds of everyday life and going ever deeper in that exploration through the continual cycling of reflection and action that underpins praxis and is the basis of transformation, encouraging us all to look below the surface and nurture the development of a sense of curiosity about why things are as they are.

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This second edition of our book was written slightly differently from the first. Both are the product of a shared journey, influenced by the experiences of two very different lives. In this, as in the first, edition we have approached the task in the spirit of the book itself, founding our approach on dialogue, on mutuality and respect for each other’s ideas, and on an openness to a dialectical challenge, locating dissent as central to knowledge creation within a frame of ‘connected knowing’ (Belenky et al, 1997). The original book was the product of an organic, transformative process for us, a process that continued afterwards. When we were approached by Policy Press to produce a second edition we were both in very different places, geographically and temporally. This, together with the pandemic during which we were writing, posed a challenge to our previous way of working. The result is a book that reflects our two voices and our experiences since the first edition.

In the book itself, we emphasise the use of story as a way of anchoring the process of change in lived experience. True to this approach, we share aspects of our own stories with you here. A participatory approach calls for us to acknowledge the ways in which our own life experiences have shaped the ideas that we share with you, and these vignettes give you insight into critical moments that have influenced our theory and practice over the years. We met in 1992 and became firm friends, who recognised our shared values long before we recognised shared academic interests.

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‘May you live in interesting times’ goes the old Chinese saying, and certainly that has been the case for us all recently. During the last 40 years, we have seen an increase in inequality in health and well-being, with wealth and power being concentrated in the hands of the few and, most seriously, an assault on nature in such a way as to undermine the very existence of life, including that of humanity itself. At the same time, we have seen rising demands for social justice with the emergence of movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, reflecting a general rise in citizen organising supported by the internet. Former colonising powers are being asked to face up to their past, but at the same time, social cohesion seems to be breaking down as people become polarised, angry and frustrated, whipped up by those whose aims are to retain power for themselves, rather than for the many, through creating division. Add a pandemic to the mix and we were able to see the cleavages in technicolour and the contrasts highlighted by the differential impact of the virus on population groups, alongside excess profiting by already privileged individuals and corporations, but at the same time, an outpouring of self-organised care and support by communities and people for each other. Historically, humanity has been here before, wealth has been accumulated in the hands of corrupt tyrants, division has been fomented by dictators and civilisations have collapsed due to ecological disaster and disease.

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Community-based Action for Transformative Change

In this second edition of a bestselling book, the authors’ unique, holistic and radical perspective on participatory practice has been updated to reflect advances in thought made in the past decade, the impact of neoliberalism and austerity and the challenge of climate change. Their innovative approach bridges the divide between community development ideas and practice to offer a critical praxis.

The authors argue that transformative practice begins with everyday stories about people’s lives and that practical theory generated from these narratives is the best way to inform both policy and practice.

The book will be of interest to academics and community-based practitioners working in a range of settings, including health and education.

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To resist co-option by the powerful and being drawn into tokenistic, or even tyrannical, projects, participatory workers must systematically reflect on the lessons of the history of participatory work. (Wakeford, 2016)

Participatory practice over the last decade

So, is the way of thinking explored in the last chapter coming to the fore and challenging the status quo? Well, yes and no. Over the last decade there has been a remarkable increase in the adoption of the idea of ‘participation’ in a wide range of sectors and organisations. ‘Involving people’ has become a common mantra in areas as different as health research, urban planning, food security, social work and broadcasting. Ironically, the decline of the state and the imposition of performance measures by neoliberal governments, such as the need for universities to demonstrate the impact of research, has pushed some previously reluctant institutions to seek, at the very least, the opinion of their ‘customers’ and, at the best, the active involvement of those who have a stake in the outcomes of their endeavours in decision-making. The advent of social media has encouraged this trend with its ease of gauging opinion and giving access to people, allowing commentary on the actions of those in positions of power. This has created an expectation of involvement, although the level of that involvement is often superficial. There is rarely in-depth critical reflection or dialogue. Indeed, neoliberal corporations have hijacked involvement and turned it into consumer opinion. Community engagement has become the watchword of both private and public sector institutions keen to validate their actions or their products.

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The human being is essentially a holistic being who lives in integrated totalities. When the human being is forced to lead a fragmented life, he/she shrinks, is frustrated, diminished. (Skolimowski, 1994: 91)

In Chapter 2 we began to explore some of the neoliberal thinking that underpins the structures and institutions that dominate current ways of relating economically, socially and politically, and how current trends seem to be reinforcing that dominance and resisting change towards an alternative way of being. Certainly, our democratic institutions, organisational structures and educational practices have continued to remain resilient to the changes that new forms of thinking imply. Indeed, many people appear to have become further entrenched in old thought processes and institutions have become even more alienating. There are, however, also signs of change suggesting that as the old order resists, there are green shoots of possibility. Central to that change is a shift in perspective and consciousness towards a radically different set of worldviews based on a participatory mindset. In this chapter, we take a deep dive into this alternative way of viewing the world and invite you to think about what this means in terms of the way we act in the world. In other words, what does seeing the world from an integrative or participatory perspective imply for our practice?

In doing so we will be inviting you to look at the deep-seated roots of the dominant way of viewing the world, at least here in the West.

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Dialogue is the encounter between men [sic] mediated by the world, in order to name the world. (Freire, 1972)

… a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it. (Winnie the Pooh, in Milne and Shepard, 1989)

While story can be seen as an essential starting point on the journey to transformation, dialogue lies at the heart of engaging in participatory practice. Participation involves a dialogical relationship with the world, both human and physical. So, without true dialogue there is no real participatory practice. Through dialogue we make meaning together, we interact with others, receiving and giving feedback and information. This creates a learning ecosystem. Indeed, dialogue is fundamentally social and relational. It is central to collective life (Habermas, 1994: 106), and through dialogue we begin to create what Sanders (2020a) calls ‘collective ingenuity’. Dialogue is more than a conversation, which is an informal interchange between people. Dialogue has a purpose and involves both listening and communicating. It is therefore a fundamentally reciprocal but also embodied process. Egalitarian at its best, dialogue is about ‘with-ness’ rather than ‘on-ness’. (Shotter, 2006) However, engaging in genuine dialogue takes time, requires the right conditions to flourish and does not necessarily have to consist solely of sitting and talking. Other modes of dialogue, for example through the creative arts, are possible; indeed, to be encouraged, as long as there is inbuilt reciprocity.

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