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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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‘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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The universal is in the particular.… We are all part of one another, interconnected beyond the separations made by the mind. (Quinney, 1998: xi)

We are all interconnected, inextricably part of life on Earth. We need each other to survive, and we need the planet, which is our home, to be healthy and in balance. A world in balance is the way forward for people and the planet to flourish. By this I mean we are part of an ecosystem that is in self-adjusting balance – until it is taken to its extremes. Neoliberal capitalism has exploited inequality to an unsustainable extreme and environmental degradation beyond levels of recovery – unless we change our ideology now. In this book, we challenge the idea that the strong and ruthless rule the world. Even Darwin, who is associated with the idea of survival of the fittest, was impressed with the kindness and cooperation he witnessed in nature and wrote that the communities with the kindest people would flourish best (Hare and Woods, 2020). Lead from a kind heart and cooperation flourishes. These ideas form the bedrock of this book.

The world we create is founded on the values we live by. It is those values that shape the way we see the world, the policies that get embedded into law, and the way we act towards each other and the environment. This creates a mutually reinforcing system, but it is the values we choose to adopt that frame the lens through which we see the world and which influence the way we act in the world. Values lie at the heart of the matter!

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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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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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As human beings, we live our lives as storytelling animals. We are born into a world of stories and storytellers, ready to be shaped and fashioned by the narratives to which we will be exposed. The stories we hear and the stories we tell are not only about our lives, they are part of them. Our lives are rooted in narratives and narrative practices. We depend on stories almost as much as we depend on the air we breathe. Air keeps us alive; stories give meaning to our existence. (Bochner and Ellis, 2016: 75–6)

The key to change lies in the stories people tell. By naming the world, we change it (Freire, 1972). Stories of everyday life transmit culture and maintain the dominance of the status quo. In telling our stories, questioning them, critiquing them in relation to the dominant narrative, we open the space for a new story, engaging in a dance of ideas in the search for a better story to replace the old one. Our first encounters as participatory practitioners begin with the way we listen from the heart to the stories of everyday life as it is experienced. This is the foundation of critical dialogue, the point at which trusting mutual relations are formed. In a process of mutual dialogue and reflection, we learn to question the stories we tell, and by examining them a little more critically we find they contain the key to understanding the personal as political.

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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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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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Transformative practice aims to bring about social change for a kinder, more just and sustainable world. Therefore, participatory practice is inevitably transformative in intention. As we argued in Chapter 4, the weak link is that ‘participation’ as a concept is poorly understood and often diluted. Participatory practice is action for a participatory democracy: not a feelgood factor that involves local people in local projects but practice which follows through to collective action by involvement in global movements for transformative change. This is precisely the point at which practice reaches out from being tokenistic or partial to connect with change that reaches structural discrimination and human rights violations. What an enormous task, you may say, and I would agree, but would add that there are some extremely straightforward ways to go about it. This chapter looks at the ideas, skills and structure involved in taking practice forward confidently into its transformative agenda. Its focus is connection! This is precisely why the ideas discussed here transcend false boundaries to connect across human being in its full extent: intellectual, physical, emotional, spiritual, ecological … Everything about life is inextricably interconnected, and atomisation of thought results in fragmented action, reducing practice to a disconnected, ameliorative activity without potential for transformation. For these reasons, participatory practitioners see a participatory worldview as an integrated whole, with respect and responsibility for everyone and everything, a healthy, happy world in balance.

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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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