Thursday, February 19, 2015

Glory Dharmaraj: Transformative learning as an educational model

Today's piece is written by Dr. Glory E. Dharmaraj, a consultant for United Methodist Women.  It is the second of a three-part series.  Dr. Dharmaraj contributed this piece as part of our reflections on the WCC's new document on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes.  You can find more posts in this series by clicking on the "Together towards Life" tag at the bottom.

“Transformative Spirituality” is one of the key concepts in the new ecumenical affirmation on mission and evangelism by the World Council of Churches, Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Times. In this series of articles, I would like to share how I have adapted and applied this concept as a pedagogical practice in facilitating the annual United Methodist mission studies.[i] Last week’s article explained the history of United Methodist mission studies as a site of struggle. This week, I will look at the approach to transformative learning used used in facilitating the Mission Studies sponsored by the United Methodist Women.

Transformative learning is a key process outlined in the adult education aimed at emancipatory knowledge in the late mid-twentieth century in Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire where he emphasizes education as a process which centers around critical reflection on one’s personal and collective reality that leads to engagement in actions. Critical reflection is a component integral to transformative learning methods used in facilitating United Methodist mission education.

Using the spiritual growth study for 2012, Immigration and the Bible by Joan M. Maruskin, as an example, let me examine some of the ways in which the study leaders were trained to facilitate at the regional levels.

The pedagogical strategy we have used is to reading the bible through the eyes of the migrant, immigrant, and refugee in this particular study. In fact, Maruskin’s central thesis is that the “Bible is the ultimate immigration handbook. It was written by, for, and about migrants, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.”[ii] Enabling reading through the perspectives of people at the margins offers a range of insights into the pain and cry of the least of these. Reading the stories from the Bible, as a community of people from different cultural backgrounds inside a class setting, and reflecting on what God is saying in specific contexts is both an individual and collective learning process.

Braiding the stories of immigrants, along with the insights from reading the biblical stories, the adult learners are led to further reflection. As reflections unfold, the participants identify patterns, similarities, differences in the stories they hear from each other. The facilitator makes sure that while reflection takes place voices of those not present at the table are included, since in analyzing the relations of power in the interconnected structures of class, race, gender etc., it is vital to include a diversity of voices. This part of the learning process is often known as critical reflection or critical thinking.

Diagrammatically, the process of critical reflection can be represented by a spiral, starting with sharing one’s experiences relating to the issue, reading the Bible through the eyes of the migrant and immigrant, locating patterns of similarity and dissimilarity, naming the barriers and resistance to change, discerning God’s voice in the readings and at work in the world, looking for clues of transformation, and coming up with actions. The process is repeated again with the cycle of experience, reflection, and action. The spiral image captures the flow of the transformative method as it involves experience, reflection on experience, social analysis, strategies for transformation and action. The spiral is not a closed one.

In the critical reflection, a key component is social identity and location of the person doing the analysis. Often social identities are connected to each other, and they are not isolated entities. The term “intersectionality” is both a revealer of the layered and complex nature of issue at hand, and also a tool available to address the issue. The term intersectionality was first coined by KimberlĂ© Crenshaw in 1989. A lawyer by profession who worked among battered women, Crenshaw named an experience which several of the women whom she encountered embodied. These women underwent multiple layers of oppression due to their race, class, sexuality, language, locality etc. In their daily lived existence, these multiple oppressions intersected.

Crenshaw has identified the site of multiple oppressions and named the place of such an experience. A woman of color, with no education, and who has difficulty living above the poverty line embodies the impact of many strikes against her.[iii] It is important to address the convergence of these knotted oppressions as a whole using the lens of intersectionality. Intersectionality is both a revealer of the complexity of the issue at hand, as well as a tool for addressing it.

Intersectional oppressions and God’s shalom are mutually exclusive. In order to engage in the work of shalom, fullness of life for everyone, it is helpful to shape our tools for greater engagement in God’s mission by naming the intersectional and fluid nature of identities, and not compartmentalize the various categories. Gayatri Spivak’s post-colonialist query, “Can the subaltern speak?”[iv] is still a powerful one in the context of intersectional oppressions. Amplifying the vocal silence of those at the margins is done by walking in solidarity with them, creating an environment for them to speak, and holding the microphone to them.

[i] A fuller version of this article was presented as a paper in the 2014 American Society of Missiology, Association of Professors of Mission. See Glory Dharmaraj, "Transformative Learning versus Informative Learning in Facilitating Mission Studies."
[ii] Joan Maruskin, Immigration and the Bible: A Guide for Radical Welcome (New York: Women’s Division, General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church, 2012), 3.
[iii] KimberlĂ© Crenshaw in “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review, 43.6 (1989):1241-1299.
[iv] Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in its updated version in Reflections on the History of an Idea: Can the Subaltern Speak? Ed. Rosalind C. Morris (New York: Columbia University, 2010): 21-80.

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