As I have reflected more on the transformative nature of participatory practices, other ways of explaining the potential of these processes have emerged for me, not just levels of change related to transformative knowledge, but greater nuance on how change happens. Two terms which I have found illuminating in this regard are embodiment and regeneration.
In part 2 of this 3 part piece, I will dig into participation as embodiment, performance and congruence. (Click here to read Part 1 in this series.)
Participation as a Way of Working, Knowing and Being
Embodiment is a useful way to think about the quality and form of change that happens in participation. Transformation is in itself a vague term. Admittedly when I use the term ‘transformation’, there’s an built-in assumption that I mean ‘good change’. However transformation doesn’t provide much clarity about how or why change occurs.
In my experience, the transformation generated through participatory methods is about coming to embody and act in congruence with the values and practices of participation in a wider sense, beyond a particular research process or project. If participation is not a tool but an approach, if participation is not simply a method but also a way of relating to people and to living, practiced forms of knowledge, then engaging in participation is not a temporary or atavistic orientation which can be flipped on or off at a particular moment.
Rather participation opens a door and calls people and groups to embody participation, to perform participation, collaboration, and co-generation in their ways of working and being, personally and organizationally. As with participation itself, this idea of embodiment is asymptotic. One can never reach a perfect model of participation or embody it completely. Falling short of the mark, even contradiction, comes with the territory when reaching into new spaces as a practitioner, organization or community, but the call to embody the values of participation is powerful and valuable—and manageable.
The Small Things
Gandhi’s call to ‘be the change one wants to see in the world’ always produces in me a sense of vertigo given the sheer scope of trying to embody and correct all the problems I see and feel in the world. Indeed, the recently-sainted Mother Teresa’s call to do ‘small things with great love’ often feels more possible and seems to capture more closely the idea of embodiment I am describing here.
In my work I cannot immediately or directly change the organizations, universities or communities that I work with to be more democratic or participative, but I can demonstrate these processes in my ways of working. I can attempt to embody participation in a variety of smalls ways in how I relate to and engage with my colleagues. I can listen deeply and fully. I can dialogue open-mindedly. I can acknowledge specifically where their ideas/experiences have helped me to see more clearly, or differently. I can approach meetings, workshops and consultancies as a chance to learn together rather than as a chance to provide an answer or reach a conclusion that serves my needs and reifies my patterns of thought. I can approach teaching as a relationship and exchange rather than a Fed-Ex/DHL-style information delivery service. Participation is about being present to the latent potential locked within any group and situation.
Knowledge Catalyst, Conduit and Cistern
As a participatory practitioner it is not my role to be a solver or a closer or a fixer. Otherwise I become a crutch because the solution is coming from me, not from the group I am supporting. Participation creates a space which invites the group’s knowledge into the discussion, to surface experiences and understandings which are fragmented or suppressed by power relations and hierarchies. I am the conduit to help that knowledge flow, to reach different systemic spaces and levels. I am the holder of space where these understandings are gathered together for collective analysis. I am the aqueduct and cistern, not the water. The community, organization, or class almost always has the knowledge they need. What is needed instead is a means to bring that knowledge together and a catalyst for those in the situation to recognize the immensity, capacity and potential of their collective knowledge for addressing the problem at hand. That is increasingly the need I try to address and embody as a participatory practitioner.
Embodiment is more than standing back and being a facilitator, however. ‘Facipulation’ is all too common in the facilitation and participation world, that is using participatory processes as weigh-stations along a predetermined path that ends up exactly where the facilitator intended—or an even a more naïve faith that a series of participatory methods performed formulaically as a workshop will magically result in a meaningful experience and outcome for participants. Embodiment is about showing up in the now and responding to opportunities moment by moment, performing, improving, and helping others to see what is emerging, to see the connections in the ideas they are articulating and to provide a scaffolding from which coherent understanding and action can result.
As I refine my own approach as a practitioner to better embody the values and practices of participation, I see the knock-on effect of how these ways of working are contagious in the spaces I have contributed to. Organizations experiment to achieve more horizontal and emergent ways of working. Employees leave organizations in search of work cultures which are more collaborative and empowering. Students note on their teaching reviews how my description and performance of teaching as a learning partnership between professor and student fundamentally challenges their ways of approaching knowledge. They overturn a habit of seeing themselves as empty vessels to be filled intellectually and recognize their own knowledge/experience as a foundational piece of their learning and not something to be downplayed or exiled and replaced with ‘authoritative’ content. In this way, even the ‘small things’ created ripples which eventually grow large.
Be Here Now (So You Won’t Be Needed Later)
To embody participation is to participate. Not to lead or drive or to wait quietly with an answer from another context, but to throw out the map and make the path by walking with those you are called to work with. It can’t be done perfectly, but it can be done transparently, providing an example that continues to support learning and change even after you have moved on.
Indeed, the most valuable outcome left behind by participatory processes isn’t an answer, but a regenerated capacity to know, analyze and act. In the final part of this piece, I will further explore this idea of participation as regeneration.
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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