What Is Transformative Organizing?

Transformative organizing is the fusion of two important processes. The first is transformative learning, which leads people to question and change their deeply held views (i.e., perspective, worldview or frame) about themselves and the world. This has also has been defined as “learning to purposively question one’s own assumptions, beliefs, feelings, and perspectives in order to grow or mature personally and intellectually.” The second is community organizing, which leads people who have a common cause to unite and act in their shared self-interest.

The cornerstone to transformative organizing is laid by providing experiences that satisfy the autonomy, competence, and relatedness needs of young men and women in ways that are explicitly focused on presenting them with authentic opportunities to reflect and develop bonds of trust with one another.

Transformative organizing provides what disengaged young men and women need to change their lives.  First, it strengthens their self-direction, redirects their view of the world and bonds them to a few people they can trust.  Second, it shows them how to work together as citizens to confront personal problems and the institutional and situational barriers to their future success.

There is more about transformative organizing below or you can move to a description of Closing the Circle.

Powerful Ideas

Transformative organizing, the core strategy of Closing the Circle, links two powerful processes:

1) Transformative learning, which leads people to question and change their deeply held views about themselves and the world; and

2) Community organizing, which leads people who have a common cause to unite and act in their shared self-interest.

Unlike existing programs, our focus is not directly on changing institutions (like school) to better serve youth. The hundreds of millions of dollars being invested annually to improve schools and service programs seem to make little headway on the problem. Instead, our intervention aims to change youth directly so they, themselves, can challenge institutions to serve them better.  Transformative organizing works to redirect their life trajectories, first, by changing their world view in fundamental ways and, then, by helping them to get meaningful control over their lives by learning to operate as a team with peers they trust.

Basics of Transformative Organizing       The goal of transformative organizing is to foster meaningful perspective (or “world view”) change that leads, among other things, to more positive engagement with family and community, as well as improved academic achievement.

To re-engage chronically disengaged youth, CTE’s model nurtures transformative learning in ways that are “asset-based, internally-focused, relationship-driven” (Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993).    The model’s first phase is to build on friendship orientation – a defining feature of adolescence – to create strong peer-based teams and train them in effective methods of mutual support and discourse.

The second phase is to immerse these teams in community and school experiences that promote continuous transformational learning. Teams, themselves, become the key mechanism through which transformative learning takes place.  These teams are trained in a range of group processes that give them the tools they need to deal positively with school, as well as with many of the critical issues and concerns of their members.

Transformation Begins with Teams      The initiating event in our model is that youth are immersed in a summer-long, adventure program that leads them to bond in strong, peer teams that can provide mutual help and learning support to their members. Youth who participate in such teams, when exposed to challenging, even disorienting, experiences, will, ultimately, develop new perspectives that will serve as the foundation for a re-integration of their lives in a more successful and satisfying direction. This transformative learning will, in turn, lead to increased academic achievement and stronger academic, social, and community connectedness.

  • Transformative organizing can be viewed as a multi-year sequence of learning experiences through which student teams pass as a tightly-bonded unit. Peer teams work (and play) together, provide mutual help for personal problems, encourage each other to engage in transformational learning and help one another to succeed academically.  Teams develop expertise in a number of well-established group processes to give them the capacity to meet these challenges. These group processes cover four broad categories: talking circles, mutual help, team-based learning and community action.
  • Fundamentally, transformative organizing depends on building trust.  Sustainable transformation depends on creating a circle of trust which, ultimately, builds and strengthens faith and courage, and, therefore, helps hope to grow and be sustained.  An important element of this is to create protected space in which members can open up and share real concerns, fears, hopes, aspirations, problems and crises.  To achieve this, teams and circles must develop protocols and mutual agreements for dealing with the “chaos of poverty” in members’ lives.  An important objective of transformative organizing is to support the development of this structure.
  • The teams that are forged in the initial summer program operate thereafter as a tight circle of friends and allies guided by four, main principles:
    • Protect and support team mates  — protect and strengthen the circle;
    • Reclaim the family;
    • Make school relevant and responsive to real needs and interests; and
    • Bring about long-lasting social change in the local community to ensure a better future.

Teams Become the Foundation for a Youth-Led Organization       The teams that have been forged during the first summer program will become the foundation for a larger, youth-led organization involving students at a given school or  participating youth in a given community.  These youth-led groups will form alliances with older adults and adult-led organizations who are willing to provide counsel, connections and resources in support of their efforts.

  • Transformative organizing assumes that this youth-led infrastructure will be highly participatory, democratic, and relatively non-bureaucratic.  Social networking is expected to play a dominant role in developing and maintaining group norms. Peer leadership is expected to develop from the base upward rather than hierarchically from the top down.
  • The following arrangement suggests one possible scenario of how youth might organize themselves in loose federations at the school and community level:

Team/Circle – The basic group, formed over the first summer, is a 10-person Circle comprising deeply-bonded young men and women who trust one another.   Teams with 5-10 members formed for specific objectives provide a first-line of support and personal intervention (see XXX for more on this).  Circles provide backup to the teams and are the central forum in which members who trust one another can open up, confide, share their lives, and offer mutual caring, help, and support to one another. Teams and Circles are facilitated by peer leaders (i.e., “circle keepers”) chosn by the members.

Chapter –Circles created by the efforts of a single “transformative organizer” (see XXX for more on this) organize as a Chapter, with coordination provided through a peer leadership committee comprising the peer leaders of each Circle and an executive team elected by the members of the Chapter leadership committee.

What Transformative Organizing Does/Does Not Do       Our intervention does not “push” an alternative world view on participants but, instead, simply exposes them to challenging, disorienting experiences that lead them to question their existing perceptions, attitudes and world view.  While this is taking place, they are guided to build teams that serve as arenas for critical discourse and dialogue, as well as sources of practical support for issues they face during the intervention and, later, in school and their personal lives. Our model does not require, or even suggest, that these teams ought to replace students’ existing friendship network(s) but, instead, that teams help students to improve these relationships, as well.

Transformation Promotes Healing      Because most disconnected young people have internalized hurt (trauma), whether they acknowledge it or not, Closing the Circle stresses that healing through personal transformation must be the first milestone.  It is critical that Circles, in particular, learn how to help one another confront this hurt and begin to heal it.  It is equally important for teams help one another to eliminate feelings of impotence in confronting personal challenges or institutionalized power.

Transformation Promotes Citizenship     Closing the Circle teaches participating young men and women that they have real work to accomplish as citizens.

  • The vision of our enterprise is not grounded in service delivery or advocacy.  It is grounded in organizing youth to build the collective capacity to advocate for themselves, to obtain the services they need and to  bring about positive change in their communities.  We focus not on service or advocacy but on mobilization through transformation, capacity-building, and advising.  We teach young men and women the truth behind the words of the Peruvian poet, Cesar Vallejo, “Hay hermanos muchisimo que hacer!” –  “brothers and sisters, there is much to do” — and show them how they, themselves, can do it.
  • In addition to what they do to help themselves via their teams and circles, the transformation of these young citizens requires that they, also, take on important work in their family, school, and community.
  • The large majority of otherwise disconnected youth are bonded to their families but these relationships are often damaged and mistrustful (in both directions).  We believe that youth need to reclaim and rebuild solid family relationships by supporting older adults and acting as a guardian of their younger siblings’ future.  Every youth should become a leader in his/her own family.
  • Youth have important work to do in transforming their own schools into responsive centers of learning.  This includes recruiting their families to support their effort and forming alliances with educators who desire to serve the needs of students more effctively.
  • Youth can and should organize to confront the forces that marginalize adolescents.  A movement of organized and mobilized youth can be a powerful change agent – socially, politically, and economically – in their communities and nationally.   An obvious challenge is for them to confront the institutional inertia and bureaucratic rigidity of existing school systems.  While respecting and honoring their schools for the potential value they offer, young people have the right to point out poor service and insist that schools provide them with a  learning environment that addresses their needs and wishes with respect to their learning.  In this and other arenas, youth have the potential and the right to exercise economic and political power to press for improvement.

Transformative Organizing is a Local Effort by Committed Communities  Our work at present is to develop transformative organizing further and reduce it to effective practice.  Once that is accomplished, we believe that it is critical to disseminate this intervention as a local, grassroots effort in each community rather than as a heirarchical intervention of an increasingly larger CTE operation.  Our vision, therefore, is for CTE to evolve into a center at which dedicated individuals can study to become transformative organizers in order to bring CTE’s model to the disconnected youth in their own communities.  Within a few years, CTE will focus on training prospective organizers sent by interested communities.  Once trained, these committed indivuals will  return home  to establish a local, grassroots organization with the young men and women of their own community.