A Tradition that Has No Name: Nurturing the Development of People, Families, and Communities
reviewed by Cindy C. Kratzer - 1999
Title: A Tradition that Has No Name: Nurturing the Development of People, Families, and Communities
Author(s): Belenky, M. F., Bond, L. A., & Weinstock, J. S
Publisher: Basic Books, New York
ISBN: 0465086810, Pages: 384, Year: 1999
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On the surface, A Tradition That Has No Name might seem a strange book to be reviewed in an education journal. The book is about mothers--their relationships with each other, their collective action, empowerment, and transformation from silence to voice. Yet it has significant implications for how we educate children, reflect on the institution of schooling, and conceive our roles and responsibilities as persons in a world inhabited by other persons. Finally, it has something to say to each of us, regardless of our job description, gender or parental status.
Mary Belenky, Lynne Bond and Jacqueline Weinstock have collected and related the stories of several programs centered around giving voice to mothers, actually telling "many versions of one story" (p. 4). They have vividly described their Listening Partners research project, which sought to "bring together socially and often geographically isolated, poor, rural mothers of preschool-aged children to work collaboratively in developing their powers of mind and voice and their skills in fostering the development of others" (p. 71). Not satisfied with the short-term nature of this project, Belenky also investigated four well-established, ongoing grassroots organizations started by women for mothers which all sought to "bring a missing voice into a dialogue with the larger community" (p. 10).
This book is the story of the Listening Partners project, the four grassroots organizations, and the themes and implications which emerged from this cross-case analysis. It is also the story of a long-standing tradition of passing down from one generation of women (particularly mothers) to another the necessary tools to be developmental leaders in their families and communities. This is the tradition that has no name.
Part 1 provides the theoretical and conceptual background for the rest of the book, culminating in a literature review in Chapter 2 which clearly and insightfully documents the progression of thought in understanding development in previous research, particularly feminist literature. A key point made throughout Part 1 is that because mothers are often cast as Other, their contributions and voice are frequently neglected in discussions of development.
The Listening Partners project is graphically described in Part 2. Providing sufficient detail to make the project replicable for others was accomplished through careful balance between guiding principles and examples. Part 2 ends with a thorough analysis of the project, including a description of the transformation of mothers engaged in the project and a coherent discussion of the mothers’ interactions with their children, which has valuable implications for educating children of poverty.
In the project, 120 mothers of preschool children living in two impoverished rural counties in Vermont were identified as "being at risk for abuse or neglect of the children or under unusual stress" (p. 103). The researchers set out to discover "what would happen if extremely isolated young mothers, living in rural poverty, were supported to become more active, confident, and articulate thinkers." Using an experimental design, half the women participated in weekly peer-group intervention sessions with project staff members for eight months, while the control group women completed only the interviews and assessments.
The mothers in both groups were given standard psychological assessments, participated in several structured and unstructured interviews, and were observed and videotaped as they interacted with their preschool children at home. In addition, the weekly peer support groups were audiotaped and transcribed, with transcriptions often being returned to the group members for further discussion. Data analysis included blind coding of all interviews followed by sequential examination of all material relating to each mother to ascertain changes over time. Consistency of findings between quantitative and qualitative measures further helped to strengthen the validity of the findings.
The researchers found that a significant percentage of the women became less silenced in their communication as a result of their participation in the peer group, and these changes were sustained and even enhanced in the ten months following the peer group sessions. Less clear was the overall impact of their empowerment on their parenting skills and relationships with their children, although a couple of examples are given.
Part 3 almost seems like a separate book. In this section, the authors expand their framework to include the study of four additional long-standing organizations. Labeled "public homeplaces" by the authors, these organizations have a tradition of nurturing developmental leadership among the mothers who become involved. While this portion of the book is not as powerfully written as Parts 1 and 2, the reader nevertheless comes away with a sense that lives have been changed for the better through the influence of these organizations and their nurturing leaders.
In studying the four organizations, Belenky spent considerable time with each one, conducted interviews with the founders, and led focus groups with staff and women who had been involved with them. While these organizations differed in emphasis, they all manifested a focus on fostering developmental leadership, maternal metaphors, caring community, and "promoting the development of people and communities" (p. 165).
While the authors work from a feminist framework, they acknowledge that mothers who work full-time in the home have not typically been valued by feminist scholars or by others in society. These four organizations have all sought to bring value to the role of mothering and to empower and give voice and connection to mothers. In providing public spaces where women, particularly mothers, could come together to share and work together, these "public homeplaces" are nurturing, familial-type settings for the women. Three major themes emerging from these homeplaces include: "(1) we are all members of the human family, (2) the family should maintain a warm and supportive homeplace where the development of all the members is nurtured, and (3) everyone should be responsible for home maintenance and developing the broader community that sustains the family" (p. 262). In this, they are very like schools which have been identified as having a strong sense of community or family (see, for example, Kratzer, 1997; Noddings, 1992; Sergiovanni, 1994; Wehlage, Rutter, Smith, Lesko & Fernandez, 1989; Willis, 1995).
The women in these institutions strongly emphasize passing on what they have learned and received to others, in ways reminiscent of scaffolding and apprenticeship concepts in education and psychology (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Tharp & Gallimore, 1988). Across race, culture and class, women have been raised up to new levels of development and leadership through their involvement in these programs.
Although I wish the authors had not so completely ignored the long-standing historical tradition of many (though certainly not all) religious institutions in fostering personal and leadership development among mothers, I nevertheless feel this book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the powerful effects on women, children and whole communities of providing safe and nurturing public spaces where mothers can meet, care for each other, address needs in their communities, and find the voice with which to challenge injustice.
The authors name this unnamed tradition "public homeplaces," which perhaps is not a totally adequate label. As they say, "When a name is found that feels just right, more and more people will come to use it" (p. 164). The tradition will perhaps continue to remain nameless until the right label is found, but nevertheless it is a tradition worth reading about and incorporating into our lives.
Kratzer, C. C. (1997). Roscoe Elementary School: Cultivating a caring community in an urban elementary school. Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk, 2(4), 345-375.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Sergiovanni, T. J. (1994). Building community in schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Tharp, R. G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and schooling in social context: Cambridge University Press.
Wehlage, G. G., Rutter, R. A., Smith, G. A., Lesko, N., & Fernandez, R. R. (1989). Reducing the risk: Schools as communities of support. New York: The Falmer Press.
Willis, M. G. (1995, April). Creating success through family in an African American public elementary school. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco.