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The Praxis of Sustaining Transformative Change

by Dorothy Ettling - January 31, 2002

This paper presents a perspective on the praxis of facilitating transformative learning and transformative change. The views shared in it have been gained in non-academic settings through collaboration with women in transition from situations of domestic violence. It offers some initial insights and queries regarding the application of transformative learning theory.


The glow on Demetra's face tells the whole story. She has discovered that it is possible to make internal change and consequently to view herself and her world from a totally new perspective. It has not been a quick or easy process. Three years of opening her mind to new possibilities, on-going critical thinking and reflection, developing new competencies, returning to school, balancing work, four children and the demands of a transitional program for survivors of domestic violence has, indeed, been a juggler's act. But she is making it! Demetra has become a colleague in our work with women who are determined to break the cycles surrounding domestic violence in their lives.

The purpose of this paper is to illuminate our praxis with over one hundred women from diverse backgrounds in transitional housing programs, a setting that may seem less than ideal for transformative learning. The three-year project (1996-1999) encompassed various educational and research initiatives in seven locations in the states of Texas and California. Our findings reflect data that were gathered in education sessions, audio and video interviews, and focus groups with the participants along with bi-weekly project team reflection-sessions. The project team was composed of two primary researchers and eight associate researchers, doctoral students from two graduate Institutes. The team members served both as researchers and facilitators of the educational initiatives. This report highlights some insights emerging from our praxis in this study and in other fieldwork since 1985. It focuses on the process of transformative change as we have lived and observed it and how the theory of transformative learning has been both a guide and a stumbling block in our work with women in transition.

Domestic violence is an epidemic in our world. Annually, an estimated 4.5 million physical assaults and over 300,000 sexual assaults are committed against U.S. women by intimate partners (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). Violence against women shatters women's lives and undermines their potential. In the last thirty years, the women's movement in the United States has fought to conceptualize domestic violence as a public issue rather than a private family problem. There is an enormous cost to individuals and to society in paying for the tragedy of violence in our homes and neighborhoods. But an often-neglected consequence of this social ill is the patterns of violence that remain intact. We cannot expect children to grow into citizens of a global society where peace-not-war is the goal, if we, as a country, are unwilling to confront and resolve issues surrounding patterns of violence in our lives.

In 1993, the U.N. General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. In 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development and in 1995 the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing advocated ending gender violence as a high priority. In 1996, the 49th World Health Assembly declared violence as a public health priority. In 1999, the United Nations Population Fund declared violence against women a public health priority. The costs to domestic violence victims are staggering. A recent Department of Justice Study (Tjaden & Thoeness, 1998) found the average yearly loss to female victims of intimate violence in medical expenses alone was $61,000,000 in the United States. This represents only 40% of all direct costs associated with incidents of violence against women; when broken or stolen property or lost pay is added, the figure increases to $150,000,000. If it were to include indirect losses, such as pain and suffering and loss of quality of life another $65,000,000 would need to be added annually (Miller, 1986).

Over the past three decades, the growth of Battered Women's Shelters throughout the country was the immediate response to this social problem. While providing an important and secure stopgap measure for women and children, shelters do not necessarily offer long-term support and guidance to assist women in developing new attitudes and behaviors that could interrupt the cycle of violence often present in family patterns. In growing recognition of the importance of this missing element, when the McKinney Act of 1987 provided new governmental funding for transitional housing programs, social service agencies added this component to their range of services both for homeless women and for women survivors of domestic violence. These transitional housing programs normally offer a woman with children subsidized housing and opportunities for education or job training up to a period of two years in order for the family to move from situations of poverty and/or violence and gain long term well-being and economic self-sufficiency.

Experience has demonstrated to us that many of the women in these situations of transition have been directly affected by physical and emotional violence, either from a spouse or through family or neighborhood contact. Experience also shows that the majority of women who have been out of the labor force can only procure low-paying, minimum wage jobs, clearly inadequate to secure financial independence. Yet, the desire of these women is to break the cycles of poverty or violence that entrap them and their families. Participating in transitional housing programs designed to offer security, shelter and new skills, they aspire to make significant change in their lives. Through the years, our constantly confirmed intuition has been that the aspects of traditional services offered in these well administered agencies were insufficient to unleash the potential of deeper change that enables women to see themselves in a "new way" and thus deal with their reality with "new eyes." The programs' services are insufficient to help women transform their perspectives and interrupt the patterns in their lives.

An examination of public policy and funding commitments suggests that society, in general, does not recognize this need for internal change when "prescribing" for persons in economic poverty. Social service agencies are not typically funded to offer opportunity for this level of growth. Realistically, crisis situations have their particular needs, and immediate, short-term relief and goals are essential. But to achieve long-term, sustained economic and emotional stability, it is often necessary to delve much deeper into the effects of one's positionality, to understand oneself in a historical and social context (Tisdell, 2000), and to change one's worldview. Thus we were prompted to look to transformative learning theory and offer a method of critical self-reflection to women who were seeking to transform their lives.


The initiators of this project are the co-directors of Interconnections of San Antonio, TX, a non-profit collaborative that focuses on the issues of woman, particularly economically poor women, through education and research in the community. Interconnections is dedicated to fostering personal and social transformation and is founded on the principle that education and research are inseparable companions for our work in the community. We choose to do research only when we can accompany our inquiry with a facilitated educational opportunity for the participants in a study. Our research projects are set in the context of educational workshops ranging from six to nine sessions on topics that the women have identified as important in their lives for developing their leadership potential. Common topics are values, self-esteem, anger management, recognizing abuse, dealing with diversity and conflict, and working through transitions. Areas that are initially not identified by participants, but appreciated when introduced, are a social analysis of poverty and violence, the effects of women's cultural socialization, and language as a tool for empowerment. Our concept of praxis is research informed by education initiatives and education initiatives informed by research. It is premised on the development of a learning community in which all, both participants and facilitators, are open to learning and change. For this reason, we engage in multi-session educational programs, during which there is time for developing relationships and trust.

Continuous cycles of action-reflection are a necessary aspect of our study design. We have found this a useful model for wedding academic and practitioner objectives and alerting us to the real danger of exploitation through research (Acker, Barry & Esseveld, 1996). A second goal of our work is to create forums where multiple perspectives can be reflected in the research dialogue. We attempt to do this by recruiting both participants and research associates from various backgrounds. Feminist literature has drawn attention to the lack of diverse voices in research with women (Cook & Fonow, 1990; DeVault, 1990; Gottfried, 1996; Harding, 1991; Kaschak, 1992). This is especially true of the voices of women representing a diversity of color and class (Anzaldua, 1990; Bing and Reid, 1996; Collins, 1991; Reid, 1993; Reid and Kelly, 1994). It is this intention of inclusiveness that we bring to our praxis of transformative learning in a research setting.

I am a white, middle class woman, raised ecumenically in a Christian/Catholic context. Yet I have been nourished holistically from the wellsprings of many spiritual traditions for over forty years. I share this aspect of my life because I realize how worldview and positionality deeply shape my own perspective. The participative paradigm proposed by John Heron and Peter Reason (1997) best describes my worldview. Their introduction to this paradigm states, "the participatory worldview allows us as human persons to know that we are a part of the whole rather than separated as mind over and against matter, or placed here in the relatively separate creation of a transcendent god" (p. 275). The participatory worldview "places us back in relation with a living world-and we note that to be in relation means that we live with the rest of creation as relatives, with all the rights and obligations that implies" (p. 276, emphasis in original). This belief offers a centering point for an integral approach to my praxis in transformative learning. It compels me to be mindful of staying in a relational stance with the women in our projects and confronts me with a personal accountability regarding every aspect of our educational and research design.


In our work with women and agencies serving women in transition, we drew on the theory of transformative learning for adults (Boyd & Myers, 1988; Brookfield, 1986; Cranton, 1994; Daloz, 1986; Kegan, 1994; Mezirow, 1991, 2000) to create leadership development workshops. We have devised group education strategies designed to teach critical reflection on experience and to facilitate the possibility of transformative change in both women clients and the agencies working with them. Through a long history in working with women from all backgrounds, we also recognize that spiritual values are important sustainers of change in one's life and therefore we seek to promote a self-reflection and self-understanding that also acknowledges and affirms this aspect in the women we meet. We name our general approach, the Learning to Learn Methodology.

Learning to Learn implies seeing education in a "new way." Taking into account that women have gleaned numerous insights from their experiences as daughters, sisters, mothers, lover and friend, we encourage them to draw upon their inner resources and transform them into learnings for life. Plumbing the depths of myriad daily events, through the medium of "storytelling," offers women an opportunity for reflection. Critical thinking is enhanced through the use of art, music, movement and poetic expression, all of which can provide access to deeper held beliefs and attitudes in one's psyche. Analysis of social acculturation and societal norms can serve to liberate bounded views. The theoretical basis for this approach is built on feminist approaches to learning (Belenkey, Clinchy, Goldberger, Tarule, 1986; Goldberger, Tarule, Clinchy & Belenkey, 1996; Hayes & Flannery, 2000; Horseman, 2000; Neilsen, 1998), on the theory of women activist education (Foley, 1999; Naples, 1998; Thompson, 1997), and on literature recognizing the role of multiple ways of knowing (Barr, 1999; Cassou & Cubley, 1995; Diaz, 1992; Mellick, 1996). Women, who choose to continue in the Learning to Learn internship after the introductory workshops, participate in a number of learning experiences where a primary facet is the development of their own capacity to become facilitators themselves in future leadership workshops with other women.

Concurrent with this educational aspect of our projects, we use organic inquiry (Braud & Anderson, 1998; Clements, Ettling, Jenett, & Shields, 1998a, 1998b; Stromsted, 2001) as a research methodology to gather and document the women's stories of change. Organic Inquiry is a recently developed qualitative methodology that places the stories of both the participants and the researchers at the heart of the inquiry. Personal storytelling offers aspects of a holistic approach in gathering data and has gained a new prominence in research (Brooks, 2000). Additionally, we believe that it is the participants, themselves, who must give voice to the content and meaning of their experience.

Our initial description of transformative change (Ettling, 1994), "the on-going process of becoming fully oneself and sharing that consciousness with others through which one experientially knows connectedness and unity with all that is," has undergone evolution through practice and reflection. The incorporation of the action dimension has become fundamental to our understanding of transformation. A more recent description (Ettling & Hayes, 2000) is "change that brings about a new consciousness of self and one's relationships and thus encourages a person to think and act in new ways." Undoubtedly our own journey in conceptualizing transformative change is ongoing.


Our studies with women consistently indicate the centrality of self-identity in the process of transformative change. Expressed in differing ways, but always fundamental to the perception of a woman who experiences inner change, is the fact that she self-identifies in a new way. She speaks about herself differently, often she walks or talks differently; but most importantly, she sees herself anew. An example is reflected in this "story" of one of our participants co-facilitating an eight-session workshop in our program.

This next story, I feel, should be about my first real experience facilitating a class. I never thought I would be able to do this on my own. When I received Kita's message about her not being able to come to class because she had to work, I thought "I cannot do this." This is not happening to me. This may not seem a big deal to anyone else, but to me it was. Well, I tried to think positive. I told myself, I can do this. I have to prove to myself and others that I have the skills to do this. After pondering time and time again, I decided, with the help of God and the women in the group I will do fine. I went into the classroom with a positive attitude. The class ran smoothly and the women were great.

Others in the learning group recognize and confirm this change. A border has been crossed, a border that limited self-perception and choice. Mezirow speaks of this as the "existing frame of reference or an already established symbolic model with cognitive, affective and conative dimensions…that serves as a boundary condition for interpreting the meaning of an experience (1991, p. 32). We found several other significant findings closely aligned with this centrality of self-identity. In both the women we worked with and in ourselves as inquirers, three factors were prominent in making transformative change; the import of relational bonding, the non-linear patterns of the change process, and the reciprocal intersecting of personal perception and social/historical contexts.


Both study participants and members of the research team identified building bonds of friendship and support as a significant aspect of sustaining the capacity to uncover and alter deeply seated assumptions about oneself and reality. The presence of others who "hear one into speech" (Morton, 1985, p. 55) was experienced as essential to claiming oneself and one's beliefs. Hayes (2000) speaks of women "giving voice" as the process of naming previously unarticulated parts of ourselves. "The act of naming our experiences is an integral part of establishing who we are" (p. 92). For the women in our study, critical reflection on situations in their daily life within a context of support and challenge was key to perspective transformation (Ettling & Hayes, 2000). The project team members, while changing slightly in composition over a three-year period, acknowledged the same finding in their own process of change. The willingness to look at oneself, uncover assumptions, and alter beliefs was nurtured through the research team's interactions and discussions (Ettling & Guilian, 2000).

This finding is consistent with principles of women's growth and development. Women's writings (Anzaldua, 1990; Chodorow, 1978; Collins, 1991; Gilligan, 1993; Goldberger, Tarule, Clinchy & Belenky, 1996; Hayes & Flannery, 2000; Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Stiver & Surrey, 1991; Jordan, 1997; Josselson, 1987; Miller, 1986;) attest to the centrality of relationship in women's lives regardless of race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status. The literature increasingly reflects that relational context greatly influences the process of women transforming not only cognitively, but also emotionally, spiritually and physically. This has been our experience in varied settings.

Building on this relational principle, we are exploring the morphogenetic field theory, as it is being described in developmental biology by Rupert Sheldrake (1991; 1995), in our understanding of transformative learning and change (Ettling & Gozawa, 2000). Sheldrake (1995) describes a morphogenetic field as one that can predetermine the form of developing organisms that fall under its influence. Thus it was found that when half the cells from an embryo were removed in the lab, the embryo still produced a complete organism, not half a one. The morphogenesis of the embryo reflects its participation in a morphogenetic field that determines its form holistically, rather than part by part. He hypothesized that alternative systems, called morphogenetic germs, can stimulate a new organizing principle. Systems that harbor a sympathetic but un-manifested resonance with the germ can take on a new code.

Although this theory is still in the exploration stage, we suppose there could be application of the principle being put forth in physical science to a group of individuals desiring transformative change. There is a natural pre-disposition, or field, within such a group towards growth. Connecting within the group at the multi-level of body-mind-spirit offers a more holistic and integrated potential for learning and for change. We believe that the field, in which the group is learning, resonates on all of these levels and exerts a powerful, yet often inaccessible influence on the relationality within the group. We look to facilitating that field, trusting that the potential of heart-mind resonance lies within every individual in the group. Our intention is to cultivate a "field of mutuality"(Gozawa, 2000, p. 121) that is permissive in its receptivity to the revelation of the deeper self and the process of transformation.

Although, as facilitators of transformative learning, we place emphasis on the capacity-development of the individual learners in a learning-situation, we also aim to act as a "germ" in facilitating the field of learning and creating a field of mutuality. By its very nature, this field encourages participants to tap into various modes of knowing and new ways of being with one another. We do not see ourselves constructing this field, but rather engendering it through our own ways of being "with" and being "in" the group. By proposing processes that invite storytelling and spaciousness, encouraging whole person participation and striving to act in interdependent and inclusive ways, we attempt to invite inner conflict and paradox to the conscious level. In all this, we are implying a vital role not only for intra-subjectivity but also for inter-subjectivity in regard to transformative change.


In our praxis, it has become increasingly clear that fostering personal empowerment and transformative change touches important issues of self-esteem. Women in our studies identified feelings of shame and guilt as leading to a diminishment of self worth and recognized this as presenting an obstacle within oneself to pursuing change. They acknowledged a lack of trust in others, founded on previous relationships both in their personal lives and in interactions with professionals in social services. In situations of either economic poverty or domestic violence, a sense of dependency upon others is often created either for safety or for accessing needed services. The vulnerability required, then, to critically reflect upon experience is a risk and cannot be taken or encouraged lightly. Here is an excerpt from a participant's story.

I have great news. I told my boss that I am leaving. I am soooo proud of myself. I DID IT !!!!! I was very nervous, but I told him what I needed. I explained to him that I value my family more than everything (including my job) and this was the best decision for us. I did not give him a chance to talk me out of it this time. It felt sooooo empowering to realize what I want , express it and stand up to it. I was very factual. I feel a lot better that I finally did it and not let someone else make or influence my decision. That is a very good feeling. I haven't felt like that in a while. I want to thank you again for believing in me. The leadership class gave me the skills to make it happen, but you believed in me. My family does not even do that. Please do not underestimate the impact this has on my life.

The transformative learning process is difficult to track and cannot be captured in systematic steps. Wisdom emerges from various sources and in its own time in the body-mind-spirit field. External observation might document two steps forward and three steps backward in both insight and the ability to act on insight. Yet the process is occurring.

The women in our studies consistently confirm that self-understanding is appreciated as a value and is viewed as a sign of mattering to oneself. The experience of making or re-making meaning is powerful and the recognition of deeper change within oneself is personally liberating. Yet, in our experience, it is complex and involves multi-levels of consciousness. A participant comments on the continuance of the learning process.

I am learning so much. I learned that the women in this workshop have true passion just as I do for making social change for women around the world. I got to know Rose better by just sitting on a couch and networking about our different experiences regarding women's issues and indeed in our own lives. I realized that even though on the surface we all are different, we have many things in common that are building the ties that bind.

We see transformative learning in our praxis, therefore, not as an insight or as a primarily logical comprehension, but as an evolving process that demands internal commitment and ongoing support. The participants in our inquiry have coined the term "continuum of empowerment" to describe how they experience their own growth and their personal process of change. The continuum is imaged as an arc superimposed with spirals signifying the movement forward, along with the non-linear patterns of that movement.


An essential component of our Learning to Learn methodology is the principle that deeper transformation is fostered by understanding of oneself and by becoming conscious of and examining the social construction of one's identity. This learning model can be categorized as post-structural (Tisdell, 2000) as it implies a focus on how the social structures of gender, race and class inform individual identity and includes an analysis of these structures while fostering personal change.

Early in our study, participants identified factors that motivated their personal change. We noted that these factors could be conceptually categorized into either primarily internal or primarily external. Examples of primarily internal motivators from the stories of the participants were wanting to matter to oneself, wanting to matter to the world, feeling support and connection, experiencing one's own capabilities and creativity, and desiring to be self-supporting. Examples of primarily external motivators were children's safety, learning from others, going to school, and having a relationship that matters.

The stories also revealed factors that were seen as conflicts or obstacles that hinder empowerment or change. These also, could be viewed as primarily internal or external. Examples of primarily internal blocks were struggle between independence and dependence, guilt about setting boundaries and caring for oneself, trying to meet expectations of others, internalized oppression, and difficulty in dealing with emotions, especially anger. Some primarily external obstacles were: breaking from family and cultural patterns; survival on a minimum wage; double binds of mothering and out-of-home employment; lack of access to human services; other's perceptions of recipients of government assistance.

As we explored the data with the women in a process of uncovering assumptions, we saw how the perceptions of these obstacles could be radically shifted. As an example, we have identified how internalized oppression as a result of systemic patterns of discrimination towards persons on government assistance is an obstacle to making change. When a woman challenged and changed her belief about herself as a woman receiving welfare, realizing that the source of her conflict has as much, if not more, to do with society's attitude than with her own personal inadequacy, she was actually moving the factor from internal toward external. A shift in perception like this can be enlightening and liberating. The shift can be visibly noticed by the others in the group through a woman's change in posture or expression. It is at this moment that a woman knows she indeed can change her reality and choose to engage in the critical reflection that can alter the meaning of an experience. Our participants named this an empowering moment. Tisdell (2000, p. 171) affirms this point: "As learners examine how social systems of privilege and oppression have affected their own identity, including their beliefs and values, their understanding and thus their identity begins to change. They also increase their capacity for agency-the capacity to have more control over their lives."

Our experience also substantiates another perspective, one that is relevant to a contentious point in transformative learning theory, the relationship of the theory to social action and power (Taylor, 1998). In our studies, we found a voiced connection between personal empowerment and concern for the larger issues of social change within the women with whom we worked. They were eager to contribute their experience and ideas towards solutions on larger issues of poverty and domestic violence. They consistently stated not only their desire to contribute to the discussion but sought the means to take action within their immediate circles or in the larger public arena. It has long been an axiom in feminist literature that the personal is political and that women consistently look to the needs of the community as well as their own (Collins, 1991; Gittell, Ortega-Bustamante, & Steffy, 1999; Goldberger et al, 1996; Gottfried, 1996; hooks, 1993). We affirm the connection between personal transformation and social transformation.


As we gather the beginning insights culled from a rich experience with women in transition who are seeking transformative change in their lives, we extract the following as elements of a theory of transformative learning that must inform and form our praxis.

  • Transformative learning is facilitated within the context of relationship.
  • Facilitating transformative learning with women is vitally connected to accessing the other levels of consciousness beyond the cognitive. Multiple forms of knowing must be engaged.
  • Assisting women to access and link to their core values, however they are named, plays a crucial role in the meaning-making process.
  • Accessing experience through organic inquiry's story telling mode provides a rich and powerful method for inquiry and reflection.
  • Contextualizing the learning process is essential as regards both the personal situations of the learners and the broader socio-historical reality. Transformative Learning theory as it is presented in the literature often reflects solely the values and experience of an educated, middle class population and may assume certain conditions or available resources to act on change.
  • Maintaining an awareness of both the potential benefit and the potential cost of long term transformative change for individuals in disenfranchised or marginized sectors of society is essential for facilitators or educators of transformative learning.
  • Striving to maintain a field of mutuality among the group, including the facilitators, is key to preserving the integrity of the process.
  • Experiencing transformative change fosters an awareness of the connectedness of all reality and engenders a sense of care and concern for others and thus, influences social change.

As we continue to delve into this field, questions and wonderings disturb our praxis and theoretical conceptualization of transformative learning. We are grateful for this disturbance as it is a kind of healthy dis-ease that compels us to further reflection and collaboration with both the participants in our projects and our professional colleagues. Our dialogue gratefully extends to both academic faculty and field practitioners. It is with these varied audiences that we want to share our queries and speculations. Thus we are asking:

  • Are we aware of and willing to include the ethical dimensions that arise through transformative learning?
  • How much of our transformative learning theory is based on western epistemology and how does this relate to our work with persons from cultures with a differing epistemology?
  • Is it possible and what does it take to become aware of the subtle ways we impose values on others who have a differing culture and social orientation?
  • If in fact, support is needed to sustain the process of transformative learning and change, how do we address that in our learning environments?
  • Is it possible or wise to engage with persons in transition in transformative change without engaging in the systems that are shepherding them through the transition?
  • If transformative learning is a relational act, how do our educational systems and processes foster that relationality?

We circle back to end where we began. Demetra, introduced at the beginning of this article, is still changing. She has her Associate Degree and is studying for her B.A., has left her minimum wage job to seek a managerial position in a field where she believes she can offer leadership, and has four children succeeding in school and aiming for more. In a recent mentoring recording, she commented about her mothering, "I realize that I am doing a great job raising them as a single mom. The point that I am trying to get across to myself and to others is that when others fail you, continue to believe in yourself and don't give up." Statements like this are a measure of usefulness and worth of a program. Working with women in the community who have had less than adequate opportunity is clearly an important investment. Working for transformative change is a long-term commitment. Working to make social change in a world sorely in need is an educational mission.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 31, 2002
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10881, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 9:15:38 AM

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About the Author
  • Dorothy Ettling
    University of the Incarnate Word
    E-mail Author
    Dorothy Ettling is Associate Professor in the Ph.D. Program at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas and co-director of Interconnections of San Antonio. Her research interests include the process of transformative learning and change in individuals and groups, cross-culture learning, and women’s education in university and community settings. Recent publications include "Morphogenetic fields-A call for radical thinking and being," (2000) with J. Gozawa, "Levels of listening," (1998), and "Organic research: feminine spirituality meets transpersonal research," (1998) with J. Clements, D. Jenett, and L. Shields.
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