By guest blogger Jane Burt. 

A few weeks ago the Changing Practice participants met again for Module 4. We met at the Struwig Eco-Reserve, right alongside the Olifants River. The question guiding this module was “How do we transform?” and what better place to do this work than next to the river that all the participants feel connected to and are working to protect?

We started the module by introducing a way of working with transformation. I introduced the idea that transformation happens at many different levels. I suggested that we view this as a spiral instead of as a straight line, where all these aspects of transformation are happening at the same time and influence each other. I also suggested that we think of transformation as care work. Because transformation can be brutal and violent and lead to negative effects whereas the transformation we are all working towards is a transformation from a place of love and care. In the spiral of caring transformation a big part of our work is caring for ourselves. These are the levels of transformation that we looked at:
caring for ourselves,
caring for each other,
caring for our networks and society and,
caring for nature and the planet.

I used the example of one of the participants experience of the mining charter and how it creates a lot of pain as well as making us feel angry at the injustice of the situation. I asked, how do we work with this both at a personal level, and what is it about society that enables it to happen?


I introduced a series of questions that could be asked as the group collectively explored each moment of transformation. 

What do we know?

What do we want to know?

Who or what do we connect to?

Who or what do we need to connect to?

What do we do?

What do we want to do?

I reminded the group that ‘what we know’ is not only facts or information but the questions we ask ourselves to discover more about our situation. I shared an example of how she would answer these questions if thinking about what she needs personally to transform unhealthy ways of dealing with environmental injustice.



Exploring metaphors of transformation

Following this discussion I asked the participants to sit with one other person and think about what transformation means and to represent this as an image or a metaphor. Then to ask themselves why this image means transformation to them. I shared how I used the image of a caterpillar changing to a butterfly as a symbol of transformation. I explained that I chose a butterfly because it tells us that:
Tranformation doesn’t happen all at once, it happens in stages
When there is transformation things are completely different
It is fragile because the butterfly is fragile and only lives for one day.

Some examples of images or metaphors shared by the group:

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW thumb 3295Transformation is like an apple tree: It symbolizes the tree that bears fruits and connects to us. Starts as a small tree and grows to be bigger and bear fruit and like us we start small, we grow and bear fruits. There are some apples on the soil and they can grow again and create another tree.

Transformation is like a seed (peu / imbewu): For transformation we have to choose which seeds to transform because we can’t transform everything. Then you have to have a place because you can’t transform everywhere; soil must be fertile for the seed to grow. Then make a seed bed to plant that seed for transformation. You must pour water for it to grow beautifully.

Transformation is like a photo-frame: First someone can see it as useless but someone can see it as art. I’ve transformed this first one to a beautiful one, with power. You feel it internally or externally; by heart. You need to plan and strategise before but you might change along the way. Response: world is chaotic and seems random so sometimes hard to see it as transformation or how change is happening. Writing up the case studies is like putting up a frame around one part of the story. To see transformation you need to have ‘framing glasses’ to see one part of the chaos.

Transformation is like an egg which turns into a chicken: All of a sudden the egg had to have an opportunity to hatch. First it is layed, then you need to keep it warm. It take’s it’s time in order for it to hatch. It takes Patience! We are not sure about tomorrow and whether the egg will hatch but we know what kind of a world we are dreaming of.

After going through all the images we came up with a list of qualities of transformation
Growth, fruit, renewal, regrowth
Choose what you want to transform
Need conditions to grow
Takes effort
Takes a planning process
Not always nice, need to sacrifice
Transformation at many levels: of body & soul; reconnection with your spirit; spiritual transformation is primary one and basis for practicing honesty
Need to accept otherwise transformation won’t happen
Hard to see, so takes framing; and re-framing
It’s an art
Trust and protection

A moment when I changed my mind about something

The next step in exploring transformation was to start with our own personal experiences of transformation such as when we had to change our view or when we felt we made a difference. We explored this by telling stories based on our own experiences. Jessica Wilson started this process by asking us to explore a moment when our mind changed or we were able to change someone else’s point of view. What made this possible? Based on these stories we came up with a list of qualities that led to a shift in view
What causes or allows us to change?
How we use information (facts)
Convincing arguments (confidence and knowledge)
Linking knowledge with what I do
Practicing or doing something (makes it easier to change)
Recognition by others and trying new things
Clear understanding of a particular practice
Seeing our work in broader context
When introduced to Climate Change the realisation of our effect on the earth made us want to change.
Feedback from the colleagues after meeting mining companies.
Data visualization as an information tool
Good stories and scenarios
Thinking about family/ children and future generation

A time when I made a difference

The next step in this process was asking the question ‘how I made a difference?’ Taryn Pereira led this process and asked us to again tell stories to each other of when the Change projects had made a difference. Out of these stories we identified the qualities that we draw on as activists to make a difference in communities.

Going the extra mile to understand the situation very well: For example, Eustine from SEJN explained how she could not understand why her community did not have access to water. She kept asking and asking until she met a man who pumped water into the reservoir for the communities. From him she learned that the reservoir is not big enough to contain water for all sections of the community so he can only give water to one section at a time. He works five days a week pumping water because there is no one else to do it and he doesn’t get paid a salary for this even though he is working for the municipality. He does it anyway as he doesn’t want people to be without water. Going the extra mile helped the activist understand the challenges of the situation which she could then share with her community.

Have alternatives and/or a plan when negotiating with the municipality or other stakeholder: For example, December approached the municipality with ideas based on Asset-based community development. It was a problem they had been trying to deal with for two years with no success. Eventually one municipal official admitted that they had no resources to fix the problem. This is when the activist group came up with their own suggestion of how to practically fix the problem. The municipal staff assisted the group with where they should dig and how they could reconnect the water. The municipality responded well to the well thought through ideas. Although the situation has not been resolved, as in the municipality still does not have the budget to fix leaks, the relationship with municipal staff is a lot better because activists approached them with ideas for potential solutions rather than just problems.
Trusting in the possibility of a positive relationship. Based on the example above participants commented how there was already trust that a positive relationship was possible even though there are many examples of this not being the case. There is something intangible about approaching people or organisations with trust that can shift a relationship.

Quality of innovation: Participants also pointed out that the example of activists negotiating with the municipality to fix the leak shows a quality of innovation.
Slowly building relationships builds trust which brings solidarity and change. For Action Voices conducted interviews from door to door and found that the community members they spoke to were suspicious as they thought this was about elections and the activist group wanted to bribe them. “But we kept on as our aim was for them to see our work in a broader context.” The activist group also started working on another strategy: they met with the councillor and started developing a relationship of trust with her. The councillor started to come to their meetings with the community which, the group explains, “is rare as they only come at election time with food parcels so we were part of the community and they started to trust us because we were bringing the councillor to the community.” The councillors participation in the meetings led to some tangible changes. Contractors came in and started cleaning the wetland. The community thought that we had organised the contractors but we had not. It was done through the councillor coming to their meetings. “They thought it was us but it is actually them. We just showed them that they do have the power to insist for change. For us it was a victory because these things will continue even when we are not there. In a community you don’t expect a big change. If it is a small change they start to hope.”

Setting an example through our actions: Other participants commented on how this story also demonstrates how setting an example with our own actions brings about trust. Action Voices were not trying to manipulate the community and although there was suspicion in the beginning through their actions they were able to build trust.

Building and navigating difficult relationships: This example also shows the skill it takes to build and navigate difficult relationships and how this takes a spirit of perseverance and determination.

Humility: was also identified as a quality that is demonstrated in Action Voices story as they were not there to manipulate the community for votes nor did they take credit for the actions that did happen due to their intervention. They saw this as the community finding their own power. They gave acknowledgement to others power and agency.

Love for our people: CULISA’s Elvis commented how all these qualities are in all the stories that were told and what comes through is that there is a love for our people, that there is a deep care for them. He explained how in Khulumani’s case, Caroline saved a whole group of people that did not know they could access money and were due money through compensation for apartheid activity. The authorities were given a huge sum of money which they were not distributing. Caroline made sure the money got to the right people who had lost their homes or died.

Resilience: Another quality wich Khulumani’s story raises is resilience. Caroline was pushed by the need of people to have more resources to survive.
Integrity. A further quality of Khulumani’s story is integrity. Caroline did not give up until the money got to the right people.

Positive change: Through telling these stories the participants realised that in each story a positive change had been realised. It became apparent how important it is to tell these positive stories so that we don’t drown in how big the problem is but remember that our actions are bringing about positive changes even within a few months of doing the change projects.

Responding to a calling: Thelma from Mpumalanga Water Caucus expressed how there is something strange about activists. They respond to a calling and they will sacrifice for this calling. She referred to how many activists get offered jobs or bribes that would ease their lives but they don’t take them.
Bravery: Nthabiseng from CULISA added to Thelma’s quality by saying this takes bravery because you are often at risk.

Willing to try something new: Stella commented on how this was a quality that she saw throughout all the stories especially Nthabiseng’s story where she had not done interviews before and yet she reached out to high officials and was willing to try something new.

Timing: What comes through all the stories is also an ability to read the context and political environment and get the timing right of when to speak to someone and bring them on board.

Continually building knowledge for ‘the right time’: Taryn commented that a lot of the unseen work is continually building your knowledge just as the activists are doing so that when the right time comes there is a strong argument and even suggestions of how to move forward.

Cleverness vs intelligence

As I write up the Module 4 report for AWARD I am struck by how important it is to tell stories of change both in terms of what changes us and how we change our world. The qualities of change or transformation identified by the participants based on their direct experience are extremely powerful and reflect a deep sense of connectedness to the rhythm’s and movements of choice agency. This deep intelligence makes me think of a plea from David Orr, an environmental educator who contemplated whether our education systems were making us more clever or more intelligent. Cleverness, he argued is not necessarily a good thing as it seems to have led to a disconnect with nature and other living beings. He asks the question, “Could it be that the integrity, stability and beauty of nature is the wellspring of human intelligence? Could it be that the conquest of nature, however clever, is in fact a war against the source of mind? Could it be that the systematic homogenization of nature inherent in contemporary technology and economics is undermining human intelligence?” (Orr, D, 1994, 51). He goes on to argue that we should not equate intelligence with a PhD, rather we should equate intelligence with those who work with and apply an ecological intelligence with courage and creativity like social activists. It is those that learn in this way that should be mentors and role models. After facilitating the Changing Practice module 4 I completely agree with David Orr. The intelligence displayed by the Changing practice participants as they navigate the most complex and most destructive forces of human cleverness leaves me breathless with awe and respect. That they do this with care, love, humility and creative compassion even when dealing with deep personal suffering leaves me in tears of gratitude that there are such loving beings in the world. They are my heroes and my guides as I learn to be an intelligent human being.