(Slow) Change is Good: On The Activist as Teacher & Community Transformation

(Slow) Change is Good: On The Activist as Teacher & Community Transformation

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Part of the Complexity Series. Written by Ph.D. student, social worker, and graduate teaching assistant Melanie Monteclaro Pace for StyleWise.

In November 2018, I wrote a passionate social media post in response to a news article on young conservative women at my alma mater. This piece detailed my own slow personal and political transformation through what we might call “redemptive” dialogue.

When I entered UNC Chapel Hill in August 2003, I was socially and politically conservative and identified as strongly pro-life. I put my actions behind my beliefs by applying to go to that year’s Feminists for Life Conference in DC (we were snowed out), participating in at least one pro-life demonstration on campus, serving as the president of the abstinence education club (2004 - 2005), and volunteering at the local crisis pregnancy center for three years.

However, my political beliefs - and actions - have shifted over time. As of this writing, I am pro-choice with a strong interest in the critiques of the reproductive justice movement, which recognizes that marginalized people (particularly women of color) have a right not only to bodily autonomy but to the ability to parent the children they do have in “safe and sustainable communities” (Sister Song, 2019). I put my actions behind my beliefs by organizing with my peers and professors at the University of Virginia to increase equitable access and support for graduate student parents (we’re currently working on issues related to funding, maternity leave, and lactation support). I also donate monthly to three reproductive health access organizations: Blue Ridge Abortion Fund (local to me), Carolina Abortion Fund (home state), and Pro-Choice South Bend (in support of a friend).

How did my shift from pro-life to pro-choice happen? As you might guess, this shift wasn’t a lightly considered one. It came from actually volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center for many years; from reading and conversing passionately, broadly, and respectfully with other people - friends, peers, and professors - who disagreed with me; from hearing the human stories of people, including friends, who had chosen to terminate their pregnancies and why; and learning about the history – the hard-fought history – of abortion rights in the US.

I highly recommend Susan Wickland’s This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor(2007), which I read shortly after I graduated from college.

But what’s key for the post I’m writing right now – that I want to highlight – is that relationships and conversation were so important to my formation as a young adult.

Ultimately, the interactions I had with friends, peers, and professors who thought differently than me challenged my assumptions while honoring my personhood. They held space open for me to grapple, not primarily with them, but with my own beliefs and values in light of our shared experiences.

In the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot - not only about the transformations of my own young adulthood, but also about my role in cultivating the conditions of possibility for the young adults in my life right now - especially for the 18 to 22 year-olds in my classroom each week.

So I’m going to take the opportunity to reflect on what I like to think of as “slow change,” or “the teaching relationship,” as a site for transformative possibilities.

I think the model of the “teaching relationship” can be helpful in multiple contexts where dialogue that opens up transformational possibility may be desired and needed.

(However, the “teaching relationship” model is not appropriate for every context. See the closing section on “Some Limitations” for a discussion of when to look for a different approach.)

Although I’ll reflect on specific examples from my work in the classroom, these are ideas I’ve developed across a variety of relationships and contexts: from my half-decade in evangelical campus ministry, to my work with LGBTQ youth, to my roles as internship supervisor and mentor in the nonprofit world - not to mention my own friendships and other community relationships, particularly those that cross political lines.

The Teaching Relationship as Transformative Tool

It was a warm spring day in 2005, and my professor, Peter Kaufman, was treating five or six of us to coffee after our three-hour Friday afternoon seminar on the history of Christian traditions. Somehow, we ended up talking about abortion. I don’t remember the details of the conversation. But I remember how important to me it felt, as a young evangelical who volunteered weekly as a receptionist - answering phones and greeting clients - at the local crisis pregnancy center. 

At one point, Kaufman fixed me with a clear, direct gaze, and said: “I think there might be more to think about.” He supported a woman’s right to choose; and, at that point, I didn’t. Yet I liked and trusted him, one of my favorite professors. I’d go on to take two more classes with him over the next two years: an independent study on Christian community, and a service-learning class with undocumented high schoolers. And I thought about our conversations, a lot.

The relationship between teacher and student is a powerful pedagogical tool, but one of the least talked about - perhaps because it’s difficult to quantify.

Likewise, a relationship of respect, care, and mutual obligation can make all the difference in the world when - in other contexts - we’re discussing political and religious questions from perspectives that may feel worlds apart. (Think abortion, health care, immigration, sexuality, gender - fill in the blank with your difficult conversation here.)

When we have the capacity to approach those who think differently than us as “teachers,” possibilities open up. I think of the “teaching relationship” as a site with transformative potential in which people encounter one another as human beings engaged in ethical reasoning - one often facilitated by the classroom, but by no means bounded by it.

My own approach to teaching - in the classroom and outside of it - is strongly influenced by Carl Rogers’ person-centered theory of counseling. In On Becoming a Person (1961) Rogers argued that growth is made possible through the counseling relationship when people encounter empathy and unconditional positive regard, and that counseling technique is less important to growth than interpersonal authenticity.

I would take this a step further and argue that opening up transformative possibilities requires three very important things of the “teacher:” A grounded sense of self, healthy emotional boundaries, and a slow theory of change. 

A Grounded Sense of Self

In any encounter that you’ve decided to approach as “teacher,” you must have a grounded sense of self. In my own classroom and organizing work, I’ve found it helps me to focus on teaching as a role. It’s not my whole identity - in fact, things can get all too problematic when you’re overidentified with anything, particularly your paid work or activism - and it’s a role I’m continually growing into. But it is a role nonetheless.

Being grounded in my sense of self allows me to offer my “students” empathy, unconditional positive regard, and authenticity - forms of skilled emotional labor - while maintaining a distinction between the “professional” (whatever role I’ve currently stepped into) and the personal.

This is particularly important in dealing with challenging situations - in the college classroom, and in difficult conversations more generally. When I have a grounded sense of self, I can more critically evaluate what’s happening when things aren’t going as expected - because I can step back and not take it personally. (I think transference happens in teaching relationships, too.)

I always remember this bit of flight attendant wisdom: “Secure your own oxygen mask first.”

Or, in the words of Audre Lorde in A Burst of Light (1988): 

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

So I do my best to eat, sleep, and play, as well as “teach.” I see my therapist regularly. I seek out the community of like-minded friends and peers - safe spaces where I can laugh, cry, and vent, not as a “teacher,” but as a human being. 

And then I step back into my role(s) as “teacher” and do the work of opening space for transformative possibilities once again.

Healthy Emotional Boundaries

Charisma, emotion, affection, passion. These are pedagogical tools we don’t often talk about - maybe because we’re a little afraid to. But we need to acknowledge their role in teaching relationships - in order to appropriately harness their power, as well as to protect ourselves and our “students” (both literal and figurative).

In the classroom, caring about your students can prompt them to care more about your subject. Studies have shown that when teachers express positive emotions like respect and caring towards their students, students are more likely to be motivated in class and feel more positive about the material (Wanzer and McCroskey, 1998Teven, 2007).

Teaching is relational. So is social, political, and spiritual change. If your “students” like and trust you, the space for transformational possibility opens up a little wider.

Yet passionately caring about your subject - as many teachers do - and caring about your students is a heady combination. I think many of us in academia can remember “falling in love” with the area of study that’s become our expertise - a moment with a fondly-remembered teacher somewhere in the background. 

And those of us who have participated in community organizing - as organizers and as the “organized” - know that, nine times out of ten, people show up because of other people, and not primarily because of their political beliefs.

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This is why relational power comes with responsibility. In my experience - as a student, former campus ministry intern, social worker, and teacher - young adults are both empowered and vulnerable. They’re longing for connection, meaning, and purpose. They’re brimming with potential. Professors, TAs, and other mentors to college-aged students and young adults are often some of the first people in their lives to recognize them as individuals - not someone else’s child or sibling - with thoughts and emotions that matter. They’re gifted, driven - and inexperienced. Many are seeking transformation, whether they know it or not. And so they are more vulnerable than they will ever be to charisma and compelling narratives that offer to help them make sense of themselves and the world.

Don’t take advantage of that. Don’t claim what’s not yours. Honor the “student” as Other, protect against abuses, and give them the gift, not only of knowledge and critical thinking, but of being the “predictable adult” many of us wish we’d encountered much earlier in life.

On a lighter note - I occasionally joke that everyone has their head up their ass until the age of twenty-five. (Perhaps, in ten years, I’ll raise the age to thirty-five!) More seriously, I think it’s important to take into account that young adults are exactly that - young.

There was a reason some early Christians urged converts to delay baptism. Don’t make vows until you understand the vow you’re making - in light of all the other vows you could possibly take. (We have a lot to learn from the lost diversity of early Christianity - but I’ll have to save that for another blog post.) It’s hard to be young, and that merits some compassion. 

And, when we can, we should consider life experience factors in addition to age that may be impacting the perspectives of those we might hope to persuade.

A Slow Theory of Change

There are times to shut a person out for toxic beliefs and political stances…but the million-dollar question is, of course: 

Who? And when?

My own story is a testimony of how change doesn’t happen overnight. At least, not usually.

Once again, I’d argue that this is because change is relational - and good relationships take time. This is the basis for my plea to fellow “teachers” and organizers: Don’t write off those who could learn from you just because they’re not there yet. I’m a committed political progressive - more left than center - today because of the folks who didn’t write me off. (And even my radical friends - y’all know who you are - haven’t all written me off yet. Let’s keep talking and finding places for solidarity, y’all.)

But more important to me than the political location or labels I currently hold is this: My conviction that I’ve learned to love people and my community BETTER than I did when I was nineteen. 

Because the goal isn’t to be right. It’s to do right.

“For the kingdom of God is like this - a man scatters seed on the ground…” (Mark 4:26). The process is slow, but every step is important.

This is why I think of “teaching relationships” as one site for transformational possibility. It’s the ground cleared of weeds, watered and tended with care. But the miracle of the bloom resides within the seed.

Important Limitations

The “teaching relationship” model is not appropriate for every context. Below, I identify some common situations in which it may be best to look for a different paradigm for change.

Families, Communal Living, & Activist Relationships

It’s easiest to cultivate a “teaching relationship” in the context of clear boundaries. Things can get messy in families, communal living situations, and activist relationships. In these relationships, emotional boundaries are more porous and fluid, and they are often additionally fraught (stakes are/feel higher).

So, if you’re wanting to pursue transformative dialogue as a “teacher” in one of these contexts, and you happen to be struggling - it may be that this is not be the model you need. Take a step back and confer with trusted allies about other options.

Abusive Relationships

It is never your responsibility to educate someone who has abused you, especially if there is a live power dynamic in the abuser’s favor. Reach out to supportive people so you aren’t navigating the situation alone, evaluate your own safety and mental health needs, and consider what harm reduction approaches might be available to you.

Direct Action & Political Confrontation

I haven’t fully developed my thoughts on how the “teaching” or “slow change” model relates to the critical and often time-sensitive work of direct action and political confrontation. Perhaps teaching relationships can be understood as part of the process by which we form individuals capable of sustained, strong, and savvy immediate action in solidarity with marginalized communities. 

Perhaps acute political and social crises can serve as a catalyst for more rapid personal transformation. It seems like these can and should work together. I would welcome more thoughts on this from folks more experienced in direct action and political organizing.

Final Thoughts

I was deeply moved by the heartfelt reactions to my original piece, my own great cloud of witnesses who have walked with me and encourage me in the journey of reciprocating what I have been given.

A “teaching” approach can open up space for transformative possibilities. However, “teachers” must have a grounded sense of self, healthy emotional boundaries, and a slow theory of change in order to create and hold such spaces. And a teaching approach is not appropriate for every context (particularly situations with blurry boundaries and abusive relationships).

I have a sense that we can’t end with the teaching relationship - but for many people, including myself, we often might begin there. 

Tl;dr? Go back and READ IT!

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