Two Creighton Students, Christine Bolas and Claire Bowens, share their experiences of receiving invitations at the Ignatian Family Teach-In For Justice 2011. They both share how they received, and acted upon, invitations to take their service experiences to a deeper level.
Praxis Spiral Archive
By Carissa Smith
This past year has been a whirlwind of experiences for me. Last fall semester I got my feet wet in advocacy working with the CCSJ Advocacy team and being President of our NAACP chapter. Then I left my post at Creighton to answer my call to go to the Dominican Republic for the semester. After spending a semester away from home I decided to go away again and accept an internship in Washington DC with the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach for the summer (an opportunity that I got through the CCSJ). Through these various experiences I’ve come to really learn the importance of the praxis spiral especially when it comes to advocacy work.
When I left for the Dominican Republic I was more uncertain about my convictions and about my worldview than I ever had been at that point in my life. I realized that a liberal education really meant walking on jello because whatever I stood on was no longer solid and was subject to change the next day depending on what new discovery I had in class. The only thing I was firm about was the fact that the world was a messed up place. I was very aware of many of the problems of the world and felt pretty convinced that we all had a responsibility in fixing it in whatever capacity we are able. However, my goal that semester was to challenge myself on the very fundamentals that underlie those principles and even the study of the social problems and their solutions of which I became aware. And that’s exactly what happened! That semester the more I learned and the more I saw the more I realized that I didn’t really know anything at all. As I worked to challenge myself I was also much challenged by my peers, my teachers and by all the people of the Dominican Republic that I encountered. What I took away the most from my experience in the DR was that extremists and fundamentalists are one of the world’s enslavers and biggest fallacies, thus embracing an attitude of balance, openness and understanding is the way to truly love one’s neighbors and enemies.
After spending about two weeks at home with my family and friends I was swept away again to head to Washington, DC where I began my advocacy internship with the Columbans. This time I went with the only firm conviction that I didn’t know much of anything. I remember the first congressional hearing that I attended (titled The US’s role in the World Bank and Multilateral Development Banks) I was astounded with the internalization of my surroundings. I just spent the last couple of months in places with people who are forgotten, or simply ignored, and at that moment I was in a room full of people in the place where the forgetting happens. The experiences and insights that I gained through my internship are immeasurable and something that I’m still trying to process. I know that I have garnered a better sense of compassion and desire to understand those with a different viewpoint than my own. I came to realize that the world is a lot more gray than black and white and that the gray area was as wide and deep as the ocean. More than anything else I have undoubtedly gained a more humbling desire to know and understand the world with the profundity of conviction which requires me to dive into the uncomfortable and overwhelming depths of the ocean. Scary!
In my journey in advocacy work this process has simply come with the territory and I can either sink or swim. I am already in the ocean surrounded by the good and the bad of the world and the opposing currents of thought and action that either work for or against it’s harmony. I have learned that our responsibility to change social structures to change lives requires a questioning heart and mind with a deep understanding and awareness of the numerous currents that push and pull to shape the world that we know as well as one’s place in it. In other words, to ask oneself, “am I swimming for or against the currents of harmony!?” However, it must be accompanied with the intuition that the risk of not doing anything is worse than the fear of being wrong. In order to be promoters and workers of justice it is essential to first have an experience that is followed by a reflection with a multitude of questions (and a critical eye of oneself and others). Then we are able to act again and create more experiences in a more genuine and just manner that will be followed by more reflection and action. Advocacy doesn’t mean that you have the answer of how to fix the world just that you have the courage to act on the conviction that you can’t stand idly to watch it destroy itself. Although it is difficult to know exactly which current I am swimming (as only time will tell) I choose to swim rather than drown in my inaction.
The spiral is no ordinary loop. It is none other than the Praxis Spiral, a representation of “reflection in action.” It is one way of living the “examined life” that Socrates spoke of when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The people around the Spiral are a representation of both our togetherness as a national and global community and the fact that we are social creatures who need each other’s care and love to sustain us. In the tradition of Catholic social thought, we are always “individuals in community.” For a more detailed explanation of the Praxis Spiral, just keep reading.
The Praxis Spiral (adapted from the Spring Break Service Trip reflection manual)
At its most basic, the praxis spiral is about having an experience and reflecting on that experience. The reflection leads one to action-another experience-which leads to more reflection. And so on around the spiral, deepening with each rotation. Experience/Action and reflection are part of the same process, one informing the other.
Experience/Action leads to Reflection, which directs further Action, followed by Reflection…
Another way to think about this process is by asking What? So What? Now What? The “what” is the experience. What did I experience today, both from the outside and from the inside? What did I see? Hear? Smell? Taste? Touch? What did I Feel? The “so what” is the reflection. So what that I had this experience? So what that I felt this way? What does it all mean? How can I integrate the experience into the rest of my life? How will the experience change me? The “now what” leads us back to action. Now what do I do as a result of having this experience and reflecting on it? What small thing can I do? How can I think differently? Is there something larger I can begin to do? Are there others that can help me in my efforts? This “now what” brings us back to another experience, and the spiral continues:
What? So What? Now What?
Next we can enhance the two previous versions of the praxis spiral. This expanded version of the praxis spiral describes what is already going on as well as offers us some suggestions about how to do reflection well. Here is the short version: The various stages of the spiral are not necessarily in sequential order. The order is generally correct, but any stage may be introduced or returned to at any point. Because we recognize that our lives are a group experience, we begin by “bonding with the community of people in our lives.” This is an on-going process, but we need to establish a safe environment around ourselves where people feel open but never forced to share or unjustly excluded. Next we “stay with the experience.” We use techniques such as the examen and journaling to stay with the “what.” What did I experience both from the outside and what did I feel on the inside? The next stage is “social analysis.” This stage begins stretching the “what” to ask “so what?” Social analysis is about looking at structures and systems to ask why things are the way they are. Social analysis asks questions of social justice: who has the power? Who makes decisions? Who will benefit? Who will be affected? The next stages go together. The “heart of the matter” and “theological reflection” continue to stretch the “what” by asking “so what?” But this time we are discerning key experiences (the heart of the matter) and placing these experiences in dialogue with where we make meaning, especially religious traditions. This process of making meaning leads us to ask “now what?” This is where we commit to some kind of action-however small or large. What will I/we do concretely? How has my vision of what the world changed through looking more deeply? How do I think or act differently to make this world a better and more just place? This action leads to another experience, which leads to more social analysis, and the spiral continues to deepen.
Bonding with People–>Sharing Life Experiences–>Social Analysis–>The Heart of the Matter–>Theological Reflection–>Action and Vision–>And the circle begins again…