By Julia Guest
Has this ever happened to you?
As you sip your morning coffee, you read once again about the catastrophic consequences of global warming, cringing at the thought of its brutal effects on generations to come. You hope that someone or something will change, and soon. Then you take the last sip of your coffee and move on with your day. What can you do?
You’re not alone, and this is where Transformative Action comes into play.
Transformative Action, a class teaching a new philosophy of social activism, is sweeping the nation. The founders of the Transformative Action Institute, Scott Sherman and Randy Parazz, coined the term and have taught courses based on its principles at UC Berkeley, New York University, Princeton and Yale. Last fall marked the establishment of the first Transformative Action Center at UC Santa Cruz, part of a new project to develop these groups at universities all over the United States.
The principles of Transformative Action stem from the philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and other figures who advocated nonviolence and worked for social justice. The course focuses on redefining power in situations of conflict in a way that recognizes the inherent power within all conflicting parties. For Sherman, fighting for social change means breaking away from the “us versus them” mentality, which only creates anger and enemies.
Shan Gupta, a fourth-year community studies major at UCSC, spearheaded Kresge College’s Transformative Action course. “Transformative Action says we are not powerless,” Gupta said. “People already have the power to create their lives. And how do you win? You’ll win if you transform power, uplift everyone, and make a win-win situation. It’s not about compromising your beliefs or goals. It’s about finding a goal that is going to uplift everyone to achieve their own goals.”
Sherman taught a transformative action course at UCLA, which Gupta took during a summer session. “That class changed my life, and when I came back to Santa Cruz, I had a new understanding of social change,” he said.
Some class projects involve beach clean-up, community garden projects and homeless shelters. Ellen Garfield, a second-year community studies major in the class, sees her peers working on a homeless garden project, which brings together people from the community and teaches them about organic, sustainable farming, while providing job training for homeless men and women.
A group of 30 students are even working on a project to make transformative action a campus-wide general education requirement.
According to Sherman, the class is particularly important for college students. Its emphasis on untraditional methods of action makes it unique, he said.
“If you look at the history of social change, especially in the 20th century, so many of the people who changed the world, led civil rights movements were college students,” Sherman said. “Students are at the time in their lives when they’re most passionate and enthusiastic. They really do have the power to change the world.”
Sherman observed that most of his classes at UC Berkeley successfully analyzed social problems, but rarely addressed the positive solutions. Similarly, students he taught at Ivy League colleges were more cynical about solutions to world issues as well. Teaching at UCSC, however, Sherman is pleased to see such optimism and confidence in the students he teaches, he said.
Jonathan Reimer, a second-year student taking the class, also observes a stronger social activism spirit on the campus.
“A lot of people at Santa Cruz are already interested in social action and redefining the world,” he said. “There is a lot more potential and willingness among kids here than at other schools.”
UCSC students may very well be the next top leaders of social movement organizations, as the Transformative Action Institute plans to place hundreds of undergraduate seniors into business, government and nonprofit organization positions. The institute recently began the project Transform America, to train 1,000 students from universities throughout the nation in the most successful strategies of social innovation.
In the transformative action course at UCSC, each student creates a blueprint that maps detailed, visionary ideas for solving a social problem. These types of blueprints are advantageous guidelines because they plan to help students achieve their goals in the working world. While students document their goals for social innovation and learn the methods of Transformative Action, the institute makes partnerships with non-profit organizations and businesses working for social change, so that students may find themselves working at these places in the future.
With the goal to establish transformative action centers at universities throughout the United States, each class is filmed for a documentary that will be shown at student training seminars next summer. Gupta said the documentaries will serve as a model of inspiration for top student leaders from universities within a 250-mile radius to establish centers at their own colleges.
Students in the course support each other in their personal social change endeavors through Transformation Teams. Lectures take place on Tuesdays with Professor Sherman, who flies up from UCLA every week to teach the class, and on Thursdays students meet with their teams to discuss their social projects.
The teams offer a sense of community in the 220-person class and simultaneously relate to the ideals of transformative action, according to Sherman.
“We can’t do it alone. It can feel so isolating or lonely when people are made to feel strange for pursuing altruistic goals that don’t make a lot of money,” Sherman said.
Garfield, who is also a Transformative Action Team facilitator, extols the idea of Transformation Teams, and feels a strong sense of community that she rarely feels on campus.
“We break away from our individualistic society when we work together to reach a common goal,” she said. “We also get a lot more done when working with people we respect and who support us.”
One of Garfield’s goals for the class is to create a carpooling service on campus. She is grateful to have a team to help her with that project.
Although the class attracts many community studies majors, the course is designed for students of any majors.
“Students often come to the university and don’t know what they want,” Gupta said. “This class focuses on social change, but it’s also about your life and personal transformation: ‘How can you be more happy and peaceful?’”
Sherman emphasizes the need to find optimistic and creative solutions to the problems the world faces and does so through his teaching of positive psychology, an emerging science that focuses on the promising characteristics of humans. As a social activist during his college days at UC Berkeley, Sherman watched friends drop out of activism because they were too overwhelmed, exhausted and angry. He wondered what would make the approach to social justice more effective.
“Since the time of Freud, people have looked at what goes wrong with human beings. Positive psychology looks at what goes right with human beings,” Sherman said. “Instead of focusing on deficits and human weaknesses, we should focus on how humans achieve their peak potentials — whether it’s being more altruistic or compassionate.”
Garfield recognizes the personal effect this positive social change thinking has had in her daily relationships.
“A lot of the literature we’ve been given in class about Positive psychology has really taught me how you waste a lot of your being angry about things, about the group you’re trying to change. There are positive solutions and ways of working things out through dialogue. Certain situations I have been in with friends, teachers and co-workers would have gone a lot better for me if I had put them in a different light.”
The philosophies and visions of Kresge College connect almost inimitably with the concepts of transformative action. Juan Poblete, co-provost of Kresge College, met Gupta last spring and discussed the possibility for the course’s addition to Kresge’s academics.
“We have a tradition of people who are working inside and outside the UCSC community with community organizations and that is fundamental to us,” Poblete said. “This class is one of the few places non-confrontational leadership is taught.”
Poblete said that with a good word from William Ladusaw, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, the process implementing the course ran smoothly in a short amount of time. The class took only two months to be approved, though the process often takes two years, Gupta said.
Poblete predicts great success for the class.
“My hope is that the 220 students taking the class will act as activators for student campus initiatives,” Poblete said. “While this sounds ominous, Transformative action gives activism a better reputation or a means in which you can actually accomplish things through engaging in dialogue. We hope to build a partnership with the course and will definitely fund this class next year if student evaluations make the course look as successful as it seems to be.”
Tiffany Symmes, teaching assistant and organizational developer for the course, foresees a new kind of action and unity spurred by students from the course’s principles.
“My vision is to have a university based on intrinsic motivation,” she said. “I want to see all student organizations come together and put their will into good action. I want us to uplift the administration, faculty, and staff.”
Students learn the tools to carry out their personal goals through nonviolent communication. One-on-one verbal strategies in difficult situations are fundamental to the nonviolent approach to social movement among the transformative action principles. Christine King, a certified trainer for nonviolent communication who works for the global nonprofit non-violent communication (NVC) organization, gave an interactive presentation about social interaction.
“There are simple ways you can respond to someone when there is conflict. You can work with someone without getting defensive,” King said. “Acknowledge there might be truth to what the other said and inquire why that person feels that way. This helps you get grounded, focused and present.”
King also explained that Transformative Action represents a move in the opposite direction from a growing trend in modern society.
“The times we’re living in with this homeland security, this cloud of fear they try to push on us makes it harder for us to step out,” King said. “I think a class like transformative action is a wonderful shift in the other direction.”
Transformative action students will host the event “Talk and Concert” March 13 from 7 p.m. to 10 at the Kresge Town Hall. There will be a Q&A session with Dr. Scott Sherman and a chance to see the work students created in the class. Sourgrass, a renowned Santa Cruz band, will close the evening with a performance.