Transformative community conferencing is an approach to community building or reconciliation. As a narrative practice, it embodies a more reflective orientation to relationships and to systems change. How and when we ask questions helps us think differently. It helps to begin to ask questions such as:
“What is the narrative here? What is the story you are telling in relation to that narrative?”
Community conferencing enables people to engage and to flourish. When you look at events as stories you can always unpack them to make the narrative more visible to support flourishing for all.
Season 5 is a Collaboration with the Taos Institute
This season of the Positivity Strategist podcast is a collaboration with the Taos Institute. We’re focusing on the topic of Constructionist Practices as Social Innovation. My guests in this season are Taos Institute Associates who’ve contributed to The Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice. [Links are below.]
Author Bio and Chapter Title
David Hooker, Ph.D. has such a diversity in his professional portfolio, from law to divinity with much in between. He is also quite the thespian, as an understudy in community theater, he also loves to dance. When asked to expand on these talents, David offers that when we perform and dance, we make a community. When we share steps and ways of moving, we fit in with others. That seems to be a fitting metaphor for David and his work as a community developer, peace builder, and teacher.
David is associate professor of the Practice of Conflict Transformation and Peace Building at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. His focus is unveiling the levels of narrative that both shape and heal conflict and trauma, and that also contribute to societal change. He has been doing this work in multiple environments: local, state, and national governments, international NGOs, and communities on three continents – in the United States, Africa, and Europe. This work is transformative community conferencing.
Chapter Title: Transformative Community Conferencing – A Constructionist Approach to a More Hopeful Future
We Are All Storied
It is the unpacking of personal stories and insights that gave David awareness and opened the path for the transformative community conferencing approach that he works with. David’s personal story of growing up in Cincinnati and spending his summer in South Georgia, where his parents were from, informs his narrative. The idea of what was possible for a young black child in Cincinnati and in deep South Georgia were distinctly different. With that experience David started realizing that stories of possibilities are projected on us based on assumptions about our identity. Later, after visiting South Africa, where David experienced a more global perspective on race, identity, and politics, it became clear this issue plays a role on a national policy level.
David talks about identity and processes that inform our personal and collective stories. His own experience, especially in areas of race, showed him that race to a great extent is a political construct. Being black in the U.S. is different from being black in different African countries. The identity that is assigned to a person is filled with processes related to history, relationships, structures, and systems. And sometimes, that identity assigned to you can stop you from flourishing. Understanding the formation, processing, and repositioning of such identity can begin to re-create a trajectory for full flourishing. David’s inquiry continues to be:
How can we create context in which individuals and families can fully flourish?
Dominant Narrative In Mental Health
Starting out in the mental health field, it became clearer and clearer that conventional psychology assigns diagnoses that patients usually start accepting and reinforcing even if they do not serve them. The dominant narrative in mental health is that once a diagnosis is given, many patients relate to that as an essential part of themselves. When you embrace this way of being that somebody else has identified, it becomes a constraint central to one’s sense of self and one’s life. What shocked David is that pathologizing intensified the constructed narrative of deficiency rather than identifying what might be desired alternatives. The dominant narrative was ineffective in liberating people from that deficient view of themselves.
There was the possibility to help patients identify and accommodate their own diagnosis and begin to question the whole system that was created around them. This became David’s focus throughout his studies and the creation of the transformative community conferencing approach.
The people aren’t the problem. The problem is the problem!
To quote from David’s chapter in the Handbook:
By asserting that the problem exists in the narrative rather than as an essential aspect of a person or group, narrative practices open the space of possibility for transformation through a re-authoring of personal and community narratives.
David shifted to study mediation and public health. He began practicing mental health in the context of public health with the intention to create services that people could get access to without being tied to a pathology. It required looking into financial models of traditional health care services and how professionals needed to treat their clients in order to comply with the system. David wanted to work outside of that model.
Embracing Narrative Practices
A first step toward integrating broader narrative practices into his work was to deepen his understanding and practices of narrative mediation. That happened while writing his book Transforming Historical Harms. He recognized he was writing stories and these stories had the power of transformation. What started as an intuition about the power of such stories became the impetus to learn more about where narrative fits in story.
David loves the power and the possibilities that live inside narrative practices. He values that he has always been aligned with people committed to broad system reform. In every sphere of human ecology there are narratives that make sense of the system. With such an insight we can appreciate that it is narrative work that we need to be doing to make social change. Structures can never be changed without understanding the narratives behind them.
Transformative Community Conferencing
Transformative community conferencing borrows from and builds on the Appreciative Inquiry methodology and various dialogic processes. It also encompasses the values and intentions of restorative justice along with personal and collective narrative mediation. Practicing the ideas of social construction, transformative community conferencing offers an innovative process for structuring community conversations that shape the participants’ lived experience of community.
In his PhD studies, David integrated his love of theater. He brought in theater as a way to think about equality. Questions such as How do we “perform” equality? How do we embody that? kept resurfacing. Together with his theater community, David explored the possibility of “performing equality” by using narrative as his basic framework. With this approach this group co-created an entire new community context. Play and performance were the means to unpack the underlying narratives and bring light to a much deeper understanding.
Different contexts bring different outcomes
The practice of transformative community conferencing begins by identifying and inviting members of the different sectors in the community to come together. In dialogue, when naming their experiences and telling their stories, it can be revelatory when community members start seeing themselves and each other in new ways. This narrative practice develops empathy and appreciation and also realization that they have a joint responsibility and a joint opportunity together as a community. Moreover, the community members have their experiences validated, and, on an equal level, start co-creating a story of a more hopeful future.
The narrative practice of transformative community conferencing can be experienced in educational institutions, congregations, communities, in civil society organizations, etc. The process is context agnostic.
The innovation is in the invitation
As a facilitator of this approach, David has gained a deep awareness of the resources, or lack thereof, in specific communities. He witnesses how the collective energy produces experiences that are new and transformative for many. Participants determine what can be created as system and what structural reforms are needed. Framing of the invitation matters. The invitation is to all, as we are all on different sides of the power dynamics and we respond and react to that. Acknowledging how we contribute to this social construction of power helps us to do the work in shifting the trajectory.
The social innovation that we most need for the work of building hopeful futures is a clear understanding that we are all existing in processes that are told through narratives, processes that are perpetuated through narrative.
Co-creating more hopeful futures
This work changes lives.
Transformative community conferencing as a narrative practice promotes a more reflective orientation to relationships and to systems change. How and when we ask questions helps us think differently. It helps to begin to ask questions such as:
“What is the narrative here? What is the story you are telling in relation to that narrative?”
These approaches enable people to engage and to flourish. When you look at events as stories you can always unpack them to make the narrative more visible to support flourishing for all.
How to Connect to David
- The Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice
- Transforming Historical Harms
- The Little Book of Transformative Community Conferencing