Getting “Real” about Transformation:

Engaging Bravely with Disorientation Through Authentic Dialogue

Sarah Stanlick
Lehigh University

The two decades since the publication of Zlotkowski’s (1995) influential article on the need for an enhanced academic focus to assure the future of service-learning have seen many changes in society and in higher education. In many ways, positive societal and educational changes – including progress on social rights, the power of technology to bring together geographically dispersed individuals to form social movements, increased institutional support for service-learning and community engagement (SLCE), and internationalization of higher education – have encouraged SLCE to grow and realize much of Zlotkowski’s vision. At the same time, there have been changes in both arenas that are less positive and that have hindered the development of SLCE: abuses of anonymity in virtual communication that can promote mistrust in and skepticism of “others,” bureaucratic barriers to collaboration (e.g. elaborate legal waivers), increased questioning of the value of higher education, and ideology-based disruption of state university systems. I am particularly concerned with changes that have led to what I see as extreme and unnecessary insulation of educational processes in general and students in particular from disquieting realities and, thus, limited potential for transformational change.

Societal calls for warnings in advance of potentially distressing content in what we are about to read or view are echoed in the academy as service experiences undertaken by college students are often overly sanitized (e.g. chaperones who direct, rather than facilitate, experiences; choices of largely English-speaking destinations for global service). Although sometimes driven by legitimate concerns such as terrorism abroad, at other times the practices of individuals and policies of institutions emerge from a problematic desire for inappropriate levels of control and a paternalistic relationship with students and communities that assumes they need protection. The result is that uncomfortable, difficult experiences often remain at a distance, hindering deep-dives into disorienting – thus potentially transformative – territory for our learners, our communities, and ourselves.

In the wake of national incidents of violence and community distrust – from Ferguson to Baltimore to Charleston1 – it is more essential than ever to create what Arao and Clemens (2013) call “brave spaces.” Distinct from “safe spaces,” where ground rules and expectations of tone and process are established to attempt moderation of emotions and conflictual ideas to an ideal of safety, “brave spaces” are conceived of as interactions in which participants feel able to be genuine with one another. Established practices, norms, and language around safe spaces compel us to put in place sometimes overbearing ground rules; but by its very nature, discussion that deals with difficult topics of justice and equity will cover contested territory. While such practices are to some extent grounded in the need to establish norms that invite and empower otherwise silent or silenced voices, Arao and Clemens question “the degree to which safety is an appropriate or reasonable expectation for any honest dialogue about social justice” (p. 139). We must manage the tension between, on the one hand, sensitizing students to how easy it is to inadvertently and harmfully disrespect, trespass on, and disrupt the lived experience, cultures, and identities of unfamiliar others (i.e., SLCE community partners; other students) and, on the other, buffering them from uncomfortable conversations and encounters that disorient them deeply – emotionally, cognitively, interpersonally, culturally. Otherwise, when the ground rules for our interactions with one another become so limiting that authenticity is stifled, what can we expect to accomplish in terms of real, transformative change?

I believe we are erring too far on the side of protectiveness and misleading ourselves by thinking we can create spaces that are truly experienced as safe. The associated hesitation to engage in difficult dialogues and lack of skills to do so at the exact time that critical societal conversations need to take place is not only ironic but a serious threat: it puts us into and escalates dangerous cycles of mistrust and misunderstanding and prevents us from having truly democratic participation. Rather than tapping the transformative capacities of both higher education and broader community and democratic systems at a time they are desperately needed, we are sheltering ourselves from the “real” dynamics that could help us become more open to critical conversation and more empowered to relate with one another authentically and co-creatively. SLCE as a pedagogy, a philosophy, and a set of partnership practices can be a medium for authentic relationships and a space to enact and build our capacities for honest, deep, and difficult interactions. For it to fulfill this potential, SLCE must be planned, designed, and undertaken as a brave space – in a way that models and invites authentic dialogue, real (i.e., fluid, ambiguous, tension-embracing) relationships, critically reflective engagement, multi-stakeholder development of citizenship skills, and multi-level systems for transformation.

Transformative Learning through Disorientation and Dialogue

Getting “real” about transformation is not and is not supposed to be easy; transformation requires difficult, critical self-reflection and vulnerability. It requires fundamental shifts in how we think about disagreement and conflict. It requires reframing the tensions between change at individual, community, and systems levels so that transformation occurs within and across all of them, in integrative ways. Palmer’s (2010) work is helpful here as it suggests that creatively holding tension – rather than seeking to eliminate or resolve it – between our ideas and those of others, between our aspirations and our behaviors, and between individuals and broader systems can lead to greater democratic engagement, social justice, and positive social change.

SLCE can engage us directly with such tensions within ourselves and in the world around us, especially when it is designed as a brave space. And it can generate its own tensions, for example those oft-discussed tensions between goals for student learning and for community change. Doing so requires that SLCE be conceived holistically, as a process for generating transformation not only in the usual realm of students but also within groups and at the level of communities and systems for more lasting, wide-reaching impact. Multi-level transformative design of SLCE promotes disorientation and, through authentic dialogue and critical reflection among all participants, generates transformative change in individuals, communities, and systems. In other words, it is grounded in transformative learning.

Transformative learning at its most basic is a “means for teaching change through intentional action” (Fisher-Yoshida, Geller, & Shapiro, 2009, p. 1). It involves shifting meaning perspectives – the way in which we see ourselves relation to and with the world around us. Such shifts are often the result of disorientations, such as those instigated by brave framings of SLCE. Through these experiences learners can gain agency and an understanding of individual action and responsibility; they can remake their understandings of the world and their role within it (Mezirow, 1978). Most notable in SLCE, Kiely (2005) has pointed to the transformative capacity of the pedagogy to bring about the growth of individual learners in their citizen identity. Of particular importance here, Clark (1993) affirms that transformative learning is not only about the development of individuals but is also a catalyst for more far-reaching change, impacting a larger whole while also changing the way in which individual learners approach their future experiences.

Transformative learning hinges on disorientation, which can take the shape of, for example, cross-cultural exchanges, new information acquisition, emotional discomfort, or engagement with information or perspectives that challenge previously held assumptions. SLCE can provide an environment ripe for disorientation. For instance, an SL project in the first year (see Bauer, Kniffin, & Priest in this collection of essays) can be disorienting for a number of reasons: cross-cultural interfaces, the experiential nature of learning in SL, and the oftentimes emotionally-charged developmental time period in which these experiences take place. The dynamic nature of such experiences – coupled with the necessary processing via critical reflection – can lead to long-term transformative results (Kiely, 2005; Kuh, O’Donnell, & Reed, 2013).

Critical reflection is a vehicle for developing the metacognitive skills by which we learn to make meaning of and grow from disorienting experiences, exploring points of view and identities other than our own, and it particularly aids transformative learning when harnessed in transformative dialogue. Gergen, McNamee, and Barrett (2001) identify transformative dialogue as a means to create “relational responsibility, self-expression, affirmation, coordination, reflexivity, and the co-creation of new realities” (p. 679). Arao and Clemens (2013) call on educators to facilitate the development of skills for such difficult conversations in our students and in ourselves by modeling such engaged dialogue and intentionally planning opportunities to break through polite, surface discussions.

Difficult dialogues about social and political divergence – an essential part of democratic citizenship – are rare in practice (Bickmore & Parker, 2014). Villa (2001) uses the term “socratic citizenship” to describe building a lifelong citizen identity through an intentional, individualized process that is critical in thought and dissident in action. Socratic citizenship implies the right and the responsibility to stay engaged critically as an active community member. In SLCE, socratic citizenship can be leveraged as an ideal and an approach, the intentional practice of which could produce lifelong citizen identities among all participants. It requires – and contributes to – brave spaces in which critical voices are neither silenced nor experienced as bullying.

This iterative, critical, dialogue-centered version of citizenship emphasizes interconnections, and as such is a networked perspective that emphasizes individual engagement and change as well as larger systemic shifts. Such a process of difficult dialogue, critical reflection, and deliberate capacity building for meaningful interaction across sameness and otherness promotes an environment that is conducive of multi-level transformation. In his work on transformative learning, Mezirow’s (1991) focus was on the central role of critical reflection and dialogue as processors of disorienting experiences that lead to meaning perspective shift within and beyond individuals. This process on a community level – through community dialogues, increased collective capacity for difficult dialogues, and shared vocabulary that emphasizes community assets – can help break down deficit narratives, mediate conflict, address societal misconceptions, and prompt critical action based on new understandings of the world at both micro and macro levels. As this experience of collective, engaged dialogue and critical examination of citizenship and systems occurs, larger-scale, multi-level change may be catalyzed.

Achieving Multi-level Transformation: What Might it Look Like?

Efforts to promote multi-level transformation can take many forms and formats. I offer two examples of programming – promising but by no means panaceas – that are designed to facilitate such transformation. They make explicit what SLCE might look like when it is intentionally designed as a brave space: confronting participants with disorientation, incorporating critical dialogue, nurturing authentic interactions, inviting individuals to try on new understandings and identities, and refusing to shy away from either experiences or critical reflection that are challenging, uncomfortable, and thus – at least potentially – transformative.

The Global Citizenship Program at Lehigh University uses an integrated approach to SLCE that pushes learners beyond “comfortable” service into a realm in which they must practice agency, difficult dialogues, and cross-cultural communication (Gisolo & Stanlick, 2012). We work in partnership with the local refugee resettlement agency to develop programming that is co-created and collaborative; it includes intensive critical reflection and dialogue among undergraduates and the local refugee population. Over the course of a semester, undergraduate student teams learn about the philosophy and impact of place, read classic civic literature (e.g., Pericles’ Funeral Oration), and serve with refugee neighbors. They participate in cultural discussions and exchanges, share knowledge and compare expectations of citizenship in the US and abroad, and hold workshops for the refugees to become acclimated to their new home. Topics of discussion range from family members (those able to accompany them to the US and those left behind), to stories of escaping to refugee camps, to the harsh historical and current realities of life under oppressive regimes in their home countries. Critical dialogue takes place in online forums (e.g., weekly informal writing prompts with expectations for engaging candidly and respectfully with others’ ideas), in class (e.g., student speeches followed by open discussion and critique), and in face-to-face interactions among community members, students, and faculty (e.g. education and fundraising nights at a local bakery that informally engage local citizens in frank discussions about refugee resettlement).

SLCE experiences in this program – with their multiple layers of stakeholder engagement and critical dialogue – are intended to positively influence how refugees are perceived in the community while helping students gain an understanding of their own self-worth and develop agency. They connect students, faculty, staff, and community members in meaningful activism and advocacy for refugee rights and support. Raising public awareness of issues around refugee resettlement – especially in light of the crisis in Syria2 – is crucial in reducing stereotypes and conflict within communities that will become the new homes of refugees in the near future. Allentown/Bethlehem, the area within which this program takes places, is one such refugee resettlement region, so the stakes around our efforts to get “real” about transformation are immediate and first-hand. In the 2015-2016 academic year, we are deepening this work by adopting the Center for Courage & Renewal’s Action Guide (Jackson & Scribner, 2015) to conduct democratic discussion circles, yet another way to broaden conversation and engage in socratic citizenship.

A second example of an attempt to design for multi-level transformation is the Bethlehem Unbound community storytelling project that takes place within the framework of Lehigh’s Mountaintop Experience. Mountaintop is a unique learning community that brings students from varied disciplines and academic career stages together with faculty and community members to implement learner-driven projects during the summer in communities both local and global. As an open-ended inquiry endeavor, learners begin with a question. During the summer of 2015, the location was South Side Bethlehem, and the guiding question was: “How does one authentically portray the stories of a community without misappropriating stories or propagating a deficit narrative?” After exploring a variety of storytelling media – and having intense, personal discussions with local residents – the 2015 team members settled on a semi-structured interview project that highlighted local business owners and long-time residents, telling their stories authentically on film, in the first person. In light of the program’s commitment to relationships with students as colleagues, decision making processes were driven by the students, with faculty and graduate student mentors taking a facilitator role rather than the usual hierarchical teacher-student relationship (Zlotkowski, Longo, & Williams, 2006; and see Hicks, Seymour, & Puppo in this collection of essays). This expectation of agency was extremely disorienting to students, yet they thrived despite not be given a safety net or quick answers to dilemmas.

What resulted was a multi-faceted project that engaged students and local community members to tell authentic, complex stories of individual histories in the South Side of Bethlehem, PA. A tangible result is a YouTube channel3 that houses these stories, serving as a marker of pride for citizens and an outward-facing narrative of the South Side’s history and culture. In addition, these stories are shown to incoming first year students at Lehigh to help sow a positive narrative of the local community in their minds and challenge any negative stereotypes (i.e., deficit narratives of “underserved populations”) they may bring with them. The power of this project was in the iterative storytelling process and the relationships built on many levels to help allay that deficit narrative, while also acknowledging and learning more about the sometimes difficult history of Lehigh’s relationship with the South Side. Working with primary sources and human storytellers, while working on a co-created project with a “team” that gently nudged each other towards honesty and authenticity, a brave space emerged where they could delve deeply into that difficult history while also sharing in the positive benefits of establishing a trust relationship that can reveal both the sad and the joyous.

These are but two examples that provide elements of a map for how a program can be intentionally designed to effect multi-level transformation. Disorientation abounds in the midst of cross-cultural and outside-the-comfort-zone experiences that allow participants to try on new understandings and identities. Students, community members, and faculty engage in difficult conversations about inequality, divides (e.g. racial, ethnic, socioeconomic), and the ever-changing American landscape – with a deliberate intent to avoid sheltering or buffering one another from sometimes uncomfortable dialogues or painful historical and contemporary truths. Grounding program design in the socratic citizenship ideal, we strive to develop all participants as philosopher-citizens who are both critical and questioning while dedicated to the larger common good (Villa, 2001). Current program evaluation points to learner growth in areas of agency, metacognition, and critical dialogue and robust, reciprocal relationships that benefit all; we seek to continually enhance this process so as to truly assess transformation among all stakeholders (students, community members, faculty, staff) and across all levels (individuals, groups, communities, systems) and better understand the relationships among the various contributions to and dimensions of such transformation.

Leveraging Disorientation and Authentic Dialogue for Multi-Level Transformation

SLCE has proven to be an effective, high-impact experience for students (Kuh, O’Donnell, & Reed, 2013), yet the promise of the work has not been fully realized for advancing either long-term student civic identity development or social justice within communities. One potential strategy for realizing that larger potential is the intentional planning of disorienting experiences with authentic, critical dialogue that fosters multi-level, transformation. Through the creation of brave spaces to ensure a multiplicity of critical voices and diverse perspectives, while modeling respect and reciprocity in our actions, what takes shape is a more functional democratic society.

Through the intentional creation of transformative experiences within the context of SLCE, change within our learners,  our communities, and ourselves – including the development of citizen-philosopher identities – is not left to chance, but supported and fostered. If we maintain that these experiences should be easy, clear-cut, and non-threatening, we are doing a disservice to our communities, our students, and ourselves. Instead, let us engage in the difficult, flourish in the ambiguous, and find our way to more authentic ways of being in the community and with each other.


[1] In 2015, a spate of violent incidents – 2 high-profile, police-involved deaths of African-American men and a mass shooting at a historically significant African-American church – set in motion national movements to address institutional racism and gun violence.

[2] As of September 17, 2015, 4,086,760 Syrian refugees have been registered by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as they flee war and persecution (source:

[3] The YouTube Channel for the Bethlehem Unbound Storytelling Project can be found at the following link:


Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice. In L. Landreman (Ed.), The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators (pp. 135-150). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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Jackson, R., & Scribner, M. (2015). Healing the Heart of Democracy discussion guide. Seattle, WA: The Center for Courage and Renewal.

Kiely, R. (2005). A transformative learning model for service-learning: A longitudinal case study. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 12(1), 5-22.

Kuh, G. D., O’Donnell, K., & Reed, S. (2013). Ensuring quality and taking high-impact practices to scale. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Mezirow, J. (1981). A critical theory of adult learning and education. Adult Education Quarterly, 32(1), 3-24.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pericles. (404 BC). Funeral oration. Athens.

Villa, D. R. (2001). Socratic citizenship. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Zlotkowski, E. (1995). Does service-learning have a future? Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 2(1), 123-133.

Zlotkowski, E. A., Longo, N. V., & Williams, J. R. (Eds.). (2006). Students as colleagues: Expanding the circle of service-learning leadership. Providence, RI: Campus Compact.



SARAH STANLICK ( is the founding director of Lehigh University’s Center for Community Engagement and a professor of practice in Sociology and Anthropology. She previously taught at Centenary College of New Jersey and was a researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School, assisting the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. She has published in journals such as The Social Studies and the Journal of Global Citizenship and Equity Education. Her current interests include inquiry-based teaching and learning, global citizenship, transformative learning, and cultivating learner agency.

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