Excerpt of my story in the opening panel at the last Transformative Learning Network Conference, now published in the Journal of Reflective Practice, September 2020. Article by panel curators and participants: Marguerite A. Welch, Akasha, Aka Pete Saunders, Petra T. Buergelt, Yabome Gilpin-Jackson, Janet Ferguson & Victoria J. Marsick
The stories in this article opened the 2018 International Transformative Learning (TL) Conference. Mezirow founded this conference to grow living theory, but over time, paradoxically, allegiance to his framing of TL can be seen as limiting growth. The Conference designers invited participation from new geographical, cultural, social and political perspectives to bring forward unheard voices to create bridges among differences. Framed by the imaginal and holistic approaches to TL, this article shares the personal stories of transformation narrated by five panelists and the ‘wicked’ questions these stories evoked. The authors reflect on the humanizing, heart-ful space that sharing stories created, which re-minded those present of shared community. TL is about change in the individual, as theory seeks to explain; yet it is also about embedded social, cultural norms and assumptions that shape and sustain systems. The authors conclude by reflecting on the humanizing potential of narrative, as well as the theorizing about the interdependence between individual and systemic transformation.
Yabome’s story – boundaries and belonging: a story in 3 snippets
[Note: These excerpts from my life are examples that point to the experiences I have had living within the tensions of some of the most significant polarities of our times, navigating race, ethnicity, nationalism, immigration, war and armed conflicts and border narratives. This is another glimpse into the experiences that propel me to keep speaking up and acting for social justice and equity in every space I occupy].
It is May 1997 and I am a 19-year-old college student. Instead of partying or hanging out with friends or making out … and maybe fitting in some studying, my family – mother, father, brother and I, plus several cousins and relatives and a family friend are crammed into a Land Rover. My father is terminally ill and political unrest and armed conflict are escalating into Sierra Leone’s capital where I’d enjoyed a privileged and relatively carefree middle-class lifestyle to-date. My father’s medical care needs are getting critical and things are unstable. So we make the nerve-wrecking but relatively uneventful drive – save a number of militia checkpoints through the north of Sierra Leone, headed for Conakry, Guinea. We have relatives there who are waiting to receive us and help us make the arrangements to get Daddy safely on a flight to Germany for urgent medical care. We collectively exhale when we cross the border. Our relief was short-lived because about 15 minutes outside Conakry, we are arrested. We are interrogated over and over again and our papers checked over. Though all are in order, we are held overnight. Some 18 hours later, we are finally released to our hosts. The reasons for our detention – we are Sierra Leonean. The Guineans were not about to repeat the mistakes we Sierra Leoneans had made by opening our borders so wide that Liberian rebels had sailed in with ease and become part of our current escalating war.
Two years later, I am on my way to Canada – immigrating early because of the war instead of just coming to be a student as originally planned. My mother and I fly into Boston Logan Airport, where we were promptly held-up. In spite of our documents and Canadian paperwork being in order … in spite of my mother having a diplomatic passport from her years as an Ambassador’s wife, we are again held up. We are interrogated until we miss our flight. We are then handed over to the airline authorities with security with instructions: make sure they get on their rebooked flight tomorrow so they do not run away into America. If we did, the airport would apparently face a hefty fine. We slept overnight with a guard outside our hotel doors and the next day, we are escorted by security all the way onto our flights. Reason for all this bruhaha … we are from ‘those s-hold countries’ blacklisted for political unrest.
I am a working professional. I travel to my ancestral home of Sierra Leone every two years to see family and relatives. The pattern that unfolds is that every time I came back to my current home of residence and immigration, Canada, I am pulled out into that back room, bags searched and swabbed, interrogated. Why do I go? How do I afford to pay? What did I bring back? When I start my doctoral studies at Fielding, the pattern of being ‘randomly selected’ by Department of Homeland Security on the US-side also continues. I become accustomed to being the last one to board a waiting plane.
The current constant narratives of immigrants, those S-hole countries, Mexicans at the border, the op-eds and news panels on nationalism; security versus global citizenry and open borders; and Black Lives Matter evoke again these memories for me … I engage these dialogues from the place of having had these encounters that had me caught right in the middle of this quagmire. Working through these disorienting dilemmas led me to my research, writing and speaking in posttraumatic growth, resonance stories where transformation happens, identity interrogation and the paradox of difference vs. belonging.
- How do we build bridges over these troubled waters?
- How might we be both global citizens who make room for humanity AND ensure our collective safety and security from the true threats we face?
Our connections continued to deepen as we worked together to write about our experience (Bolton & Deiderfield, 2018). The stories included movement from one place to another, and yet as we write together, we are each sheltering-in-place during a global health pandemic and an expansion of consciousness of the inequities so deeply embedded in our social systems. These events have informed our reflections, 18 months after we sat together on the conference stage. What is uppermost in our thoughts is the essential need to create space where people can show up fully. And the need to apply TL theory to social issues; in this present moment this conversation is imperative.
Experiences stay with us. Over time meaning becomes more nuanced and we can make sense of it differently; reinterpreting the story as it is as told in different contexts. This ‘re’membering, and the resulting resonance increases our capacity to engage hard stories and direct our emotions to creating more humanizing spaces.
~~~See full article and our collective reflections at here~~~