Rituals and Celebrations

Creating the classroom as a sacred learning space by ritualizing our daily activities gives it meaning and makes it inspirational for the students and the instructors. The order, rhythm, and symbolism of ritual are needed to reintegrate the sacred into the learning process. Each student is unique in his or her own right. Ritual gives them the safe space to be in touch with their inner teacher and open up to share their experiences (Bobo et al., 2010; Pyles, 2013; Starhawk, 2011). In this way, they are encouraged to become teacher/learners in the tradition of “each one, teach one” (Champeau, 2011).

Throughout the semester, the class incorporates some activities in each session that have become rituals. These have been used to build community and a sense of inclusion as hooks and Freire recommend for moving forward in order to create social change. “Good News” happens at the start of each class, during which everyone has an opportunity to share about current events related to organizing in order to celebrate a victory or to acknowledge a job well done.

From the first class, Martell puts a general class agenda on the board so the students know the class flow and what is expected to be covered in the class each week. In the weekly agenda review, they are asked if they have anything to add. By the fourth week of the class, usually some students begin to ask for time on the agenda to make announcements, renegotiate presentation times, deal with class issues, and/or bring in speakers. This is part of the praxis on how to run meetings. They have the liberty of excluding Martell for a limited time for peer-led discussions. On occasion when they have used this opportunity, Martell interprets it as students demonstrating their sense of confidence and trust in the process of empowerment.

The course uses the ritual of community agreements (also known as ground rules) to create a safe space for dialogue and accountability. This process gives students a good understanding of their classmates' and instructors' expectations. For example, students in the spring 2014 class formulated the following agreement as one of their 12 guidelines for each other: “We will listen actively for understanding. We agree to disagree respectfully, suspend judgment, and learn each other's sensitivities and needs.” Also, collectively writing community agreements establishes their responsibility for what happens in the class and gives them tools to hold each other and the instructor accountable, which the same spring 2014 articulated in a statement at the end of their agreements as follows: “I take full responsibility and will hold myself and the group accountable to uphold these community agreements in our work.”

During the third session, the students are divided into groups of five to facilitate the agreement discussion. They are asked to make a list of what they need to feel safe in the classroom and in their workgroups. The example that Martell uses is “I (as the instructor) need you to participate to feel safe.” Each group has a note taker who reports back their collective agreements to the larger group. As the instructor facilitates the dialogue, the teaching assistant is charting the responses and both are asking clarifying questions. For example, “Everybody needs to take responsibility for the class.” The teaching assistant might ask, “What do you mean by responsibility?” By the end of this process, even some of the shy ones begin to speak up. In the debriefing of the exercise, someone always says, “I have never done this in a class. I learned the importance of establishing ground rules before we begin the work.”

The following week, the class reviews the previous session so that students who were not in class can catch up and to refresh everyone. The written agreements and the posted charted agreements are reviewed for comparison and transparency. A new configuration of small groups edit the agreements. New students get to add their comments and ask questions. After an open dialogue, the students read the finalized agreements as a group; then everyone is asked to sign and commit to them in both the full class and in any of their small group meetings. Whenever there is an issue, the agreements are used to ground the discussion. Ground rules or shared agreements are repeated by the students each session followed by an agenda that is co-created by the instructor, the teaching assistant, and the students.

An additional opportunity for students in the course to engage in praxis, build community, and to facilitate dialogue the end of the semester is the Cultural Celebration. Students learn that celebrating victories and sharing each other's cultural customs are essential for sustainability in community organizing through working together to create their own completion event for the class. Freire (1970/2000) discusses how history and culture are integral to the human experience (p. 98) and how creating a revolutionary culture of transformation together can counteract a culture of domination and oppression (p. 180). The class celebration gives students an opportunity to acknowledge themselves for their hard work and to continue to connect with each other across race, class, gender, and other differences in their backgrounds, navigating the power dynamics they are studying and observing throughout the course.

Martell creates an affirmation circle in the last class session that precedes the celebration, during which students share their cultures through food, music, art, poems, and more. Some of the students bring friends, children, and parents. This is their celebration, and Martell says that she is always pleasantly surprised: “In the last class this year [2014], one student brought a Columbian hip hop dance instructor. The class loved it, especially the shy student.” These building-community experiences result in many long-term personal relationships.

Highlighting multicultural diversity in its student body and honoring processes in completing ongoing groups are activities that social work education does well (Gutierrez, Lewis, Dessel, & Spencer, 2013). The C.O. course takes multiculturalism and group process deeper through utilizing the trust built between participants throughout the semester to share the significance of their culture for individual students and the meanings behind items such as food or dance that they are sharing. The C.O. course connects the importance of culture and the class celebration to larger struggles and victories won in community organizing.

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