Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

First Person Action Research in Complex Social Systems: Three Stories of Praxis

Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

First Person Action Research in Complex Social Systems: Three Stories of Praxis

Article excerpt


In a world increasingly characterised by uncertainty, social inequality, and ecological degradation, how can action researchers engage in ways that support regenerative systems change in the living systems of which they are part? How can the inhabitants of living systems co-create experiences and conditions of thrivability? These questions animated the reflective practice of the authors of this paper as they each engaged in collaborative action research projects in three different, socially complex and contested contexts. This paper explores the dialogic methodologies they employed, the impacts and outcomes experienced by the participants as leaders and innovators of systemic change, and the evolution of the authors' own practices as action researchers and catalysts of change.

The emphasis on personal reflective practice in this paper is consistent with the emergent discourse on thrivability, which embraces a "spirituality that re-instills a sense of the sacred in the universe" and calls for integrating multiple systems perspectives in the process of making meaning and initiating transformational change (Laszlo 2014). As Laszlo (2014) has asserted, "By keeping the four levels of systemic thrivability: the intra-personal, the interpersonal, the trans-species, and the trans-generational, present in our thoughts and perceptions throughout our individual and collective meaning-making efforts, we will be able to create a shared sense of meaningfulness, and this will further emerge the conditions of hyper-connectivity and flow" (Laszlo 2014, p. 589).

This is easier said than done. We find that while practices for thrivability are in many ways transferable, they are also inherently contextual and experiential. As such, we offer three personal, contextual stories of praxis from which we offer four propositions that may be useful to others in cultivating situated leadership practices for thrivability.

Wilson's Story: Emancipatory Practice in Peri-Urban Mexico

Setting the Stage

Clinging to the edges of deep ravines or clustered near abandoned landfills on the peri-urban fringe of the sprawling Mexico City conurbation, the self-built homes of some 15,000 settlers, mostly refugees from gentrification in Mexico City, comprise the so-called 'irregular' communities of El Tráfico and Llano Grande. With neither clear title nor basic water and wastewater services, the occupants have made these contested landscapes home over the last ten to twenty years, with more arrivals every year.

The local watershed commission, a decentralised body of the federal water commission, CONAGUA, treated such communities as a problem. It was not their illegality, i.e. the lack of proper land titles, that was the problem, but rather the fact that these peri-urban communities were the primary source of the untreated wastewater and trash entering the streams and killing the manmade jewel of the region, the Presa Guadalupe Lake. But try as they did, the watershed commissioners' policies, programmes, regulations, community trainings, and environmental awareness campaigns did nothing to diminish the flow of garbage and untreated waste from the informal settlements.

In 2013 the director of the watershed commission sensed that a new approach to dealing with the informal settlements was needed. She invited me to introduce a collaborative and participatory form of engagement with the communities, using participatory action research (PAR). Accompanied by my students and teaching assistant in Community and Regional Planning at the University of Texas, I would facilitate a field-based workshop with local government professionals and educators involved in sustainable development in the Presa Guadalupe watershed. We would engage with two of the informal communities where the leaders had invited us: El Tráfico and Llano Grande.

That two week workshop has developed into an ongoing programme of participatory sustainable development led by a local university and the watershed commission, with annual visits from my students and me. …

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