Last weekend, RW co-founder Angela Parker took up a last-minute opportunity to attend a conference on transformative learning in Tacoma, Washington. What does transformative learning have to do with employee volunteering? Our trusty blog editor is here to help us find out in a personal interview with Angela.

Q: How did you find out about this conference [International Transformative Learning Conference, “Engaging at the Intersections”]?

A: There’s actually a story to this. The RW team is a pretty research obsessed group, so we’ve been compiling what we call “proofs” (the research behind our practices) into one shareable document online. Chris Jarvis [the other RW co-founder] and I held a proof gathering session on Saturday, the 15th. For nearly 8 hours straight, our keyboards were smoking as we typed and clicked and pasted. We were a little manic – it’s pretty fun to pull together 8 years of work that back up the methods you implement on a daily basis.

… he [our host] looked at us each in the eye and stated, directly, “I want you to know that your presence here today is entirely unnecessary.”

All this to say, the proof gathering triggered a memory of a significant experience the RW team shared in the Dominican Republic last January. After a long week of team meetings (and yes, coconut drinks on the beach), we were tired and not in the mood to follow through on the volunteer work we had scheduled. But, being volunteer program practitioners, we knew it was important to “walk the talk,” as they say. So we mumbled and grumbled and went on our way.

We arrived in a neighborhood where the houses were all in various states of disrepair. We learned that we would be painting two of these homes, working side-by-side with the homeowners. We felt confident about what to expect; we had all volunteered in similar scenarios. That was when Jose, our local host, gathered us in a circle, asking: Why did you come here today? We paused and looked at each other hesitantly …

… this is the work we do …

… we want to make a difference …

… we feel we should give back …

Jose nodded. And then he looked at us each in the eye and stated, directly, “I want you to know that your presence here today is entirely unnecessary.”

We were shocked. This is not the welcome we had expected. He went on to explain that anyone can paint these homes and that the paint itself won’t change these people’s lives. He said, “Painting will not make a difference.” And then, with a gentle voice, he invited us to a different way of thinking:

“You are here to connect with a family in a community where they live every day. You are here to allow them to believe that someone somewhere else thinks about them. You are here to be affected, to learn about someone you don’t know, to challenge your own assumptions. Open your mind. When you can, pause your work and talk to this family. We are not here today to complete a task; we are here to know and be known.”

We were quite disoriented by this introduction, and it dramatically changed our collective experience. At the end of the event, Jose led us through a critical reflection exercise. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this volunteer event was transformative for our team. In meaningful ways, it changed our attitudes and our behaviors toward people affected by poverty. It’s certainly an experience we will never forget.

The thing is, the way Jose walked us through this event – the way he challenged our expectations and helped us critically reflect – is exactly the method RW advocates for with our clients. It may not be surprising to learn that Jose told us later he teaches something called “transformative learning theory” at an American university. This is the methodology on which we base our work.

It was in searching for Jose online that I discovered a conference taking place at Pacific Lutheran University on Transformative Learning. It was three days away, so I jumped at the chance to attend.

Q: I remember that! [I was there.] And it was indeed transformative. So when you saw that this conference was coming up, what was it that caught your eye? What in particular made you want to attend?

A: I think it was the session titles. Here are a few that had me wide-eyed:

What is Transformative Learning? Facilitator: Urusa Fahim, Ph.D

Methods for Understanding and Extending the Theory of Transformative Learning
Facilitators: Aliki Nicolaides, Ph.D.; Stacey Robbins, Ph.D; and Chad Hoggan, Ph.D.

Opening Space for Expanded Worldviews through Experiences of Intersectional Dissonance with Barton David Buechner, Zieva Dauber Konvisser, Deedee Myers, Tzofnat Peleg-Baker & John Dirkx

Engaging the Intersection of Transformative Learning and Neuroscience with Kathleen Taylor, Paul Loper, Dean Elias, Urusa Fahim, & Donald Proby

Mapping the Neuronal Underpinnings of Transformative Learning Daniel Glisczinski, University of Minnesota Duluth

You’ve got to understand that we’ve been out there on our own learning about this stuff. I didn’t realize there was an entire community of people using the same language we use in our method of transformative volunteering. I wanted to know if we’re doing it right or if there are challenges I’m unaware of or, if perhaps RW has some value to offer this community of academics.

Q: What did you experience at the conference?

A: Well, to be really vulnerable with you, I was a bit emotional in the first session. I was visibly shaking and couldn’t talk for fear I would start crying.

On one hand, I’m surprised it was this emotional for me. On the other hand, I’m well aware that the work RW does is belief work. And belief takes a huge degree of emotional energy. We are committed to following through on a method that promises pretty major results – but we don’t always get to see those results. We just have to keep honing the method, getting more strategic, facing challenges head-on, and – most importantly – we have to keep believing. Knowing that, you might be able to imagine how bolstering it was to hear an entire room of people talking about these issues with the same passion I feel for them. I have never heard anyone other than my own team and clients use the vocabulary of transformative learning before. And here I was in a room of people that know the work far better than I do, have faced challenges far more daunting than my own, and are committed to solving those challenges and seeing the method through to its promised results.

Q: So … what exactly is transformative learning?

A: I’m so glad you asked!

In simple terms, transformative learning is any experience that challenges what we know, introduces us to a new understandings, and invites us to act on those understandings. Patricia Cranton, a thought leader who recently passed away, said it like this:

Transformative learning can occur when people encounter alternative points of view and perspectives. Exposure to alternatives encourages people to critically question their assumptions, beliefs, and values, and when this leads to a shift in the way they see themselves or things in the world, they have engaged in transformative learning. Transformative learning can be promoted by using any strategy, activity, or resource that presents an alternative point of view.

Q: How does Transformative Learning apply to employee volunteering?

A: Volunteering has the potential to be a nonthreatening space to challenge preconceived notions about people and issues that may seem “different.” It enables contact between in-groups and out-groups. When volunteer opportunities are provided appropriately and with respect for the sensitive backgrounds and situations of all involved, it becomes possible to eliminate the historically dangerous mindset of us vs. them. In nonthreatening contact with out-groups, previously formed conclusions are challenged by interactions, which soon line up with faces followed by names. This is empathy. And empathy is essential to survival.

But what I mean by all of this is when we frame volunteering events with the elements identified in transformative learning (which is incredibly simple to do!) we have the power to turn volunteering into an effective lever for major societal change.

Q: What was it about this conference that stood out to you?

A: This an easy one. For me, there were two major differentiators at this conference:

First – and maybe this is true for all academic conferences – I was struck by the intentional language used by the majority of attendees. It felt like everyone was there for the benefit of the other. I was guided in the language I use (from microaggressions to identity interrogation) in a way that felt generous, not judgmental. There were moments in the middle of large group sessions where an attendee felt it appropriate to stand and read a section of poetry – and it wasn’t weird! At other moments, attendees were gently chided to use non-violent vocabulary in their references to specific people groups or ethnicities; again, in a remarkably nonjudgmental manner. I was deeply touched by this posture of intentionality. I had never experienced anything like it.

Second, unlike CSR conferences where I worry about whether or not I am bringing enough value to the conversation, I was absolutely delighted to discover how hungry this academic group was to learn about practical applications of transformative learning. Everyone I interacted with was eager to hear about transformation through volunteering and most were shocked that companies are interested in this approach. Over the four day event, I began to feel strongly that there is massive potential benefit to bringing the academic and corporate communities together to learn from each other.

Q: What learnings can you pass on to our readers, many of whom are CSR practitioners and nonprofit professionals?

A: I made a list:

  • Our practice is in danger of becoming too siloed. This conference inspired me to expand my view and look outside of my typical network to learn more about the best ways to do our work and achieve greater impact.
  • Belief is hard and we’re in a business that requires belief. At the risk of sounding a bit cheesy, I would encourage CSR practitioners to remember to do the things that remind us who we are. Spend time in nature, read poetry, listen to music, volunteer. And be kind. People at this conference were incredibly kind – and it reminded me how much the human spirit depends on the spirit of others.
  • If you haven’t, consider that volunteering might be more than just volunteering. Consider its potential to invite people to challenge what they know, gain new understandings, and act on those understandings. The potential of this approach is literally world changing.


Realized Worth is a global consulting firm that works with companies to design and implement employee volunteer programs. We focus on equipping individuals to lead programs in a scalable way, achieving impact for the company, the community, and the employee.Want to discuss your program with us? We’ll be happy to hear from you! Email us directly, or find us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.