Training for Transformation: 1973 - 2013 and still going strong…

Last year, Training for Transformation (TfT) a local and global popular education movement, turned 40. They celebrated in true TfT style with a ‘think-well’ that brought together some 40 people from all over the world, to dialogue, write and renew relationships, commitment and hope.

This combination of compassionate being-together, critical reflection and action is what TfT is all about: a philosophy and approach to community development that is deeply and holistically rooted in both the belief in and daily practice of social justice.

The people that came together from across the continents are all engaged in different struggles, organisations and projects. Their daily work ranges from cross-cultural work to reconciliation in post-conflict countries, redress and socio-economic justice, the development of rural communities, refugee support work, masculinity and gender oppression and the transformation of the health system. What they share is the belief that TfT can create shifts at the personal, organisational and community/societal level. The process often starts at a deeply personal level of self-discovery and propagates outwards.

It is appropriate that the first feature of the ‘traditions of popular education’ website should look at TfT: home-grown and international popular education with a history that reaches into the future.

What is Training for Transformation?

TfT is not just a tool, a methodology, but a form of pedagogy using ‘codes’, rooted in Paulo Freire, a spiritual belief, a holistic way of thinking, feeling and acting in the world, and a way of relating to others that is mindful of power and the importance of equal relationships. It is also a set of four training books.

One animator, Sumaya, as describe TfT a “a philosophy of how you work with people. And because you can’t say it’s my philosophy, it’s this philosophy, because there are people who are in Afghanistan, indigenous people, they are doing the same thing or Indian Americans, they will do the same thing. It’s just a way of life and respecting and listening and giving space to people and trust.”

Anne Hope and Sally Timmel who started the programme in Kenya, in 1973, describe it as ‘a great river originating in a number of different springs’ initially joined together in the Delta training programme for development workers. Their inspiration came from five main sources:

  • the philosophy and early practice of Brasilian educator Paulo Freire,
  • insights into group dynamics and human relationships learned during active participation in the Christian Education and Leadership Training (CELT)
  • economic, political, social and cultural analysis learned partially at the Ecumenical Institute for the development of Practice (INODEP) in Paris
  • the vision of a new society built from many sources including the bible and Rick Turner’s book ‘The Eye of the Needle’
  • the spiritual concept of transformation. Read more:

Since 1973, the approach and methodology have been deepened, revised and extended as practitioners from all over Africa, Ireland, the USA and other countries have worked with TfT in many different fields, ranging from health to agriculture, literacy and youth groups, refugee work, women/gender and economic projects. Since 2001, extended training courses have been held at the Grail Centre in Kleinmond, Western Cape. All combine residential training with applied practice in home communities.

More on the history and philosophy:

More on the methodology: Training for Transformation. Handbook for Community Workers. (4 volumes)

What makes Training for Transformation different/particular?

Popular education always happens in the context of crisis: human history is a history of struggle and popular education is one way of intervening in that struggle in order to strengthen and support it. Many of the TfT animators do not just work in but also originate from conditions of strife and trauma and all use the stories of their own struggles as a source and resource for learning and acting with others.

Based on interviews conducted with TfT trainers, here we highlight four interrelated factors that make TfT different from other popular education:

  1. the time/space dimension of the training,
  2. the problem-posing approach that forges critical analysis,
  3. the combination of reflection and action / theory and practice,
  4. the belief in and experience of transformation.

These are not specific or unique to TfT – however, the manner in which they are described variously by all animators interviewed shows how their integration is crucial to the working of TfT.

1. Time and space:

TfT processes fly in the face of ‘quick-fix’ training offered by human resource development agencies that practice a front-loading transferal mode of education. Sumaya from Afghanistan describes how the residential part of the training course that involves living and studying together has a deep impact: ”I lived with someone who was in Tanzania for four months and I share meals, I know her and I know them and if something happened, the first person that I will worry about is her and then because of her I will worry about her country. It just changes our perspective and world view!”

Talking and listening, eating and walking, being in the same space, spending time together with open hearts, minds and arms builds compassion. It allows relationships to be formed, bonds to be forged and models the process of trust building that is so important in communities. As Xuan from Vietnam reflected:

It takes time for people to rediscover self … But I think the success of this method philosophy is really we are all human and we want to be appreciated and we want to be productive in this hard time – and this sort of approach has helped me to see my worth and I see my role in here, instead of just because I’m a woman, I’m a man, I’m Asian – so I’m put in that role. I am a human being beyond my colour or beyond my story. So I think it’s popular because people get acknowledged of who they are, to start with.

She also articulates how women, especially refugee women whom she works with, are often not given “that space to talk, to express, to even have the time to think about who they are in the family when they have a child or in society; they are busy taking care of others. We always think about others first before we think about ourselves, but once you get those moments of thinking about yourself and discovering yourself, how you could be useful or contribute to society while you are discovering yourself. And that I think makes a difference to create the space for women and particularly for ours and Refugee Women’s Network, by creating a space only for refugee women, that I also think was important.”

Xuan outlines how in her work, she reproduces a bit of the experience of educating and learning and acting together and how this is a very slow but crucial process:

And what unites those women is similar experiences, being a refugee, persecuted in their country because of war or because of a political reason, whatever the reason was – just coming and leaving your identity, your roots – your identity, your whole, your love, your country – everything – you left it behind and you are here with no identity, no love, no belonging – nothing. When you come and come with the groups and you see this person also does not have the identity and love and belonging – and so we can connect easily; I can find my identity with her and with other refugee women who go through the same thing. And that’s what bonds us.

Providing the space for recovery and discovery of self is very important. Because, as Xuan explains, the purpose is first of all to build the confidence of the women because after the refugee experience they became powerless, voiceless – and this is a way to rediscover self: I was something, I had something before I lost my country and became a refugee.

2. Problem-posing:

How does it work? TfT animators work with ‘codes’ that present the familiar that has become normal, no longer in question as something in need of examination. A code could be a short play on relations of production, an image illustrating a relationship, a story describing a common experience. Nobunto gives the example of the ‘orange code’ a short play that demonstrates how wealth is produced and distributed, and therefore how the current economic system benefits a few who own the means of production and exploits the labour of the majority.

The shifting of minds or ‘conscientisation’ happens by enabling people “to really talk and to see things that are hidden and they come to the fore for people to discuss”. It is a process of revealing, and digging deeper, excavating what is ever present but hidden. Lean from Malaysia identified the first hurdle as getting “people to recognize that your individual lived experiences, whatever issues, is not an individual problem but a common collective problem”. Making connections between self and others, between individual lives in one place and others’ lives elsewhere is a substantial part of the process of learning and educating. This is what consciousness-raising is about: “A deep understanding of why you are in that situation, the issues that you are confronted with, why that’s happening, what contributes to that, what are the root causes, and then what can you do about it … and developing a strategy of action that goes beyond the individual.”

Lean outlined the process as a: “Participatory process to engage people so that they can relate themselves into it by connecting what they are concerned with and bringing it together with the collective … there must be some moments where there is an attempt to help people to socially analyse … to see the issue beyond the individual as part of the societal … and then trying to develop a strategy of action … building baby steps.”

Clearly, the purpose of uncovering underlying causes and relationships, of critical analysis is to identify appropriate and possible action.

3. Reflection and action:

When people are truly angry they are ready to act – but such action must be in the interests of the cause and the people who champion the cause – and it must be built on firm commitment in order to ensure the action is sustained. TfT has a firm belief in reflection with action and any training is structured so that theoretical / reflective phases are interspersed with practice phases in which participants put into action what they have learned.

Both Nobuntu and Norma, TfT practitioners from the Eastern Cape, tell stories of how the TfT process was able to build the collective agency and confidence of communities. Popular education enables one to “speak to power” and to “question the authorities … and stand on a very firm ground”. Nobuntu describes how she was able to speak in Parliament about the effects of Monsanto on working class communities and Norma describes how a community locked authorities in the room because authorities wanted to leave after five minutes without addressing the concerns of the community. The community built the confidence to believe that “we are the governors”. The process of building confidence of ordinary people – people who can’t necessarily read or write, who do not have degrees and sometimes even jobs – is one of affirming the knowledge and experience that ordinary working class people have; that what they have matters and they can build on it and use it as the basis for taking collective action: “we are taking from our experiences in order for us to be able to think about the today so that we can move forward.”

Similarly, a story of how the Mbizana community challenged an Australian mining company illustrates how learning to question, to critically analyse can lead to community action in which the anger of a collective is channeled towards solutions. See:

4. Transformation:

What is the ‘transformation’ in TfT? Sally suggests it is primarily “a spiritual exercise”. Nobuntu describes the transformation process as: “Radical change, not change on the surface … radical change starts with the inner self … I situate myself here and my spirit is here … what is this vision that I have. How does this vision relate with the vision of the other people that are with me. So it is about real radical change. Change to the core and that change starts with me.”

The personal, emotional shifts include the development of a vision and hope for a different future. Norma calls her vision of transformation as a process towards “the inclusion of all humanity … starting from you as individual and then you go to the community … and then to the world … [my] vision for the world is to exercise ubuntu, the humanity, the justice”.

It is a deep transformation of the self, not a superficial process of learning the right words to say; rather it is about living the vision you are striving for.

Thelma from Uganda explains: “Transformation for me is a very holistic concept. It’s a process of growth in consciousness and what I like about TfT particularly, from the perspective of Paulo Freire is that growth in consciousness that you get from reflection on action and reflection on reality. “ At best, suggests Thelma, transformation is “emancipation is that release from the chains that bind you psychologically, emotionally, in terms of your own critical consciousness. So it’s freedom, and one of the tenants of Paulo Freire is freedom. Emancipation is very much part of transformation.


TfT goes to the heart of popular education: it rejects what Sophie Scholl, the 22 year old activist murdered by the Nazi regime described as the people “who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes”. Instead, it acknowledges that when people are angry, they act, and that this energy, this passion and commitment is the fuel that drives challenges to the status quo and transformation. As Ntombi from TfT explains, ”The challenge for us I to explore how the action that is provoked by anger is challenged. (…) Someone said: we either make the world a better place for future generations, or create better generations for a better future.”

Is this a political process? Thelma chuckles: “ It’s extremely political. Everything is political. TfT is highly political because it’s all about how you are dealing with power and how you are shifting power from a certain level to another level. “