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Case Study: A convergence in diversity: Supportive Immersion in Systems Wonderland (Part B)

July 18, 2017

One of the major challenges currently facing socio-ecological movements is fostering bonds of solidarity which promote collective action (Forno & Graziano 2014). One of the major contributing factors for the current lack of effective collective and collaborative action is that these bonds of solidarity are being forged primarily through asserting a common unifying belief or value (Weston 2004; Holt-Giménez & Shattuck 2011). However, this convergence in similarity tends to encourage polarization as it highlights difference as a problematic, and sometimes contentious, rather than as an opportunity to promote solidarity in diversity (Weston 1985; Hattingh 1999; Weston 2004; Holt-Giménez & Shattuck 2011; Booth 2012). By reinforcing difference and assimilating through similarity, this form of alliance building can also act as an impediment to practical action as it promotes ideological deadlock and stagnation (Hattingh 1999; Holt-Giménez & Shattuck 2011).

 

This broader reflection of socio-ecological movements is also emblematic of the

current state of environmental ethics (Hattingh 1999). As Hattingh (1999:79) points out, “The

fierce in-fighting between the different positions within environmental ethics can partly be

explained by the fact that many of these positions are characterised by ethical monism: the

adoption of a single principle or a set of closely related principles on the basis of which a

comprehensive ethical theory is built.” These more monistic tendencies in environmental

ethics lead to a moral standoff in which different positions take more unilateral approaches in

building an ethical support system for society (Weston 1985; Hattingh 1999; Weston 2004;

Booth 2012).

 

Using an ecocritical ‘looking glass’ I analyzed Alice from Alice’s Adventures in

Wonderland as an example, or microcosm, of one possible way environmental ethics could

move beyond its current limitations. In following Alice down the ‘rabbit hole’, I suggest three

lessons that environmental ethics could learn from Alice’s experience in Wonderland: to give

nature a voice in environmental ethics; to value diversity of experience and to accept its

complex relationship with socio-ecological and economic power structures in society; and,

finally, through critical dialogue and self-awareness, to promote alliance building through a

more robust and dynamic process of convergence in diversity. However, fostering this sort of

process driven convergence in diversity is not without conflict or tension and requires setting

clear boundaries (Booth 2012; Carter; Kaijser & Kronsell 2014). Nevertheless, by identifying

and analyzing real world approaches that promote this sort of convergence in diversity, we

can better learn to design, protect, and amplify these approaches thereby fostering a more

pragmatic ethical approach to socio-ecological development. One such example I would like

to analyze is the Supportive Immersion Institute and its current initiative, Sibanye, in the

Western Cape of South Africa.

 

Introduction to Supportive Immersion and Sibanye

 

 “I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole – and yet – and yet – it’s rather curious, you

know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can  have happened to me!” (Carroll 1865:46).

 

The Supportive Immersion Institute and supportive immersion approach emerged from New

Summit Academy’s (NSA) experience of fostering personal growth for American youth in Costa

Rica. Since 2005, NSA, and its sister grogram, The Bridge, have worked with teenage youth

(ages 15-18) and young adults (18-23) to promote healthier and more resilient lifestyles

through an experiential, self-reflective and relationship based development process (http://

www.newsummitacademy.com). Being located in Costa Rica, this process has focused on

fostering cross-culture experiences that push participants outside their comfort zone, while at

the same time nurturing and empowering reflection and insight that foster personal growth

(http://www.supportiveimmersion.com). In the course of working with hundreds of students

as well as a variety of different host communities in Latin America, this approach to personal

growth coalesced into a larger theory of change process called Supportive Immersion (http://

supportiveimmersion.com).

 

The emergence of Supportive Immersion and NSA’s subsequent ability to more

effectively communicate this approach, also comes at an interesting point in the growth of

New Summit Academy as an organization. In engaging in their own self-reflective process,

NSA has becoming increasingly interested in how they can amplify and spread the impact of

their model beyond their current niche in Costa Rica (Tracy 2017). As such, supportive

immersion and the Supportive Immersion Institute, not only reflects an effort to better

articulate the NSA approach to personal growth, but also reflects a conscious effort to deepen

and broaden the impact this approach can have in a diversity of settings (Tracy 2017). It is in

this context that NSA is currently collaborating and co-developing a program, Sibanye, in the

Western Cape, South Africa with their main local partner organization Usiko.

My interest in analyzing Sibanye and supportive immersion as a theory of change model

is twofold. First, is my more academic motivation to highlight promising initiatives that bring

together a diversity of stakeholders that cut across age, race, ethnicity and socio economic

class in order to foster transformational change. I believe it is essential to draw attention to

these initiatives, and, subsequently, nurture and help them overcome the plethora of

challenges they may face in contributing to more sustainable and just society. This academic

motivation is based in my personal belief that in order to foster meaningful change in society,

we need approaches that are both top down and bottom up and, furthermore, focus on a

paradigm shift in societal attitudes and values. I believe supportive immersion is one such

theory of change that merits greater attention.

 

My second motivation is from a more deeply personal perspective. In 2005, I was NSA’s

first student and I was able to experience the transformational nature of their model.

Furthermore, I am actively involved in the Sibanye program development and am currently

working as NSA’s primary on the ground liaison and leader in the Western Cape. As such, this

case study also serves as a personal and organizational inventory of the strengths and relative

limitations of our nascent endeavor in South Africa. I hope that by focusing this case study on

Sibanye and supportive immersion, I will be able to draw out some of the blind spots of this

collaborative effort. In doing, I hope to develop a more nuanced and pragmatically

responsive version of supportive immersion that is more culturally relevant, economically

viable, and ecologically poised to take advantage of current opportunities.

 

Supportive Immersion: Walking Alongside Individuals and Communities!

 

The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked goodnatured, she thought: still it had very

long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt it ought to be treated with respect.

“Cheshire Puss,” she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would

like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. “Come, it’s pleased so far,” thought

Alice, and she went on, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to walk from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where –––” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you walk,” said the Cat.

“–––so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

(Carroll 1865:89-90)

 

When Alice meets the Cheshire Cat for the first time, she is at a crossroads feeling confused,

afraid and looking for direction. Despite recognizing its “very long claws and a great many

teeth”, Alice decides to approach the Cheshire Cat, with a timid respect, in the hope that the

Cat can tell her where she should go and how she can find her way (Carroll 1865:89). In many

ways, Alice’s predicament represents that of society’s predicament of feeling lost, confused

and afraid in dealing with the socio-ecological crisis the world is facing. Furthermore, just as

Alice turns to the Cheshire Cat, as a society we turn to environmental ethics and the different

branches of government as well as businesses, academic institutions, and organizations which

purport to embody some form of environmental ethics.

 

Yet, as a society, when we turn to environment ethics for direction, what we get in

return is a rhetorical and antithetical debate with a cacophony of philosophical voices all

demanding that we follow their specific path or universal philosophical truth (Hattingh 1999;

Weston 2004). As Hattingh (1999:71) states, “the intense internal debates among

environmental philosophers contribute to the popular image that philosophers tend to talk to

themselves, turning their backs on a world which hopes to gain from the insights they can

bring to decision-making strategies used in environmental policy formulation and

management.” This state of environmental ethics, in turn, leads to a paralyzing moral

dilemma which tends to promote either inaction or limited and inadequate responses

(Gardiner 2006; Carter 2012; Kaijser & Kronsell 2014). Both of these outcomes allow the

current status quo to remain unchallenged and thus only further entrench the current

ineffective approaches to the variety of socio-ecological crises we are facing (Hattingh 2001;

Carter 2012).

 

However, in contrast to environmental ethics, the Cheshire Cat takes a very different

approach to responding to Alice. Despite Alice’s relative vulnerability in feeling lost and

confused, the Cheshire Cat avoids the temptation to tell Alice where she should go and,

instead, engages in a dialogue with Alice to better understand her individual intentions

(Carroll 1865). In doing so, the Cheshire Cat recognizes the importance of context and for

Alice to engage with where she is and what she is feeling. Furthermore, the Cat does so while

grinning at Alice, thereby helping reassuring her of its non-threatening and more empathetic

nature (Carroll 1865). Finally, by telling Alice she is sure to eventually arrive somewhere as

long as she starts to walk, the Cheshire Cat recognizes that the destination is not always as

important as the process of walking your journey (Carroll 1865:90). The Cheshire Cat’s

response to Alice is much more reflective of the supportive immersion approach and

specifically demonstrates two key characteristics of supportive immersion: to develop

empathy by fostering an emic perspective towards growth, and, to value the process rather

than just the destination.

 

In order to develop true empathetic connections with others it is necessary to develop

an emic, rather than an etic, perspective to the world (http://

www.supportiveimmersion.com). At the core of supportive immersion is to push individuals

and communities beyond their comfort zones to engage with each other and foster growth

(http://www.supportiveimmersion.com). In the context of the Supportive Immersion

Institute, this is primarily done through the unique intersection of cross cultural experiences

(http://www.supportiveimmersion.com). As such cultural anthropology and ethnographic

research has a great deal to offer supportive immersion in terms of both language and how to

approach cross cultural experiences (Recio 2017). One key influence on supportive immersion

from cultural anthropology has been the idea of fostering an emic, rather than an etic,

perspective to seeing the world (http://www.supportiveimmersion.com). Whereas an etic

perspective refers to a more externalized observation and application of universal truths, an

emic perspective asserts that truth is subjective to the individual and cultural lens through

which it is seen (http://www.supportiveimmersion.com). As such, an etic approach more

closely resembles the more traditional concentric and monistic tendencies of environmental

ethics, while an emic approach requires us to move beyond universal truths and not only

validate our own experience, but, also validate the diversity of truth and ways of being in the

world.

 

It is from this more emic philosophical grounding that the Supportive Immersion

Institute is able to define one of their three key pillars, empathy:

 

Empathy is the imaginative entering of another person’s experience, or in other words, putting oneself in other people’s shoes. In SUIM [Supportive Immersion], an emic view is required to experience true empathy. Emic is a word used in anthropology used to describe truths that are individual and culture specific, versus etic, which refers to universal truth. In SUIM, truth is understood as contextual, based on the time, place and angle with which it’s considered. (http://www.supportiveimmersion.com)

 

Like the Cheshire Cat, by walking alongside individuals and seeking to find their truth,

supportive immersion seeks to foster empathetic connections through a more emic

perspective of the world. Developing this emic perspective towards the world not only helps

to breed empathy, but, it also gives value to the more experiential and process driven nature

of life.

 

Building off this emic perspective towards personal and community growth, the second

characteristic of supportive immersion that the Cheshire Cat demonstrates in his response to

Alice, is that process is more important than the destination. Traditional environmental

ethics approaches tend to highlight the means-end distinction in which a more deterministic

end value is used to justify a particular action (Weston 1985). This can be seen in the

instrumental approach to environmental ethics in which the consumption and use of natural

resources is justified through its utility to humans, and, can also been seen at the other end

of the anthropocentric ethical spectrum in which the intrinsic value of nature is also used to

justify, or condemn, particular actions (Weston 1985; Weston 2004). As such, both of these

approaches not only demonstrate an etic perspective to environmental ethics but they also

devalue experience and diminish the importance of process.

 

As Fesmire (2012:216) points out, “This would be fine if moral problems could be

solved by hitting upon a coherent and compelling arrangement of ideas, but the locus of

moral problems is situational and interactive.” Recognizing this more interactive and

contextual nature of moral problems demands us to consider how different moral problems

manifest themselves in our everyday experience and, more importantly, how we can

negotiate the often times conflicting desires inherent in these everyday experiences (Weston

2004; Booth 2012; Fesmire 2012). As such, supportive immersion advocates shifting our gaze

more towards the experiential process of how we as individuals and communities engage with

each other and the world, and, how we resolve the inevitable moral dilemmas which arise in

these interactions (Weston 1985; Weston 2004; Booth 2012; Fesmire 2012).

 

“SUIM [Supportive Immersion] guidance is process-based. When engaged in SuIm,

reaching a destination is important, but it’s more important to learn effective, appropriate,

and meaningful ways of how one gets there and how one grows and learns along the

way” (http://www.supportiveimmersion.com). By focusing on the process rather than the

destination, supportive immersion is working to enhance the tool kit, or what Forno and

Graziano (2014) call the ‘repertoire of action’, which individuals and communities can use to

address socio-ecological challenges (Hattingh 1999; Weston 2004; Minteer & Collins 2005;

Booth 2012). By allowing a greater diversity of experiences to express themselves through this

more process driven approach, supportive immersion is contributing to creating an

environment which enables change to suggest itself rather than predetermining what change

looks like (Weston 1996; Recio 2017). Supportive immersion calls this sort of development

integrative growth (http://www.supportiveimmersion.com).

 

Integrative Growth goes beyond holistic growth in that the intention is to integrate the various parts that a holistic focus develops. In addition, integrative growth accepts the recognition of one’s limitations as part of the growth process, leading to interpersonal and intrapersonal attunement as well as shifts in a person’s ways of

being in the world (http://www.supportiveimmersion.com).

 

Integrative growth represents the end goal of the supportive immersion process. At a personal

level, integrative growth stems from integrative complexity or an individual’s cognitive ability

to make accommodative leaps that shift the underlying schemas, or mental frameworks, that

help us understand the world (Recio 2017). In other words, it is an individual’s ability to

consider a diversity of perspectives, collect meaningful information from those perspectives,

and finally synthesize those perspectives into effective solutions (Recio 2017).

 

When these characteristics are all taken together and integrative growth is seen at a

collective level, fertile ground for a true convergence in diversity starts to emerge. In a real

world setting, this can be seen in the recent collaborative supportive immersion experience

between NSA and Usiko in the Western Cape of South Africa. Usiko is a nonprofit organization

that primarily works with vulnerable youth in the greater Stellenbosch community (Botha

2017). Through afterschool and diversion programs, Usiko offers youth the opportunity to

engage and reflect on their experiences and journey through life (Botha 2017). In combination

with these programs, Usiko then uses wilderness experiences and vision quests to help

empower youth to make changes in their life (Botha 2017). As such Usiko shares a few key

characteristics with NSA, such as an emic perspective, a process oriented logic of

empowerment, and valuing diversity. However, despite these similarities, Usiko and NSA work

with very different populations, and, furthermore, have very different organizational

structures and organizational approaches. Whereas Usiko is a nonprofit that primarily serves

colored and black youth from economically disadvantaged communities and townships in the

Western Cape, NSA is a socially oriented business that primarily serves wealthier white

Americans.

 

Although these differences could be seen as obstacles to development or even an

undesired confrontation of worldviews, NSA and Usiko see this diversity as a unique

opportunity to bring a convergence in diversity and integral growth. They are currently

working on a collaborative initiative, Sibanye, whose goal is use supportive immersion to bring

together youth from a diversity of backgrounds, to help foster personal and community

integrative growth. To date NSA and Usiko have run two, two week supportive immersion

trips, to the Western Cape of South Africa and have plans for at least one more in September

2017. The trips are designed such that there are an equal number of Usiko and NSA

participants. Furthermore, these trips have a structured scaffolding for the boys to develop

empathetic connections by walking in each other’s shoes, sharing experiences, and working

together in joint service learning projects.

 

The structured scaffolding of our most recent supportive immersion trip in March of

2017 was to start with shared experiences and guided reflection to help develop friendships

and foster an emic perspective in week one. An intense weekend wilderness experience, led

by Usiko, was then utilized to strengthen these connections and challenge the boys through a

variety of deep questioning activities aimed at provoking thought surrounding who they are,

why they are here, and what they have to offer as a collective group/community. Finally, the

second week was living in homestays and collaboratively building a school garden at the

Stellenzicht Secondary School in Jamestown, Stellenbosch, Western Cape. By the end of the

two weeks, the boys were able to overcome their own individual and collective fears and

develop their own unique community, Nueva Qubeka (‘Nueva’ means ‘new’ in Spanish and

‘Qubeka’ means ‘insights’ in Xhosa). Furthermore, the testimonials of all the participants

reflect the truly transformational and inspirational nature of the supportive immersion model

for all the individual participants.

 

Following the example of the Cheshire Cat, NSA and Usiko were able to foster a

convergence in diversity with real practical outcomes for their youth participants. The

question for Sibanye is now how to take this supportive immersion model and foster

integrative growth at a larger and longer term organizational level between NSA and Usiko.

 

Conclusion: Creating Scaffolding for Deeper Change

 

 “How are you getting on?” said the Cat, as soon as there was mouth enough for it to speak

with.

Alice waited till the eyes appeared, and then nodded. “It’s no use speaking to it,” she

thought, “till its ears have come, or at least one of them.” In another minute the whole head

appeared, and then Alice put down her flamingo, and began an account of the game, feeling

very glad she had some one to listen to her. The Cat seemed to think that there was enough it

now in sight, and no more of it appeared.

“I don’t think they play at all fairly,” Alice began, in rather a complaining tone, “and

they all quarrel so dreadfully one can’t hear one’s self speak –and they don’t seem to have any

rules in particular; at least, if there are, nobody attends to them –and you’ve know idea how

confusing it is all the things being alive; for instance, there’s the arch I’ve got to go through

next walking about at the other end of the ground –and I should have croqueted the Queen’s

hedgehog just now, only it ran away when it saw mine coming!”

“How do you like the Queen?” said the Cat in a low voice.

“Not at all,” said Alice: “she’s so extremely –” Just then she noticed that the Queen

was close behind her, listening: so she went on “–likely to win, that it’s hardly worth while

finishing the game.” (Carroll 1865: 123-124)

 

The progression of Alice’s conversation with the Cheshire Cat from the previous dialogue,

when she was feeling lost and confused within herself, to this dialogue, where Alice is feeling

lost and confused within the confines of an unfair system, is fairly representative of the

progression of supportive immersion and the collaborative development of Sibanye (Carroll

1865). In this conversation with the Cheshire Cat, Alice shows her increasing awareness of the

unfair nature of the system and how the only rule seems to be that of the Queen’s (Carroll

1865). This recognition of the unfair power dynamics of the Queen and her system is most

apparent in Alice’s poignant response that it is hardly worth playing because the Queen is

likely to win (Carroll 1865:124). This answer simultaneously appeases the Queens arrogant

and dominating personality, and, also displays Alice’s recognition, and dislike, of the Queens

system and the difficulties of overcoming the inherent inequalities in it (Carroll 1865).

 

The supportive immersion model has been very successful at overcoming individual

and group differences in order to foster a convergence in diversity and integrative growth in

their participants. However, overcoming the systemic challenges in order to foster a

convergence in diversity at an organizational level is the next challenge for the Supportive

Immersion Institute, and, is particularly relevant in Usiko’s and NSA collaborative effort to

develop Sibanye. In working with economically disadvantaged communities, Usiko has

operated under a more nonprofit model in which they offer a needed service for their

community, without financial compensation. As such they are dependent on charitable

donations, government grants and funding organizations to maintain their organization. The

recent economic crisis has greatly affected Usiko’s revenue streams and they are currently in

their own economic crisis, struggling to remain operational. NSA, on the other hand is a selfsustaining

social business that relies on paid participants and a more business approach

model. Sibanye, is a hybrid collaborative model between NSA and Usiko, in which paid

participants and supportive immersion programming help subsidize unpaid participation and

furthermore provide a potential revenue stream for Usiko, thereby helping sustain the

organization.

 

In order to realize this potential however, NSA and Usiko are going to have to go

through a deeper integrative growth process in which larger systemic inequalities will

manifest themselves, and, tensions around different organizational goals within NSA and Usiko

will arise in the development of Sibanye. An example of one potential tension is how

economic resources are used within Sibanye, for what ends, and to serve which populations.

A variety of promising ideas have already emerged, such as sharing operational costs and

developing other income generating streams through service learning projects. However,

greater attention needs to be put on creating clear organizational scaffolding, as well as,

creating concrete decision making processes that addresses these potential tensions and

power dynamics. Although NSA and Usiko have started a genuine convergence in diversity

through shared experiences in facilitating supportive immersion trips for their youth

populations, their collaborative effort and cross pollination at an organizational level

represents a larger opportunity to demonstrate the imaginative and collaborative potential

embedded in a true convergence in diversity.

 

 

© Submitted as an assignment for Leadership and Environmental Ethics, April 2017. Post Graduate Diploma in Sustainable Development, Stellenbosch University.

 

 

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