Praxis Makes Perfect

Effective practice follows a cycle. We start with our theory of how to do community development / community regeneration / community activation. The we take actions based on our theories. Then we take a step back and reflect on how the action / practice went, which re-shapes our theory. Essentially, praxis means ‘learning’. It may seem simple, but few community practitioners actually do it.

Praxis requires us to be learners of our own experience and context. Its not just about being smart and reflecting. Its also about building specific behaviours and group norms that promote habits of strategy, debrief and revision. It’s about your meeting style, organisational structure, and leadership dynamics. Here’s the difference that praxis can make.

Scenario: Let’s say we are undertaking a project focusing on building climate resilient communities with a community in the Torres Strait Islands, and we decide to bring inspirational speaker X from Tuvalu to the Torres Strait Islands. The project team all agrees that this would be excellent. The speaker talks about why the climate emergency is real for people in Tuvalu, about the overwhelming issue of climate refugees and the loss of cultural heritage. Everyone including the local community groups you are working with in the Torres Strait Islands agrees the event was good. It was quite well attended, and people like connecting and learning about other cultures and experiences. You decide to keep moving forward an host another event, this time with speaker X from Fiji.

It’s all a bit directionless. There is no actual theory, and no basis for reflection. Instead, let’s start with a theory.

We start our community workshop with unpacking the climate crisis in the Torres Strait Islands. The community is familiar with the Torres Strait 8, who made international legal history after the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that the Australian Government is violating its human rights obligations to Torres Strait Islanders by failing to act on climate change. They want to build a movement within the Oceania region, to continue to build ‘regional community support’. Together an Oceania region stakeholder analysis was done, and the Torres Strait Islander community thought it would be good to learn from the Tuvalu community specifically on working with government on this issue. (In this instance, the Torres Strait Islander community has not made any progress in building a collaborative relationship with the Australian Government). The community also thinks that if they could get the public discussion online to connect with the broader Australian public who care about the climate crisis. They also think they can create a large mailing list to start to communicate with active champions of climate change, and ask for donations for their ongoing project of building climate resilient communities in the Torres Strait.
As a result, they community learns some of the strategies that Tuvalu climate activists used in their relationship building with government. They had 350 people attend the online forum from across Australia and Oceania, their newsletter list increased by 570 and they raised $1500. You can see that a theory of change is prominent. It has an explicit logic, a process of how the community will undertake specific actions and concrete measurable outcomes that you expect.

You now have a real basis for reflection. You can debrief your event, and instead of subjectively talking about whether it was good or not, you can have a conversation about why it didn’t measure up to your success indicators, and what to do next time. These lessons shape how you (and the community) co-design your next event / project.

Community development workers should have a praxis cycle spinning in their heads all the time. We are always learning from what’s going on around us. The point of building a culture of praxis in your organisation / programme / project is so everyone can learn – not just the project manager or project worker. (remember we love working alongside community – and implementing co-design approaches) When you develop your theory of change with the community you work with, the lessons are available to all. If you don’t take real time out to name your theories, and then reflect, revise and learn lessons, you will be left spinning your wheels , with fewer and fewer under-represented community members – and people in general, understanding how to undertake community development.

The Praxis Wheel

And don’t forget – the primary job of a community development worker, is to work yourself out of a job – and let the community lead.

In Sum: Theory without action doesn’t create change. Action without reflection produces ineffective or counter-productive community work. That’s why we have praxis: a cycle of theory, action and reflection that helps us analyse our efforts in order to improve our (community) practice.