Rather than worrying about how good we are at something when we surrender to our practice, it leads the way. And if it has heart, it likely will have staying power (Horwitz, 2002:12).
My interest to write fiction and mix it with embodied writings arose out of my daily walk to university this second term. Through both these methods, in this essay, I reflect on the importance of reflective practice for daily life, in particular, in the professional development field as a way to transform power dynamics. The aim of this paper is to reflect on what reflective practice means for international development and social change, how reflection supports us and the people with whom we work.
As Pettit (2006:76) reminds us, there is a tendency to risk losing touch with the way power operates in life. In this light, I believe the reflective practice has become an essential approach to improve or transform the ways we see and do development and social change. Pettit (2006:76) emphasises that methodologies that involve transformative learning or generating knowledge for social change are quite often marginalised, as a result of removing the self from the analytical process. This is a top-down approach that excludes the insight of the poor or marginalised. As Chambers (1997) points out, knowledge from the bottom-up should be taken into consideration for its enormous potential to bring social change.
Since I started walking two months ago, emotionally I was more positive, physically more flexible and mentally more creative. These walks inspired me to try new writing methods. As Hunt (1998:33) highlights, writing fiction helps us to engage more deeply with our inner life, opening up possibilities for greater insight and self-understanding. I mix writing fiction with embodied writing because it can express my feelings better about walking and also engages the readers with the story. As Anderson (2010:83) emphasises, embodied writing is a path of transformation that helps one increase their sense of presence in and of the world.
The disconnection between practitioners and themselves in the development arena is, unfortunately, very common. Sometimes, we see in our daily lives that what we say and what we actually do is contradictory (Pettit, 2006:71). My story begins in a scene criticising the top-down approach of many international organisations that continue to deny the importance of reflective practice as an ´action learning´ process and are based on goals, evaluations and numbers, leaving out of the equation the people, their beliefs, problems, and feelings. The main focus of the story draws on the comparison of this top-down approach to cycling in contrast to a more bottom-up approach through walking, in which reflective practice plays an important role. Alongside the story, I include embodied writing to remember how important emotions and feelings are, and how the combination of both helps me to deepen my sense of self-awareness and self-understanding. I will draw on physical, spiritual factors as well as collective reflection and finally, explain what I have learnt about myself through this course.
Back to the future: 2036
At the office of an international development organisation
- Which part of ´I am busy´ don´t you understand?
- An urgent packet has arrived
- Urgent? Who is it from?
- You, twenty years ago.
With surprise, I open the file that was on the pen drive. It contains a video of me twenty years ago in Brighton while I was studying my Master’s in Development Studies.
´´Hi, who am I? Surprised? If you watch this it means that twenty years have passed and, many things may have changed in your life. I am sure that you finally work in an office for an international organisation, despite your scepticism. How is your life? Look around, Is it what you expected? ´´
I look around my big office: grey, silent, full of papers. I look out the window and see people in the street. I look for a few seconds and I realise that there is a group of people protesting about the refugees’ crisis in Europe. They have been there three days and I only just noticed. I breathe, feel frustrated… Am I disconnected from reality?
´´Do you still remember all the things you learnt this year? Do you still remember what reflective practice means? You loved it and you, me, promised to continue it in the future. Just in case you became as those people that you were criticising and that you promised you will never be in the future, here are a few moments when you were walking to university and you used to write for your reflective practice course. You used to say to everyone that walking connected you with yourself, with nature and with the people around you. Are you still walking? If so, skip this video… Hey! I see you are still there. This video arrived at the perfect moment”.
I stop the video and look at the sky. I remember when I was cycling to university stressed, going fast, concentrating on the road, without looking around. How many things I was missing! I look around again and have the same feeling in my office. Since I started work in this international organisation evaluating projects for development, my reflective side has reduced as my daily life is based on lock frameworks, evaluations, results. I feel disconnected from myself. Projects and results are accountable to donors but, what about the people on the ground? Who is accountable to them? We never ask them what they want, we just follow the rules from the donors, only looking at the goals. It is like cycling whilst looking around to just get to the finish line.
Then I remember when I walked every day to university. I remember all the positive benefits that walking brings. I continue with the video.
´´ Connecting your body, soul, feelings and mind gave you balance and made you aware of changes in your life this year. Do you think that only studying or working is important in life? When you break this balance, it affects you negatively. How do you feel now? Do you remember what you felt when walking? I am here to remind you who you are´´.
´´ As I walk to university, I am thinking about what my colleagues told me yesterday. Are you crazy? Walking? Why not, I replied. Have you ever walked to the university since you arrived? They answered no, of course. In life, we often make statements or arguments about things we have not tried. I told them that now that I walk I can see things that I could not see when cycling. Before, I only was aware of the suffering of pedalling and of the rain. Today, instead, I can see beyond my eyes. For instance, this morning I passed in front of an old man’s house. I see him every day at the window and I always smile to him, thinking that a smile could make him feel better. Today was the first time that he said hello to me, and joy embraced my body. We did not share more than a smile, but it was enough. We were for an instant connected. Before, I was always going too fast to notice him´´.
I look out the window again. The protesters are still there. I feel like when I was cycling. I did not look around. I am always concentrating on my work, on me, on my goals. I remember Bolton´s (2010:15) words about our life of anxiety, tension, and hyperactivity where there is little reflective, reflexive or simply mentally absent space allowed. As a development worker, I should be aware of this problem of space and time and try to observe things slowly, with care, as when walking.
´´Coming from university I stopped at the supermarket. My back hurts. I feel the-the weight of my shopping. I am exhausted! Today I feel that I do not want to go walking again, I do not want to carry more bags. I want to take a bus but my credit card does not work. I have no other choice than walking. On the way, I think how many women in the world have to carry many bags every day, working long hours, suffering discrimination and walk kilometres to come back home, without waiting for a credit card. I thank God for being so lucky. I should not complain. How many days will those women suffer?´´
We see life differently when we look beyond ourselves when we put things in another perspective. As Bolton (2010:14) reminds us ´´reflexivity focuses on one´s own actions, thoughts, feelings, values, identity and their effect upon others, situations, and professional and social structures´´. Internal dialogue is a good practice for reflection. I think about women who feel oppressed, suffer in silence, are excluded, and are not allowed to raise their voice. Situations, where I probably do not realise that it is happening, but it is. I need to look beyond my narrow visual and emotional field.
´´I discovered a new way to get to university. I am so happy! I love to have the feeling of getting lost and discovering new things. I can compare my little discovery today to when I read or study as this is the moment that understanding a theory or discovering a new path makes me feel empowered´´
The art of getting lost (Lovett, 2008:9) is far from what I do. Donors tell me what to write, what to say, how to do it and when. It is like cycling in a city. You have your path, the road and just follow it. Walking is different. You still have a destiny but you are open to change your way in little steps. You are open to learning different ways of doing things. There is more variety. Applied to the development world, it gives you more flexibility to adopt other knowledge and learning processes.
´´Monday morning and there is a lot of traffic. I suddenly remember one of the classes in IDS about power. I really loved that class. I never thought about power before. I look at those cars, going fast and, out of the blue, my mind goes to a small village where a development project is being implemented. I wonder what the villagers may think when development workers arrive in the village for the first time in such big and powerful cars. They may not want to connect with them. Inside your car you do not feel, you do not smell, you do not interact. You are in a bubble´´.
When working in the development field, the way people approach someone is very important (Gregg and Seigworth, 2010). Going in those big and powerful cars, villagers might feel excluded and disconnected from those inside. In a car we do not interact with them, we just invade their space. I wonder how different it would be to arrive at the village walking. I look around my office and I wonder whether the bubble above described is the same that I live within now.
´´Surrounded by trees, I feel the power of nature. Peace, freedom is what comes to my mind. Also a primitive sense of being human. Most of the times we forget. But now, I rediscover its power again. I feel part of the ecosystem, part of a whole design. I believe that the same happens with people. We are part of a community. One tree contributes to the ecosystem but the forest boost its benefits. A person is the same. One can do many things, but the community can bring change´´.
Like when cycling, in my current job, I became very individualistic and closed. Cycling is an individual activity that does not need input from others, does not allow others to interact. I spend long hours alone doing the same. I suppose that it is normal as in all jobs we need time to do our job independently, but I feel that I have lost the sense of community. Walking allowed me to reflect individually but also in a community. A friend of mine used to walk with me every day. We shared experiences, feelings, thoughts, stories, we laughed, we reflected on life. When cycling, I could not have enjoyed its company.
´´ I feel frustrated with my studies today. I feel stuck, weak. I need strength and I pray. I talk to God. Sometimes, I feel disconnected from Him but when I pray, my body is charged with positive energy. Walking helps me to connect with my spirituality. Before, when cycling, my breath was so fast that I could not reflect. Now, walking, my breath is constant, coordinated with my thoughts, at the same pace. I enter into the forest and there is silence. Too much noise stops me thinking. I need silence´´.
I remember how peaceful and cheerful I was when praying. My friends used to tell me. Now, I do not feel the same in my office. My spirituality is almost forgotten. My soul fades. I became a grey and bitter person. Many voices in society and no time for praying, being in silence. No time to connect with my soul.
´´I am thinking about my future. Where will I work? The end of the Master’s is approaching and all my coursemates are stressed looking for jobs. I am not worried now finding a job but I wonder where I will be. I enter in the forest and I breathe the fresh air. I promise to keep walking in the future and to not forget reflective practice´´.
The video stops. I breathe deeply. My lifestyle has become static, stressed, without time to think. I forgot the meaning of ´action learning´. I forgot myself. I look out the window again. The protesters are still there. They do not give up. I walk around the office. I feel anxious. Is it true that I am disconnected from reality? Should I start walking again and reflect? I take my coat and I call my assistant. My voice now is calm and nice. She feels it too. ´´I am going for a walk and I will take my mobile ´´ ´´You can take a break too´´. Today, at least today, is time to reflect again.
We are what we do, not what we say. This is a popular sentence. As a student of development studies, my values and beliefs are shaped by the will of contributing to a better world. But I recognise that I am not going to change the world, a country neither a community. I even find it difficult to change my little and daily routine, how can I dream of changing unequal power dynamics and unfair situations? Two words come to my mind again…reflective practice. Why is it so important, in particular, for development workers?
Reflective practice, as Bolton (2010:5) points out, can enable practitioners to learn from experiences about themselves, their work, and the way they relate to home and work. Comparing it with walking, it can provide safe and confidential ways to explore and express experiences otherwise difficult to communicate. Reflexivity is defined (Bolton, 2010:13) as those questions about our own attitudes, processes, values and assumptions. Reflexivity then should be essential when working in development. Why? Our conclusions and critiques can result in radical movements for change, damaging social and cultural biases and inequalities.
Yet, there have been arguments against these approaches. It has been seen as a lack of time (Copeland et al., 1993) but also as a luxury difficult to find space and moments for (Hedberg, 2009). Moreover, it has also been seen as threats to position or status in organisations (Heel et al. 2006).
In the professional development arena, power is a central concern (Pettit, 2006:71). ´Power within´ following Miller et al. (2006:6) refers to ´´a person’s sense of self-worth and self-knowledge that enables them to recognize individual differences while respecting others´´. It can challenge dominant social norms, such as gender biases and racism. In the case of transforming unequal gender relations, for instance, Kabeer (1999:457) emphasises that inequalities cannot be addressed by individuals alone. Women´s empowerment is dependent on collective solidarity. In development, we spend a lot of time working in teams, with colleagues, in the field, and connecting with people is essential. But we must also accept the limitations when approaching someone in a project or community (Gregg and Seigworth, 2010:13).
Dominant forms of power are very slow to change and life is full of contradictions. I admit that I am part of it. Although I have good intentions and social justice values, to shift the ways power is embodied within me is difficult. However, when I walk, pray and reflect, my self-awareness and self-understanding deepen and I become open to learning different approaches.
Approaches to self-reflection, reflexivity and power analysis in development studies and practice are, therefore, as yet, underdeveloped (Pettit, 2006:77). This might be the answer as to why reflective practice is not so prevalent among social scientists, NGO workers or politicians. Where they do arise, there is a tendency to separate the logical from the emotional part and, therefore, engaging with power in our thinking, behaviour and practice become complicated (Pettit, 2006:77). For me, walking has a learning method and critical self-reflection to start connecting my logical and emotional spaces alongside my spiritual side.
Walking and praying have been a therapy for me during this second term. I see the reflective practice as a powerful tool to promote spaces for connecting logically, physically and emotional with oneself and with others. Although this definition can be criticised, this is how I see it after two months. This course has changed the way I see reflective practice. I have discovered that it applies to a wide spectrum of self-awareness, self-understanding and/or collective action. I highlight one anecdote. I was with my peer group a few weeks ago when we started talking about the meaning of reflective practice. I said ´´for me it is a tool to find solutions to problems´´. But my colleagues disagreed. They said ´´sometimes you just need to accept situations as they come along´´. It was difficult for me to understand them. With a background in law, I was always trained to find solutions to problems. When I arrived home, I analysed past experiences, trying to apply the new formula of acceptance. It was difficult for me. I could not apply them. My perspective was embedded in my personality for years. In that moment, I thought that I was not going to change and I accepted it. In that moment I changed.
*Maria Aguado is a Fundacion Barrie Scholar studying MA in Development Studies at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK. She worked as a Parliamentary Assistant in the European Parliament in Brussels for a period of five years. Besides writing and studying, she loves to actively engage in social change with a broad, multicultural and international perspective.
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Feature Photograph: Mahmudul Hoque Moni