The Multicultural Initiatives Research Team (MCI Team), led by Sherry Watt, researches ‘ways of being’ in relationships, constructs, and strategies that disrupt dehumanizing practices that perpetuate inequity. The MCI Team focuses on process-oriented approaches that place a particular focus on “how” we engage in the community around complex social problems rather than solely on “what” we do or by simply naming outcomes.
The team is comprised of an interdisciplinary group of students (undergraduates and graduate students), faculty, research associates, postdoctoral fellows/scholars, and alumni. Our research approaches knowledge generation through humanistic frames and employs “third thinging” as an epistemology/methodology that allows us to incorporate various modes of data collection and analysis (critical, qualitative, quantitative) while exploring and acting to change complex social problems.
Note: In the work of The Center for Courage & Renewal, “Third Things” are a device, such as a poem, song, story, or an idea that inspires people to reflect on their personal and professional lives through the lens of universal themes.
The Theory of Being
Our most recent culmination of more than 20 years of research includes The Theory of Being (TOB). Our evidence-based approach to explore complex social problems is through the lens of The Theory of Being (Watt, Mahatmya, Mohebali, Martin-Stanley II, 2022). The Theory of Being is a transformative learning theory that, when applied, increases the participants’ stamina to stay in difficult dialogues such as organizational change efforts. This process-oriented approach teaches communities how to engage in ongoing dialogue that can create a culture that bravely examines complex problems within an organization and supports next steps toward systemic change. This shift requires suspending the singularly focused search for answers and invites a deeper exploration of the intricacies of the issues, including intersections with identity, experiences, and context. It is a humanizing approach that counteracts the dehumanizing, dominating power-forward ideologies so ingrained in our institutions. This work is published by Taylor Francis/Routledge Press in the book “The Theory of Being: Practices for Transforming Self and Society”.
Exploring Defensive Reactions
The Privileged Identity (PIE) Model (Watt, 2007) is a framework to understand defensive reactions that emerge when dissonance arises. While the construct privilege was the term that emerged from the original research, it must not be taken out of context. It refers to any identity that is central to one’s experience and upbringing. In practice, understanding defensive reactions can help participants, who have vastly different experiences with systemic sociopolitical issues, to engage productively in heated dialogue with each other. Defensive reactions are normal human responses that can lead learners into deeper understanding themselves, their relationships, and their sociopolitical perspectives. The process of exploring the various reactions to difficult dialogues leads to more productive and collaborative problem-solving across divides.
Our aim is not to claim a simple answer that will end all social ills, but to offer a process whereby we can have productive dialogue so that organizations can continually and proactively transform practices that harm, exclude and/or centralizes one experience to the exclusions of other’s. We aim to intentionally identify and deconstruct the ways we work together that reinforce systems that exclude or that over include. Change on a community level includes realizing that change must happen in people’s attitudes and behaviors as well as organizational practices—and this will take time, thoughtful strategy, and engaging in a process.
People and organizations will not create a proposal that fixes social conflict instantly and/or a decree that enacts changes that will magically result in the ending racism or other social problems. People will need to take thoughtful, actionable steps within a relational context and work together to change an organization’s policies and practices. Ongoing reflective and communal dialogue results in trusted and powerfully supportive relationships that are all too rare and desperately needed when working together to make organizational level change.
We must sustain eternal conversation and stop behaving as if there is a once and for all fix. Individuals engaging in eternal conversations can create equitable policies that can then be created, implemented, assessed, and continually evolved.
Dialogue about social change efforts is difficult, uncomfortable, personally impactful, and necessary. It helps to expect and be prepared for a wide range of human reactions. Individuals must learn to embrace the dissonance and keep the dialogue going. Organizations that sustain the full participation of individuals across different identities are more likely to experience a meaningful and transformative change in policies and practices.
People can take meaningful action now that will significantly suppress the influence of harm or revolt later if individuals can stay in difficult dialogues in a sustainable way. Social ills are rooted in the history, the policies, and the day-to- day interactions in society. It is like dirty water. It has contaminated how we view ourselves, our society, and our day-to-day interactions. If we know that the water is dirty and continues to be contaminated, then we must insert a permanent filter (a process). Cleaning the water source is nearly impossible. Dialogue is a filter. We cannot depend on going back in time to fix the source. Now we must engage in a process of regular practice that continually cleans the water.
We need to employ practices that help us build the stamina to remain present when dissonance occurs. We must value controversy as an opportunity to explore complex problems through the lens of different experiences and perspectives. Engaging these differences can help our search for more productive ways to address organizational change that is inclusive.
In our process-oriented approach, we acknowledge that we are human and flawed. We must aim to view these missteps as developmental.
As citizens of the world, we need to face the reality that we will (and must) have controversial dialogues. It is inevitable. We often respond defensively because these controversial dialogues challenge our beliefs, values, and identity. These defensive reactions can derail dialogue and prevent a community from making meaningful changes in policies and practices in their organization.
Organizational change efforts need space for people to learn. This will require that when missteps are made, there is accountability, acknowledgement, an authentic apology, open dialogue, and the opportunity to try again.
Interested in applying our research within your work or community setting?
We work in partnerships with organizations (e.g., small businesses, cities and municipalities, academic departments and colleges, university level divisions and units, community programs) that includes teaching a range of strategies to help members engage in process-oriented change. We work with community members who are in a working relationship with each other and who are focused on a particular project or have specific goal in mind. To these partners, we offer different ways for an organization to learn ‘ways of being while doing’.
- The MCI team teaches our approach through conducting workshops and webinars.
- We support the incorporation of the Being practices by initially co-facilitating meetings with our partners.
- We offer ways to sustain the practice of Being and support the application of the practices by providing consultations and Being Circles. Being Circles are an organizational strategy that supports sustainable practices for engaging across difference. Being Circles offer a confidential space for small cohorts of participants to reflect on personal and professional practices that translates into active participation in organizational change efforts.
Cost: We collaborate with organizational leaders to seek grant funding that aligns a project that is relevant and timely to the organization with the knowledge and practices of our approach. Please contact us if you would like to know more how we might collaborate with your organization.
MCI Publications and Resources
Watt, S. K., Mahatmya, D., Mohebali, M., & Martin-Stanley II, C. (2022). The Theory of Being: Practices for Transforming Self and Society. Taylor Francis/Routledge Publishing.
Watt, S. K. (Ed.). (2015). Designing transformative multicultural initiatives: Theoretical foundations, practical applications, and facilitator considerations. Stylus Publishing.
Selected Book Chapters:
Mohebali, M., Louie, G., Weaver, K. E., & Watt, S. K. (2021). Engaging head, heart, and hands toward Freirean praxis: Process-oriented research in the age of evidence-based outcomes. In R. Lake, E. Stein, & T. Kress (Eds.), Radically dreaming: Illuminating Freirean praxis in turbulent times. DOI Press.
Watt, S. K. (2012). Moving beyond the talk: From difficult dialogue to action. In R. L. Pope, V. Torres, & J. Arminio (Eds.), Why Aren’t We There Yet?: Taking Personal Responsibility for Creating an Inclusive Campus (pp. 131–144). Stylus Publishing.
Selected Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles:
Watt, S. K., Mueller, J. A., Parker, E. T., Neel, R., Pasquesi, K., Kilgo, C. A., Mollet, A. L., Mahatmya, D., & Multicultural Initiatives Consortium. (2021). Measuring Privileged Identity in Educational Environments: Development and Validation of the Privileged Identity Exploration Scale. Frontiers in Education, 6, 271. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2021.620827
Watt, S. K., Mahatmya, D., Coghill-Behrends, W., Clay, D. L., Thein, A. H., & Annicella, C. (2021). Being with Anti-Racism Organizational Change Efforts: Using a Process-Oriented Approach to Facilitate Transformation. Journal of College Student Development, 62(1), 130–133. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2021.0011
Watt, S. K., Curtis, G. C., Drummond, J., Kellogg, A. H., Lozano, A., Nicoli, G. T., & Rosas, M. (2009). Privileged identity exploration: Examining counselor trainees’ reactions to difficult dialogues. Counselor Education & Supervision, 49(2), 86–105.
Watt, S. K. (2007). Difficult dialogues, privilege and social justice: Uses of the Privileged Identity Exploration (PIE) model in student affairs practice. The College Student Affairs Journal, 26(2), 114–126.
Selected Peer-Reviewed Monographs:
Watt, S. K. (2016). The Practice of Freedom: Leading Through Controversy. New Directions for Student Leadership, 2016(152), 35–46. https://doi.org/10.1002/yd.20207
Watt, S. K. (2015). Situating Race in College Students’ Search for Purpose and Meaning: Who am I? Journal of College and Character, 16(3), 135–142. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2015.1057158
Watt, S. K. (2013). Designing and implementing multicultural initiatives: Guiding principles: designing and implementing multicultural initiatives. New Directions for Student Services, 2013(144), 5–15. https://doi.org/10.1002/ss.20064
Watt, S. K. (2009). Facilitating difficult dialogues at the intersections of religious privilege. New Directions for Student Services, 2009(125), 65–73. https://doi.org/10.1002/ss.309