Through Solidarity to “Fluidarity”: Understanding Difference and Developing Change Agency Through Narrative Reflection



This paper examines the development of the concept of solidarity as expressing a sense of shared humanity, while detailing critiques of its current use, especially when it implies a privileged center setting the agenda for the sake of marginalized others. My research demonstrates how solidarity can be modified when encountering difference, and how it might be better conceptualized as “fluidarity,” an attitude and practice that embraces the complexity of engaging the other in pluralized and ever-changing struggles. This engagement with otherness, an explicit part of an undergraduate theological ethics course with an embedded service-learning component, is pedagogically facilitated by a threefold reflection process required of students: critical reflection on their own narratives, reflection on the narratives encountered in their service-learning, and reflection on the lives of spiritually grounded agents of social change. Case studies of four undergraduate students demonstrate the ways in which this pedagogical strategy contributes to the development of solidarity and moves students' understanding towards fluidarity. In the end, the students gained a sense of spiritually grounded change agency, combining spiritual development with growth in critical consciousness.


Solidarity is an often-invoked and valorized practice in both secular and religious ethics, serving as one way of expressing a sense of shared humanity. Recent history provides powerful and emotionally charged images of solidarity in action: from pictures of white civil rights workers marching with African-Americans on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama in the 1960s; to video of Santiago, Chile, where women danced alone in the streets to draw attention to their disappeared children under the regime of Augusto Pinochet during the 1970s; to footage of Lech Walesa and Polish dock workers on strike to bring down the communist government of Poland in the 1980s.

How do twenty-first century students understand solidarity through their encounters with others in a service-learning environment? This question was central to a study I conducted over the course of a semester at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, in an undergraduate theology course with an embedded service-learning component. The University of St. Thomas is the largest private college or university in the state, enrolling nearly six thousand undergraduate students as well as five thousand graduate and professional students. St. Thomas describes itself as a Catholic, independent, liberal arts, archdiocesan institution that emphasizes values-centered, career-oriented education. Students in this study were in their second through fourth years at the university and came from a variety of majors ranging from liberal arts to business.

Although we share deeply resonant images of people standing together, the definition of solidarity can be elusive and its practice varied and contested. What do we mean by “solidarity” in the twenty-first century, in the age of globalization? Both secular and religious scholars compellingly question the ways in which solidarity can be employed to homogenize all of humanity into one family where differences are ignored and oppression leveled. When this occurs, solidarity becomes a caricature of itself – an image of all people holding hands in peaceful harmony, while never interrogating why some hands possess enabling power and others do not. When engaging in service-learning, there is always the risk that students will come away with an oversimplified vision of solidarity. They may conclude that we are all the same and that the power differentials between us are unimportant, thinking “the other is poor but happy”; or they may come to see themselves as the benevolent privileged ones “helping” those who are less fortunate, without ever seeking to understand why they are less fortunate.

My research demonstrates how solidarity can be modified when encountering difference, and how it might be better conceptualized as “fluidarity,” a term coined by Diane Nelson (1999) to signify an attitude and practice that embraces the complexity of engaging the other in pluralized and ever changing struggles. This engagement with otherness was pedagogically facilitated by a threefold reflection process required of students: critical reflection on their own narratives, reflection on the narratives encountered in their service-learning, and reflection on the lives of spiritually grounded agents of social change. Case studies of four undergraduate students reveal how this teaching strategy contributes to the development of solidarity while at the same time moving through that understanding towards fluidarity. In the final analysis, students gained a sense of spiritually grounded change agency, combining spiritual development with growth in critical consciousness. I believe that service-learning, when combined with self-reflection and reflection on the lives of spiritually grounded social activists, can be a powerful pedagogical tool for engaging students both civically and spiritually, by facilitating the movement through solidarity to fluidarity.

Solidarity Defined and Disputed

Andreas Wildt (1999) traces the meaning of solidarity to the Latin word solidus, or solid, signifying a feeling of connection or cohesion, a natural feeling of belonging together. Giles Gunn (2001) believes that solidarity has for the last couple of centuries been one of Western culture's most significant secular “god-terms” premised upon the concept of a unitary humanity sharing a bond within and across cultures. Religious thinkers have also attached significance to the concept of solidarity, notably in the development of Catholic social teaching, which seeks to apply Christian scripture and Catholic doctrine to contemporary political, social, economic, and cultural issues. John Paul II ([1987] 1997) gives the fullest treatment to solidarity in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern) where he writes:

Solidarity helps us to see the “other” – whether a person, people or nation – not just as some kind of instrument, with a capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as “neighbor,” a “helper” to be made a sharer on par with ourselves in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God. (421–22)

Solidarity then affirms a human interconnectedness while at the same time challenging each person to assume responsibility for the other.

While solidarity has often been associated with Western thinkers, it does have some corollaries in Eastern thought. Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh does not use the word “solidarity” but instead refers to the development of “interbeing,” a term combining “mutual” and “to be,” meaning “I am, therefore you are. You are, therefore I am … We inter-are” (1987, 87). He writes that one can only develop this sense of interbeing by encountering the marginalized, by finding “ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits … shar[ing] time, energy, and material resources with those in need” (91–92). For Thich Nhat Hanh and John Paul II, solidarity is indeed a feeling of connection but it also implies action. Solidarity means taking seriously the needs of the other.

Critics of the concept and practice of solidarity question its premise of a unitary humanity and human bond across cultures. Postmodernism, with its “incredulity toward metanarratives,” (Lyotard 1984, xxiv) views solidarity as just another grand narrative that subjugates the voices of the marginalized. A similar critique is offered by postcolonial discourse, which is concerned with the cultural and discursive domination of the West on colonial subjects (Loomba 1998). Since it usually emanates from benevolent westerners, solidarity is often linked with Western imperialism and the history of colonization (Gunn 2001). Grounded in this postcolonial critique, anthropologist Diane Nelson (1999) examines solidarity from the perspective of an insider involved in the solidarity movement with the people of Guatemala during their bloody civil war and genocide of indigenous people. Solidarity, she asserts, “may too often assume the humanist stance that we can unproblematically understand each other despite linguistic, cultural, national, and power differentials” (54–55). Similarly, theologian Mark Lewis Taylor (2003) posits that solidarity may be unsustainable as a term for those who work with the marginalized because it often implies “too sanguine a knowledge of the other, too pretentious an identifying with their plight, too presumptuous a connection to shared struggle with them” (35).

Fluidarity: Solidarity Challenged by Difference

While solidarity can be problematic in its conceptualizations and practices, so too can a position that does not recognize that a globalized world compels people to confront one another in all of their difference. What is needed then is collaboration to produce a social system that “honors differences while developing a minimum sense of solidarity to make cooperation possible” (Min 2004, 2). Theologian Anselm Min defines this kind of solidarity as the solidarity of others (as opposed to with others), which rejects the centrality of any one group, requiring one to decenter the concern of one's own group and recenter on the solidarity of all in their needs. In this way, solidarity connotes double resistance – challenging the individual to reject the allegiance to only one's own “tribe,” while at the same time affirming the particularity of individual experience. This kind of solidarity is attentive to “differences in suffering and preferential solidarity with those who suffer more, not reduction of all to abstract equality” (2004, 142).

Dean Brackley, S.J., echoes the ideas above asserting that decentering the privileged position is important to achieve solidarity, which he, along with numerous liberation theologians, refers to as a “view from below” (2008). This view, from the perspective of those experiencing poverty and injustice, is not necessarily superior but affirms the particularity and value of the view that is not at the center. It avoids the usual perspective of the privileged subject bumping into the disadvantaged object and instead allows for the com-penetration of knower and known.

Diane Nelson, although critical of the solidarity she practiced as an activist, also admits that solidarity moved her towards “making self-conscious alliances, of trying to be aware and respectful of differences while striving to find common ground as the basis for radical politics” (1999, 50). She incorporates this aspect of solidarity into a new concept – fluidarity – which she describes as a “practice, not a recipe” (73). Fluidarity does not lean on the solid but rather invokes partial knowledge, placing value on being incomplete, vulnerable, and never totally fixed. It propels one to work closely with others yet to be constantly critical of one's presuppositions and motives. Fluidarity pushes one to embrace complexity, providing a vehicle to ethically articulate and live the complex web of relationships in a wounded and bleeding world, “paying attention to those strange and transformative connections that make identities, and … constituting and being constituted by those very connections” (1999, 349).

Mark Lewis Taylor builds on Nelson's concept, proposing that one's relationship to others, especially marginalized others, is a “kind of matrix in which selves and others might now be together in a pluralized, diverse, and always changing struggle … wherein some real sharing evolves from the shaky ground of meeting one another amid differences” (2003, 39). Fluidarity, then, honors the particularity of experience, avoiding the homogenization of differences and the leveling of oppression while providing space for entitled advocacy. Taylor defines entitled ones as “those who usually by some group affiliation (class, ethnic identity, gender, educational experience, political position) or because of some combination of these affiliations, have access to enabling power that others do not” (24). Entitled advocates understand that to work with and for the marginalized involves recognition of one's interconnection with them and their multiplicity, as well as one's own multiplicity. In Taylor's words, “the other is also in us, as well as outside us” (37).

A Pedagogy of Fluidarity

My own experience engaging undergraduate students in service-learning as an embedded component of a theological ethics course has propelled me to ask what role service-learning plays in the development of both solidarity and fluidarity. I have come to the conclusion that framing the process dualistically, as either solidarity or fluidarity, is not true to my observations; rather, we pass through solidarity to fluidarity. In other words, individuals first develop a sense of solidarity, of common humanity or interconnection with others, and then enlarge and refine that notion with an understanding of difference, making it a critical solidarity. One presupposes the other; a person cannot develop a sense of fluidarity, of real sharing which has evolved from the shaky ground of meeting one another amid differences, without first feeling a sense of solidarity, that we are all brothers and sisters in one human family.

My observations around this process and the development of a pedagogy of fluidarity come from a study that I conducted as part of an undergraduate theology course, titled “Christian Morality.” Thirty students were enrolled in the course and eight were chosen to be a part of the study; for the purposes of this article, I have included the experiences of four participants that particularly helped to illuminate the pedagogical process that was implemented. The course examined moral decision making from the perspective of Christian moral theology while making connections to understanding from other religions and from the social sciences. Three of the primary learning objectives were:

  • To better understand one's own narrative, one's own identity, upbringing, and experience, and how it impacts one's moral decisions.
  • To research the narratives of spiritually grounded, socially active, moral role models and to discover in their lives, relationships to one's own.
  • To engage the narratives encountered through service to others and to reflect upon, analyze, and gain awareness about the course material, one's self, and the larger world through the experience.

These three objectives highlight the conviction that stories matter, that narratives are a fundamental construction of human meaning-making (Bruner 2002; Clark 2001). Specifically, narratives are pivotal in moral development because “we learn more by stories than we do by rules” (Gula 1989, 142). The study examined how critical reflection on one's own narrative, on the narratives encountered through one's service-learning, and on the narratives of spiritually grounded agents of social change, can produce a sense of spiritually grounded change agency in students.

The Kaleidoscope of Integration

While the study yielded many thematic findings, one of the most interesting discoveries was that this threefold narrative reflection moved students through solidarity to fluidarity. This movement occurred because of a pedagogical model that facilitated students' integration of critical reflection on their own narratives, the narratives encountered in service-learning, and narratives of liberatory religion and spirituality. The image that best represents the pedagogical model that produced this integrated learning is that of the kaleidoscope. The Britannica Concise Encyclopedia describes a kaleidoscope as “an optical device consisting of mirrors that reflect images of bits of coloured glass or other objects in a symmetrical geometric design through a viewer. The design may be changed endlessly by rotating the section containing the loose fragments” (2008). The pedagogical components of the “kaleidoscope of integration” are graphically represented in Figure 1 and described in greater detail below.

Figure 1.

Kaleidoscope of Integration

The Eye

The human eye represents what each participant brought to the study in the way of upbringing, previous experience, and the desire for spiritual connection. It reflects educator Paulo Freire's thinking, that education does not start with students as depositories and teachers as “bank-clerk educators” who make deposits into them, but rather each student enters with “background awarenesses” (1986, 70).

Within the first few weeks of the course, students completed a reflective essay for the purpose of pre-flection, reflection on their lives and these background awarenesses prior to service-learning and their intensive study of liberatory narratives. In this essay, the “Identity Timeline Essay,” students were asked to describe moments in their lives when they became aware of, learned more about, or understood in a new way their own religious or spiritual identity as well as moments related to their socio-economic, gender, sexual orientation, racial, ethnic, and cultural identities. The description of these moments revealed how their families had impacted their understanding of spirituality and religion, community service, and social issues, and how this learning shaped their current identities. They also highlighted the spiritual yearning students brought to the educational project of the semester. Students reflected this desire in differing ways and degrees, but each related in some way to the definition of spirituality given by Sandra Schneiders – that spirituality is “the experience of conscious involvement in the project of life-integration through self-transcendence towards the ultimate value one perceives” (2003, 166).

The Mirrors

As displayed in Figure 1, this model of the kaleidoscope contains three mirrors, which reflect upon one another and upon the objects at the end of the cylinder. These mirrors represent the three “narratives” reflected upon by the students. Freire (1986) stresses the narrative character of education, asserting that education is fundamentally about dialogue. In the kaleidoscope, the narratives are placed into dialogue with one another. The first mirror is critical reflection on one's own narrative. Freire asserts that “those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly” (1986, 47). Besides the “Identity Timeline Essay” participants were asked on an ongoing basis, through both writing assignments and class discussion, to reflect upon their own life stories in terms of social and spiritual identity development and sense of change agency. The written assignments included a set of essays titled “Letters to the Class,” that were designed to be a response to the course readings, their service-learning experiences, and a discussion starter for classroom dialogue. Students also completed a longer integrative final essay that was intended to uncover any changes in identity associated with course material, reading, or the service-learning component. This essay utilized a series of open-ended questions to foster critical reflection on the narratives encountered in the participants' service-learning placements, the narratives of the social change agents they studied, and their own personal narratives.

The second mirror in this model represents the narratives encountered in critical service-learning. As described by various researchers and theorists (Cipolle 2004; Masucci and Renner 2001; Rhoads 1997) critical service-learning connects reflection with action and creates both personal and social transformation that is counter-hegemonic as opposed to perpetuating systems of domination. Service-learning was critical in this study, first of all, because of the kind of reflection asked of the participants. Through the writing assignments, class readings, and discussions, the participants were continually challenged to link their service to both their own self-understanding and to larger questions of social justice. The service-learning sites, where students completed fifteen to twenty hours of service in an eight to ten week period, also facilitated critical service-learning by placing a commitment to human dignity and social justice at the center of their direct work with some of the most marginalized groups in society.

The third and final mirror represents the narratives of liberatory religion and spirituality. Throughout the course, participants were exposed to narratives that evoked liberatory themes in religion and spirituality, culminating in participants studying a narrative by a spiritually grounded agent of social change directly related to their service site. The sites and the corresponding narratives were: Listening House, a day shelter for homeless persons, and Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion by Robert Coles (1987); St. Philip's Patchwork Quilt Youth Program, an after school program run by a Catholic church that primarily serves African-American children, and Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Spirit-Led Prophet by Richard Deats (2000); Academia Cesar Chavez, a charter elementary school centered on Latino culture, and The Moral Vision of Cesar Chavez by Frederick John Dalton (2003); and Wellstone International High School, a public high school for English language learners, and Acts of Faith: An American Muslim and the Soul of a Generation, a memoir by Eboo Patel (2007).

The Objects

As discussed in the definition of the kaleidoscope, the pattern produced by the device is caused by reflections of objects on these mirrors – often colored glass or beads. In this pedagogical model, two objects were reflected in the narrative mirrors: the participants' current understanding of themselves and their understanding of others, especially the marginalized others they encountered in their community work.

The Endless Pattern: Spiritually Grounded Change Agency

Ultimately, the kaleidoscoping of critical reflection on one's own narrative, the narratives encountered in critical service-learning, and the narratives of liberatory religion and spirituality – as they reflect upon one's current self and on others – can lead to changes in habits of mind and heart. The pattern produced by the kaleidoscope is one that changes endlessly as the cylinder is rotated. The learning that can occur in individuals who engage in this reflective process, like the participants in this study, is ongoing and always shifting, creating and deepening a sense of the self as a spiritually grounded agent of change. The pattern thus created produces interconnection, a sense of solidarity, while always putting into relative perspective the truth one “knows,” moving one towards fluidarity, towards meeting the other amid differences.

As a result of this pedagogical process, at the end of the semester students achieved a sense of spiritually grounded change agency, a concept that brings together educator Paulo Freire's (2005) levels of critical consciousness with Keith Morton's (1995, 2004) notions about integrity in service-learning and theologian Sandra Schneiders's (2003) definition of spirituality. Freire's levels of critical consciousness move from naïve transitive consciousness, marked by “an oversimplification of problems … and lack of interest in investigation” of the world around you, to critically transitive consciousness, a “highly permeable, interrogative, restless and dialogic form of life” (14), and finally reach critical consciousness, the ability to perceive the contradictions in social, economic, and political realities and to take action against them.

Morton's ideas begin with framing service-learning in three distinct paradigms: charity (providing direct service to another person), project (implementing or supporting community service organizations), and social change (work towards transforming society). He contends that individual engagement in each paradigm can have differing levels of integrity, which he describes in a range from “thin,” with little or no integrity and diminishing the dignity of persons involved, to “thick,” reflecting deep integrity and affirming the dignity of all participants. He believes that service, whether charity, project, or process, “when done with enough integrity and courage can be transformational” (2004, 47). Morton concludes by calling upon service-learning practitioners to challenge students to enter more deeply into the paradigm in which they work, intentionally exposing students to the creative dissonance among the three forms in such a way that distinctions between the paradigms blur or intersect as the integrity of the server deepens (1995). Jack Mezirow (2000) uses the term “disorienting dilemmas” to describe internal crises that trigger perspective transformation, leading to deeper integrity.

Sandra Schneiders also speaks about integrity or life-integration in the development of spirituality. Schneiders defines spirituality as “the conscious involvement in the project of life-integration through self-transcendence towards the ultimate value one perceives … [leading one to seek] personal and social well-being, justice for all people, or union with God as ultimate value” (2003, 166–67). While Schneiders makes clear that religion and spirituality are not the same thing, she notes that for many people they are interrelated, with one's religious tradition being a primary contributor to spirituality and a means of strengthening one's sense of a spiritual self. While Schneiders believes that connection to a religious tradition can be a great help in spiritual development, she affirms that one can have a secular spirituality that seeks life integration and is not connected to a belief in the divine. In a similar vein, educator Parker Palmer defines spirituality broadly as “the eternal human yearning to be connected to something larger than our own egos” (2003, 377).

The movement through solidarity to fluidarity integrates these three concepts. Solidarity, with its varied definitions, ultimately is a spiritual process directing one towards self-transcendence, moving beyond one's own ego, to constitute others as part of oneself. Fluidarity enhances that spiritual sense by propelling one to realize that beyond one's own ego lie others who are not necessarily the same as you, who may require a social well-being different from your own, and greater justice in their lives. The movement through solidarity to fluidarity in a service-learning setting calls one to move from “thin” to “thick” engagement with the other, finding ways in which each form of service can affirm the common dignity of all involved, while still recognizing power differentials and the need for social change. Finally, the trajectory through solidarity to fluidarity involves growth through the levels of critical consciousness, from oversimplifying through interrogation of contradictions to a perception of social injustice and the impetus to take action against it.

Student Narratives

The effectiveness of this pedagogical process of threefold reflection on students' own narratives, the narratives encountered in their service-learning, and on the lives of spiritually grounded agents of social change, was demonstrated by the participants' narratives gathered through interviews, focus groups, and writing assignments. Their narratives, as they developed over the course of the semester, demonstrated the movement through solidarity to fluidarity toward spiritually grounded change agency.

In keeping with Freire's understanding that each person possesses “background awarenesses,” all the participants demonstrated a yearning for spirituality in their lives, and to varying degrees, a connection between spirituality and action in the world. Nicole, a junior, was the participant most intentionally seeking spiritual growth, which led her, in part, to be a theology major. Through community service work, including several mission trips to Honduras, she sought a spiritual synthesis between private spirituality and public work. She described it in this way: “My religion goes between me and God and then it goes between me and other people – which is what I think the service aspect is all about.”

Sarah, a senior justice and peace studies major, was raised by a non-practicing Jewish mother and a Catholic father, which she experienced as a bit rootless in terms of a spiritual home. At the same time, Sarah credited her mother's Judaism with providing an ethical foundation: “She raised us indirectly through religion – you always do good because that's who you are and that's what you should do and you should always give back, always do service.”

Adam, a junior majoring in geography, did not currently profess a religious point of view, although he was raised nominally Methodist. He was a professed atheist in high school but now yearned for some form of spirituality. He asserted, “Some days I really genuinely want to feel something, kind of take the plunge – honestly. But other times, it seems like such a hill to climb over.” Adam was working towards a spiritual synthesis in terms of his views of the current ecological crisis; he showed a self-transcendence in terms of his connection between care for the earth and the larger human community: “We really need to think about how we impact our planet … There are a hundred different elements to that. It is not just global warming, it's our communities and what does it mean to live in a little house out in the suburbs.”

Lisa, a junior business major, who had no religious upbringing, considered herself an agnostic but at the same time expressed a desire to deepen her spiritual and even her religious understanding. She explained, “What I am trying to figure out is my religion. I'm not saying that I want to be religious, I just am questioning, what am I? … I would like to learn about many religions.” Lisa did not make any connections between her current understanding of spirituality and her beliefs about community service or social issues.

The kaleidoscopic process put this critical reflection of each participant into conversation with narratives encountered in their service-learning sites and the narratives of a spiritually grounded change. Adam was studying the life of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., while working at a church-based after school program serving African-American children in an impoverished neighborhood in Minneapolis. After several weeks of participating in this program, Adam noted his developing sense of solidarity with the children at the site.

I think this [working in the after school program] makes you realize that these are people in our world and this is not something far away – like you said with the front lines. You kind of go there and make your fight and then you come back to where it's comfortable or whatever it is and it just sort of helps you realize that there's always something you can do more, there's always a little bit more, even if it has to do with the way you think about things. I viewed it as something away, and not to say that I thought it was bad or anything like that, just that it was away from here, where I was, and the more you go there and the more connections you build and things like that, it makes you realize that it's not an away thing, it's all tied together.

Adam discovered a sense of interconnection with the younger students he was working with and the more he felt a part of their lives, the less he could compartmentalize those relationships but rather he had to take them into account in his future thinking and action. In a separate instance he revealed an even deeper integration with the students and site: “You don't think of it as something other than you, you think of it as something that's a part of you.”

Sarah studied the life of Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day, while providing service at a day shelter for homeless persons. She viewed the shelter as a place where she saw solidarity, because the organization was set up to meet the needs of the homeless, who are the poorest and most marginalized members of society. She explained:

Before setting it up, I really think they looked at the needs of the homeless person. I think they really took that philosophy – accepting the culture … and I think they really focused on the homeless person and what they need. They didn't just put in our own views on what they need, they really listened. … I'm just so taken aback on how accomplished this place is and how well-respected, even within the homeless society – they've become family.

She found herself making the connection between Listening House and Dorothy Day's personalist philosophy, that everyone must take personal responsibility for the poor: “In her book, she [Day] identifies the need to know the person's name and story.” Sarah was particularly moved by how the guests looked out for and took responsibility for one another. As one guest remarked, “The most important thing is compassion.” Sarah felt deeply connected to the guests at Listening House, beyond a volunteer relationship. She remarked, “It shows how important our presence is in each person's life. At times, I think I could be here at Listening House [the shelter] – I've become part of these people's family.”

For Nicole, solidarity grew as the weeks progressed at her placement at an elementary school that focused on Latino culture and values, and as she studied the life of farm worker organizer Cesar Chavez. She found it was the children themselves who made solidarity happen:

I think that they [the children] are really, really good at breaking down boundaries … Like a lot of people think – here I am, I'm a certain race, I'm a certain this … I'm not going to feel comfortable if I am put in this situation. They think that before they go in there, and these kids make sure that that goes to hell – they're going to break down those boundaries no matter what.

She found that the students were emulating Cesar Chavez, which she saw as “the right way to be, the right way to act, to be accepting of everyone, to think that everyone is on the same level and deserves human dignity – that's something Cesar Chavez would have stood up and fought for.” Though this example, Nicole experienced an enlargement of her boundaries and a sense of commonality with the children, despite cultural and socioeconomic differences.

Lisa discovered a fledgling sense of solidarity within herself at the same elementary school, despite her initial view of the service-learning:

I always treat people as an end, not as a means to an end, but that completely contradicts with community service because I was using this as a means to fulfill a requirement, to pass the course … I thought, well that's a lot of work, but now after this experience [at the school] it's like I am looking forward to it more so.

By the end of the semester, Lisa found was that she was able to move beyond “tutoring to fulfill a requirement” to “helping children for their good,” feeling a sense of “solidarity while I was tutoring at Academia Cesar Chavez [the school] because I was in a family with children regardless of differences, and I was there to help them while they were in need.” She connected this experience to the life of Cesar Chavez, feeling “in a smaller way his purpose from my experience [at the school].” Her words here are remarkably close to John Paul II's ([1987] 1997) distinction between seeing the “other” as “neighbor” or as “helper,” invited to share in the banquet of life, rather than as an instrument to be exploited.

While one might critique some of these statements as representing a view of solidarity that asserts “too sanguine a knowledge of the other, too pretentious an identifying with their plight, too presumptuous a connection to shared struggle with them” (Taylor 2003, 39), each of these students demonstrated movement towards fluidarity by the end of the semester. This movement occurred because of cognitive dissonance or disorienting dilemmas in which their previous sense of solidarity no longer seemed adequate and revised understandings were required to make sense of what they were experiencing. Adam revealed this process when he named himself as “privileged” in relation to the children at the after school program and saw this privilege as moving him to action; he could not “ignore the injustice present in their lives.” He also reflected upon his personal narrative, specifically about his relationship to Jennifer, a girl with whom his family had had a mentoring relationship when Adam was in middle school and who, coincidentally, was from the same neighborhood as the children in the after school program. He proposed:

My experiences with Jennifer helped me arrive at a sense of personal identity, but I hadn't really considered her identity. Now I realize the struggles involved with being a kid from this particular neighborhood, or any neighborhood dealing with similar struggles.

Retrospectively, Adam has “met” Jennifer amid their differences at the same time as recognizing her as one who should be a “sharer” in the “banquet of life.” In a similar manner, Adam recognized the lives of the children at the after school program as “widely different” from his own, but saw how important it was both for him and perhaps for the children to spend time together across differences, because “there's not a lot of chances that you get to know people outside of your group or outside of where you live and outside of your age.” He believed that the after school program was a contemporary “method of accomplishing Dr. King's dream of a ‘Beloved Community.’ At the same time he writes that King's life taught him that “appreciation alone is not enough” but that he should act to address social injustice. In these reflections, Adam articulates an interplay of solidarity and difference similar to Min's notion of the solidarity of others, which affirms “a preferential solidarity with those who suffer more” (2004, 142). He first had to meet the other and feel a sense of connection, but through prolonged contact and critical reflection, he experienced com-penetration (Brackley 2008), decentering his privilege and using it as a basis for radical politics.

Sarah recognized that her life experience was very different from those of the guests at the day shelter. She thoughtfully reflected back on her own personal narrative of being adopted from India as an infant as a way to understand her interconnection with the marginalized but also the difference in her life chances. She explained:

I need to always give back, need to just remember that I am a very lucky person to be where I am. I could be – who knows – I could be in India still and I could still be in the streets, married with five kids and probably with HIV because three-quarters of the population where I'm from has HIV. And so, it just makes me really look back and look at my own situation, and look at my tribulations and just put them in perspective.

Grounded in this revised self-understanding, Sarah believed that what doing community service could offer, especially in her experience at the shelter, was “taking time out of the day to find out what really is important, seeing a different type of life that we could be living” and to “find similarities and differences and expose them and really accept and understand those differences.” For Sarah, community service was about meeting others amid differences and honoring those differences.

Nicole gained a similar perspective through a class reading that called into question a view of solidarity as giving one the ability to unproblematically understand the other despite cultural and power differences. The reading was disorienting, causing her to wrestle with the question of how someone engaged in community service should approach another culture. The reading was a speech given in 1968 by Ivan Illich, a Catholic priest, to North American missionaries serving in Mexico; it is titled, “To Hell With Good Intentions.” In the speech, he decries the cultural imperialism of missionaries. He writes:

I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you … I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the “good” which you intended to do. I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel in Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help. (1968, 8)

Initially, Nicole found his words disturbing. She thought about her own history of community service, including work in Latin America, and asserted, “I'm different, I'd never do that,” meaning she would never enter a new culture with a sense of cultural imperialism. But after some reflection, she decided: “Honestly I probably did … Ah, crap – I'm wrong again … That whole paper kind of made me see things and be like, yeah – that's probably right. Even though I don't want it to be right, that's probably what a lot of people do.” She describes the insights she gained from this reading regarding how one enters another culture, whether it is in a different country or in your own backyard:

There's a difference between going to someone's community and holding your own values but also accepting theirs and trying to help them … And that's one of the basic dignities that you can do, that you can help with, just being there and experiencing their culture. And you hold your own culture and still experience theirs.

Here, Nicole describes how one might find fluidarity with another, how one might meet the other in the pluralized, diverse, and shaky ground of difference. In her opinion, one should hold or recognize one's culture and values while at the same time accepting and experiencing those of the other.

Adam, Sarah, and Nicole grapple with their roles as “entitled advocates” (Taylor 2003), come to understand that to work with and for the marginalized involves employing this enabling power in a way that affirms interconnection as well as multiplicity. They discover that “the other is also in us, as well as outside us” (Taylor 2003, 37). It is akin to Nelson's (1999) notion of forming self-conscious alliances that respect differences and seek common ground for common action.

Lisa had not quite arrived at this notion of entitled advocacy and while she shows significant movement towards interconnection, there are only inklings of enlarging or refining that concept to include difference. By the end of the semester, she was at least able to see the socio-economic differences between herself and the elementary school children. She writes that her college friends are “pretty much well off and they've got the nice cars and clothes and stuff,” while the children come from “that other spectrum or other aspect that I've kind of forgotten.” She had not yet come to understand her own enabling power and how this might be employed in a way that respects differences.

In the final analysis, the participants showed development toward spiritually grounded change agency, but in differing ways. All demonstrated the development of solidarity as a result of the pedagogical process; while Lisa's understanding of fluidarity was still tentative, Nicole, Adam, and Sarah revealed a capacity to meet the other in a pluralized shifting manner. Each student demonstrated movement towards integrity and life integration in seeing how spirituality and action fit together in the world. Lisa was just beginning to sort through these notions; she was still, in the words of Sharon Parks (2000), seeking a home where integrity, understanding of her emerging self, and her relationship to the world could dwell together. Adam demonstrated life integration grounded in a secular spirituality, connecting to an ultimate value that does not necessarily incorporate religion or even the divine, while Nicole's life integration involves a deep connection to her Catholicism. Both saw their spirituality as grounding their action in the world. Sarah also came to view spirituality as central to her sense of change agency, and through the life of Dorothy Day she came to a renewed desire to explore the implicit Judaism with which she was raised, showing active movement toward a sense of spiritually grounded change agency. She determined that she would like to work at a place like Listening House that was “based upon compassion and justice.”


The Britannica Concise Encyclopedia (2008) traces the roots of the word kaleidoscope as coming from the Greek words for “beauty” and “form.” Herein lies the significance of this study: where the “mirrors” of these narratives encounter each other, transformational learning occurs, generating the form or pattern of spiritually grounded change agency. An essential aspect of this learning is the movement through solidarity to fluidarity, which first grounds one in a self-transcending “spiritual” connection to the other as one who shares a common humanity, but then enlarges that notion, putting into creative tension the idea that the other is like us, but is not us (Ricoeur 2000), and in us as well as outside of us (Taylor 2003). This kind of solidarity, challenged by difference and born from the pedagogical process of the kaleidoscoping of narratives, which is “a practice not a recipe” (Nelson 1999, 73), allows one to meet the other on the shaking ground of differences while finding common ground for the purpose of spurring radical action on behalf of justice for all. Specifically, service-learning, when grounded in this critical reflection, can play a pivotal role in the process of moving through solidarity to fluidarity, and can facilitate entitled advocacy in students, which couples spiritual growth, or life-integration towards self-transcendence, with growth in critical consciousness for the purpose of action in the world.