Participatory Action Research in the Missouri Ozarks
“The aim of participatory action research is to change practices, social structures, and social media
which maintain irrationality, injustice, and unsatisfying forms of existence. … [It] is emancipatory,
it leads not just to new practical research, but to new abilities to create knowledge. In action
research knowledge is a living, evolving process of coming to know rooted in everyday experience.”
- The Handbook of Action Research, Participative Inquiry and Practice, by Peter Reason and Hillary
“To liberate society from this unbearable situation, [when bureaucracy is turned into oligarchy],
consciousness will have to be aroused among the people; their eyes will have to be opened by knowledge.
Let them uderstand the what’s the why’s and the where’s. Thus study is essential, very essential.”
- Liberation of the Intellect, P.R. Sarkar
This summer, at the Ananda Kanan Retreat Center near Willow Springs, MO, more than two dozen Prout
activists took part in a Participatory Action Research (PAR) workshop. PAR is an activist strategy
inspired by the Brazilian revolutionary philosopher and teacher, Paulo Freire (1921 - 1997). In this
process, workshop participants form teams to learn about local issues, while reflecting upon their
values, relationships and ideals in developing an activism of liberation.
The participants--from Germany, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the US--were comprised of teenagers
as well as senior members of Proutist Universal. They came from all walks of life: professors, students,
writers, business owners, volunteers and social activists.
The PAR methodology enabled the Proutists to learn about each other and the surrounding community
in a hands-on setting. This action/research modality contrasts with other Prout workshops that focus
almost exclusively on theoretical study. PAR was chosen to provide an opportunity for Prout activists
to work together on a collective enterprise. The PAR workshop also allowed the Prout activists, who
were simultaneously attending the Ananda Marga Yoga Society’s summer retreat, to begin to learn about
the community and culture in and around Willow Springs, West Plains, and the South Central Missouri
By learning about the community and the local issues, and especially making connections with local
activists and service providers, it is now expected that Proutists will maintain and expand these
relationships, as well as become more committed to social service in the Missouri Ozarks, as part of
their annual retreat experience. An additional goal was to introduce the participants to an effective
methodology for doing action research when returning to their local community. Hopefully this summer’s
workshop will be the first of many such local and regional PAR workshops sponsored by the Prout
Research Institute in North and Central America.
Before reporting on the details of this workshop, a brief overview of the PAR model is warranted. In
its simplest terms, the PAR model can be described in five steps: 1) participants form action teams, 2)
the teams investigate community issues and the experiences of local residents, 3) an action strategy
is developed for addressing the important community issues, 4) the action is implemented, and 5) the
team reflects upon what has been learned about the issue, the community, and the team dynamics.
In this particular workshop the traditional model was modified because the participants are not
permanent residents of the local community. Hence, at this workshop, the participants focused on
steps 1, 2 and 5.
During the introductory session Oppenheim presented an overview of PAR theory. He introduced the work
of Paulo Freire with quotes from “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Freire created a process of
consciousness-raising and activism, helping oppressed factory workers to reflect upon the dominant
themes of their daily lives, and then to take action to create a better future.
Freire was concerned that the oppressed could easily act through anger and recreate the oppression
of their oppressors. He emphasized activism based on love, and the ability to transcend the mental
colonization of the oppressor. PAR has evolved to become a way for communities to develop authentic
knowledge based on real world experiences and to develop goals for improving communities based on an
intimate relationship and partnerships amongst community members. PAR places an importance on
creating knowledge through experience and relationship rather than through so-called “experts.” It
is strikingly similar to Neo-humanist principles and the process that P.R. Sarkar advises for
establishing self-sufficient economic regions.
After this, the group went through team-building exercises to build a sense of unity and common
purpose. Several exercises developed an appreciation of individual strengths and talents as well
as ways of working in groups that would help the participants support each other and work more
effectively as a diverse team. It was emphasized that each person may value a different way or
style of gaining knowledge about the community, and that all these styles are essential for an
integrated understanding of a community. One person may prefer to interview someone for most of
the time instead of gathering data, while another may learn more from drawing a polluted creek bed.
Some prefer to understand a small neighborhood before looking at the overall region, whereas others
need a regional overview before focusing on local businesses.
In the second session, Rosen presented an overview of the Ozarks bio-region. The settlement patterns
and cultural legacy of the Native Americans and original European-American settlers were noted, as
was the economic development history of subsistence agriculture, natural resource (minerals, timber)
exploitation, and environmental degradation.
The current socio-economic condition was reviewed, highlighting the extreme rural isolation of the
area, its cultural, religious, and ethnic homogeneity, and the South Central Missouri Ozarks’
continuing isolation from the Ozarks' regional economic growth centers of the Springfield/Branson
and Fayetteville, AR areas.
Important recent trends that were highlighted included the growth of West Plains as the regional
economic trade center, the emerging satellite campus of Southwest Missouri State in West Plains,
and the increasing settlement of middle-class, suburban retirees into the Ozarks, and how that is
creating tension in the region. A highlight of this session included artist Michael McClure’s
personal story of living at Ananda Kanan for the past twenty years, and his impressions of the
people and the local culture and mores. McClure has gained rich personal experiences by painting
the natural landscape and murals in the local communities, and playing basketball with local
residents. His personal story reinforced many of the themes outlined by Rosen. Notably the strong
family values and social networks, the fundamentalist Protestant Christian worldview, the slowness
to accept change, and the intensity of the Missouri “Show- Me” attitude. History of how the
introduction of the cash economy during the Great Depression public work’s programs began to weaken
the settler’s cultural legacy was particularly moving and revealing.
The third session was devoted to fieldwork preparation. The participants were divided into four
teams and trained in how to conduct their fieldwork. Each team was given a fieldwork kit with
Polaroid camera, drawing pens and paper, maps, information about their topic, and interview forms
with initial questions. Each team had three basic tasks: to develop interview questions and then
hold interviews about their topics, to visit a site that would give them valuable experiences
about their topic (for example the environment group visited a local creek where townspeople were
dumping rubbish), and to visit a local expert. Teams spent times brainstorming ways to introduce
themselves and to ask questions. Then each team assigned roles and developed a timeline to carry
out their activities the following day.
Monday morning and afternoon, July 1, the four teams conducted their field work. Twelve participants
focused on Native American issues and met with representatives of two Native tribes at their
respective community centers in West Plains. Eight participants met with the Executive Director of
the regional community action agency, Ozark Action, Inc. This group focused on family and poverty
issues. The third group, seven in all, went to the regional office of the Missouri Department of
Conservation in West Plains and met with the office manager and a field conservationist. The fourth
and smallest group, four persons, met with the Community Development specialist of the local
University of Missouri County Extension service, as well as the Executive Director of the Mountain
View, MO Chamber of Commerce. Each group spent at least two hours meeting with their respective
“expert” contact, leaving an hour or two for each team to conduct some “person on the street”
At the final session Monday afternoon, each group presented their findings and answered questions
from other participants. Special guests at this session included McClure, Dada IK, the rector at
Ananda Kanan, and long-time Ananda Kanan resident Dharma Putra.
After this, each team came up with four or five key themes that arose from their fieldwork. Each
team then came up with four or five over-arching themes that characterized their experience of the
Ozarks, as well as key problem areas for us to focus on in the future. Some common themes that
emerged from each team’s community study included the love of family, place and home, the clash
between old and new, the stress on local government resources, the persistent relationship between
poverty and environmental damage, the lack of widespread economic opportunity, and the ambivalent
attitudes toward education. One goal was to relate fieldwork experiences to principles of Prout,
and to begin to brainstorm a Proutist vision for the future of the Ozarks. Rather than prescribing
solutions, these principles were meant as tools to look at problems and their causes and to better
understand the dynamics of the Ozarks. For example, the group briefly discussed Sarkar’s principle
of balanced economic planning, comparing the suggested model for economic prama (balance) with
employment statistics from the local region. It was obvious that retail trade and the service
economy were rapidly outpacing the manufacturing and agricultural sectors, which would clearly lead
to a dependency on resources from outside the region - evidenced by the rapid takeover of locally
owned businesses by a Wal-Mart. A lecture on the nature of Prout movements by Dada Vimalananda also
helped participants begin to think about how local farmers, laborers and youths, students and
intellectuals could unite in a common regional movement. However, lack of time did not allow
participants to connect Prout theory to their experiences of the community in any great depth.
This last session concluded with a brief exercise where participants were asked to reflect on the
workshop and provide feedback on the process. Many positive comments were voiced, including the
following constructive criticisms: 1) It was difficult to condense so much material into a total
of 15 contact hours (24 hours over a three day period would have been better), 2) most participants
would have preferred more time to work with their team and their own trained facilitator; and 3)
more time should have been devoted to fieldwork preparations, particularly the interview protocols,
notetaking, and reporting back to the group. Still, the participants were inspired by the PAR
workshop and would like to stay connected to the groups they met with.
Several members mentioned that their assumptions about the local community changed after the
exercise. One participant, for example, assumed that local residents would not be supportive of
Native American causes, while several residents mentioned that they had strong support for their
rights. Many also mentioned that they learned much more about their fellow Prout activists through
the fieldwork exercise, as well as learning, for the first time, how to be a Proutist in a
supportive, non-invasive way. Some mentioned that local residents naturally symphatized with
Prout principles, because of the values they held for their community, for the environment, and
for the Ozarks region.
When asked how they might increase their involvement in the community while attending retreats at
Ananda Kanan, participants suggested working with public education programs, going to community
fairs, and co-sponsoring town meetings, as well as seeking volunteer opportunities at the various
agencies they learned about.
Overall, the workshop was considered a great success and a good omen for future Prout training
endeavors, including next summer’s Global Prout Convention to be held at Ananda Kanan. Oppenheim
and Rosen are already collaborating with residents of the Ananda Marga Master Unit, Ananda
Aeshvarya, in Urbana-Champaign, IL, about holding PAR workshop there this fall.
Volume 9, No. 2, Summer 2002 [Exact date not known ]