Diversity and Democracy

The Catalyst Trip: A Journey of Transformation

At Saint Mary’s College Center for Women’s InterCultural Leadership (CWIL), we wanted to build avenues for our students to engage in the practice of community, where life is at once messy, complicated, unpredictable, frustrating, and fulfilling, and where our collective hopes and aspirations play out against the backdrop of our prejudices and privileges. We felt the need to create a place for students to apply and connect their classroom learning as neighbors, decision makers, and engaged citizens in a democracy. Hoping to spur our students toward deep and essential transformation—from active learners to active citizens—we created the Catalyst Trip.

The Catalyst Trip uses multiple forms of engaged learning to deepen students’ understanding of difference and leadership in a culturally complex world. This weeklong immersion experience results in vital intercultural knowledge and competence that will significantly inform students’ future leadership roles. In its literal sense, the Catalyst Trip begins on campus in Notre Dame, Indiana, and travels to Cincinnati, Ohio. Yet this physical travel coincides with a holistic journey that is at once emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.

The Elements of the Catalyst Trip

Essential Elements of the Catalyst Trip
  • Participants of diverse age, race, education, faith, nationality, and ethnicity
  • Visits to historically significant locations
  • Interactions with community-based women leaders
  • Creation of a sacred, safe, challenging space for discussion and reflection
  • Intensive workshops on white privilege and racism
  • Community-building practices and reflection activities

The ultimate goal of the Catalyst Trip is to foster women’s intercultural leadership through transformative engagement. Paulo Freire’s seminal work guides the program’s pedagogy. Freire described the role of education as both personal and collective liberation. He suggested that in order to counter systems of oppression, education must include critical reflection and dialogue that builds our collective consciousness toward mutual transformation. True to Freire’s vision, the Catalyst Trip’s pedagogical process (as guided by our six program elements) is simultaneously painful and healing, difficult and liberating (Freire 1970).

In both the planning and participation stages, the Catalyst Trip includes community women leaders of diverse age, race, education, faith, nationality, and ethnicity. They are co-educators on the journey, and their life experiences become additional “texts” for student learning. On a recent trip, Mary Boykins, an African American woman in her seventies, taught students that while women won the constitutional right to vote in 1920, African American women didn’t win that right in practice until the Civil Rights movement. Students honored Ms. Boykin’s wisdom and knowledge and learned a valuable personal lesson about interrogating official versions of history.

Our visits to historically significant locations such as Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center complement these interpersonal exchanges by immersing us in the physical sites where pain and liberation have converged. Confronting the institution of slavery is an intense emotional experience that encompasses both the anguish of entering a slave pen and the transcending stories of ordinary people who fought for freedom. These visits provide historical context that informs and inspires our own social justice efforts.

Our interactions with diverse community-based women leaders recreate this experience in a modern context. In the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in Cincinnati, we witness the clash between a historically poor neighborhood and rapid development provoked by outside interest. We listen to community women share their leadership stories and see the uplifting work they are doing as they guide us through their neighborhood.

We return from these daily visits to the Grailville retreat center, which provides sacred, safe, and challenging space for reflection and discussion. A three hundred–acre farm founded by lay Catholic women in 1943, Grailville continues to value women’s empowerment, spirituality, social justice, and the environment. Like Saint Mary’s College, Grailville assumes rather than questions women’s leadership and agency, and thus empowers us in our discussions about social change. Its history teaches participants how women’s leadership has evolved, adjusted, adapted, and expanded to include new voices and visions.

Workshops on white privilege and racism led by skilled diversity trainers help us explore how deeply inscribed systems of power and privilege shape our everyday experiences and worldviews. We stretch participants’ comfort zones to examine how dominant schemas define identities and circumscribe participation, and we consider ways to reconstruct new understandings that will strengthen personal agency and commitment to work for positive social change.

In keeping with noted educational researcher James Comer’s belief that “no significant learning occurs without a significant relationship” (Comer 2001), we are intentional about creating participatory community-building practices and reflection activities that engage both the head and the heart. A mask-making activity is one of the most visible and dramatic expressions of this type of community building. On the first day, we cast our faces in plaster, creating blank canvasses of our own identities. Each evening, we gather to work on our masks—sharing, laughing, and reflecting together. At the closing ceremony, we share our masks’ representations of our transformation.

These six elements work holistically. Their synergy combines our youth and wisdom, our energy and experience, and our passions and insights.

Transformative Results

The trip affects more than students’ knowledge: participants discover the leader within. Leadership in the twenty-first century, whether in local or global contexts, requires deep cultural engagement that embraces diversity, as well as a willingness to inquire into issues of power, privilege, and social position. Catalyst trip alumnae have developed these kinds of leadership skills and have subsequently applied them to their own projects and careers as teachers, lawyers, social workers, and community activists after graduation.


As student Kate Weiss noted, “To me, the Catalyst Trip is about pushing yourself to challenge the foundations of who you think you are and to rebuild yourself into who you should be; it is about being humbled by the achievements of others and gaining confidence in your own power to affect change.” As our students reach this realization, they themselves become catalysts for change.

If you would like more information about the Catalyst Trip, please contact Bonnie Bazata at 574-284-4058 or visit our website: www.saintmarys.edu/~cwil.


Comer, J. P. 2001. Schools that develop children. The American Prospect 12 (7): 30-35.

Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Bonnie Bazata is the associate director of the Center for Women's InterCultural Leadership; Erin Crawford Cressy is a community research consultant and adjunct faculty; Joy Evans is the assistant director for scholarship and research at the Center for Women's InterCultural Leadership; Sarita Fritzler is a student assistant; Adriana Lopez is a student assistant; and Razia Stanikzia is a student assistant—all at Saint Mary's College; Kimberly Warren is a community research consultant and adjunct faculty at Indiana University South Bend.

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