The Catalyst Trip: A Journey of Transformation
By Bonnie Bazata, associate director, Center
for Women’s InterCultural Leadership; Erin Crawford
Cressy, community research consultant and adjunct faculty;
Joy Evans, assistant director for scholarship and research,
Center for Women’s InterCultural Leadership; Sarita
Fritzler, student assistant; Adriana Lopez, student
assistant; and Razia Stanikzia, student assistant—all
at Saint Mary’s College; and Kimberly Warren,
community research consultant and adjunct faculty at
Indiana University South Bend
Catalyst Trip participants
reflect the group’s
generational, racial, and cultural diversity.
(Photograph by Julie King)
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
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
Community-building practices and reflection
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.
Mask-making activities allow
participants (like Rosemarie Harris, shown here)
to share and reflect. (Photograph by Chris Ross)
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
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.
meet for discussion and contemplation. (Photograph
by Chris Ross)
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
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.