By Heila Lotz-Sisitka

Zimbabwean farmers creating new markets via creative solidarity relations, South African farmers crossing boundaries between college, youth groups and farmer’s association, Ethiopian communities re-framing power relations as they protect their sacred natural sites, and university students and administrators hosting a funeral for e-waste on their campus. What do these all have in common? 

Qualities and processes of learning and change are seldom given the depth perspective needed in transformations to sustainability research. In response, eighteen African researchers involved in the International Social Sciences Council (ISSC) Transformations to Sustainability (T2S) and SARChI Chair in Global Change Transformative Social Learning Systems T-learning research programme gathered together at the Future Earth Seedbeds to Transformation Conference this week to share their emerging insights into some of the qualities and processes of Transgressive, Transformative (T) learning in transformations to sustainability. Their work represents only four of the nine international case studies in this ISSC supported Transformations to Sustainability Knowledge Network.


T-learning team transgressive learning

T-learning representatives at the Seedbeds conference

Processes such as being ‘uncanny’ or suitably strange, empathetic, critical, caring and creative were foregrounded. The ‘transgressive’ in T-learning in times of climate change was given more meaning as researcher change makers described how participation in T-learning processes allowed communities to build creative solidarity, navigate and overturn ‘stuck’ power relations, claim cognitive justice so that their voices and knowledges’ could be heard, and cross taken-for-granted structural and institutional boundaries.

The normativity and ethics of transformative change were confirmed as being important foundation for T-learning research and practice. Here it was noted that working with communities’ matters of concern as starting point allowed the ethics of transformation to be co-defined from the start. This point was emphasized in the wider conference in terms of the need to locally engage the Sustainable Development Goals in ways that hold meaning for African communities, citizens and actors across the multi-levelled systems where transformations are needed.

Researcher change-makers in the T-learning session agreed that engaging in such processes are not easy, that they are tension laden. Their challenge was to ‘upend’ normal cultures of research away from extractive approaches to empathetically, yet critically grounded generative research characterized by community engagement and participation. For example, in Malawi, women farmers are finding their voice in climate change adaptation by bringing out neglected indigenous knowledge about seed saving and diversity (amongst others). While this helps them to tackle food security in times of drought and climate change, it is also contentious as extension officers promote technically modified seed, taking away agency for establishing local food sovereignty as practiced for centuries in Africa. In another case, research informing the development of a mobile phone application to reduce food waste and transform markets amongst smallholder farmers initially lacked adequate insight into how people learn to use transformative technologies. African researcher change makers in all of the T-learning research clusters are helping to mediate these tensions, creating new platforms and spaces for transformations to sustainability.

Participants in the Seedbeds to Transformation T-learning symposium were asked to collaboratively define what they thought ‘transgressive learning’ was. The results of this collective defining activity were interesting. Some examples are:

“T-learning is participatory, multilingual and inclusive, issues driven, disruptive of the status quo, driving change across different levels and for the common good.”

“T-learning is a horizontal, decolonizing process and starts with people’s knowledge and care, freeing their minds from oppression, a reconnection process at multiple scales between people and planet; a process of disruptive healing.”

“T-learning is love; it is place-based while being connected widely, it involves mindset change”.

The African T-learning researcher change makers’ work shows that T-learning is all of these things, but that these qualities of T-learning emerge in diverse contexts around different matters of concern in different social-ecological and political configurations. Defining of T-learning is inherently a situated, contextually framed process which is ethically imbued, working in the interests of citizens and environments that are emerging from oppression and exploitation, charting pathways to sustainability under new conditions. It is in this sense that T-learning is an essential ‘seedbed’ of transformation to sustainability.

Further insight into these emerging processes and findings can be found on the T-learning website (, where posters presented in this session are also displayed.

May 2018