Publication Date



Open access

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)


Educational and Psychological Studies (Education)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Scotney Evans

Second Committee Member

Dina Birman

Third Committee Member

Isaac Prilleltensky

Fourth Committee Member

Christopher Sonn


This Critical Participatory Action Research (C-PAR) study built a contextually-based, grassroots-developed, and academically informed theory of transformative change in partnership with five community co-researchers. To do this, I constructed a custom methodology which I have called Participatory Theory Development (PTD). This methodology builds on tenets of C-PAR, the centering of marginal knowledge(s) proposed by Dutta (2016), and literature on the decolonization of research and hierarchies of knowledge (Tuhiwai-Smith, 2012). The aim was to test an epistemically rich theory development process by centering community knowledge(s) in the construction of transferrable theory. This study empirically examined and built on a previously developed framework for transformative change (Kivell, 2016) constructed from academic literature in Community Psychology. This study was conducted in six phases and included 10 participatory sessions with co-researchers and 15 individual interviews with grassroots community organizers. The first four phases built an aspirational model of transformation with two parts: a collective vision and practice towards justice and durable and profound changes to context. The final two phases used a critical theorizing process proposed by Weis and Fine (2004), to disrupt our aspirations and rebuild a model grounded in a critical understanding of practice by identifying a core fracture, composing counter-stories and constructing sites of possibility to address the core fracture. The core fracture identified was the Sisyphean task: organizers and activists are creating a radical vision that they have no intention of achieving. Using a counter-analysis, we constructed three counter-stories from the data to provide alternate explanations for the core fracture including: organizers and activists are too busy due to moral obligation and the urgency of structural injustice, they are giving up because the transformed vision is too far, and, their practices inside of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex are too futile so that no matter how many hands are doing the work, transformation will never be achieved. The study ended with the construction of two sites of possibility to address our core fracture, each of which built on a dialectic relationship between the big and small of transformation; rethinking the role of size in transformation. Findings for this study have implications for community organizers and community-engaged scholars in their efforts to design, support, and document transformative processes and outcomes in order to create more just communities and context.


transformation; participatory theory development; critical participatory action research; community organizing; critical community psychology; qualitative research