The Transformative Potential of Experience: Learning, Group Dynamics, and the Development of Civic Virtue in a Mobile Soup Kitchen

Aaron Horvath
VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations

Civic engagement has long been understood as a transformative activity, conducive to the reformation of individual interests, beliefs, and preconceptions. Prior research suggests that such transformation occurs when individuals encounter and process novel and challenging experiences through the course of their work. Yet, as the literature on experiential learning shows, the lessons of such experiences are neither obvious nor self-evident. The challenges experienced through civic engagement do not necessarily lead individuals to change their perspectives on, or understandings of, the world. Rather, these experiences may serve to reify prior beliefs. This article seeks to explain how groups of civic participants collectively experience and interpret their civic encounters. It argues that collective sensemaking and the variety of alternative perspectives available within the group play an important role in determining whether novel information provokes inquiry and search for new understandings or if such information is assimilated into well-worn perspectives. I illustrate this argument through a case study of a mobile soup kitchen. I find that, even though volunteers regularly encounter potentially transformative experiences, their collective processing of these events helps to reinforce prior convictions rather than provoke new understandings.