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How to Work With Young People Who Want to Make Change

Suggestions for educators to better work with student as they identify problems in their communities
Illustration of students in a line

As educators and leaders navigate a challenging year, students have significant wisdom to contribute to conversations about school improvement. One way to incorporate youth perspectives into educational decision-making is Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) — an approach to research in which young people are trained to design and implement research of relevance to their communities. YPAR draws on the brilliance of young people to identify and investigate both issues and possibilities, building from their research to recommend and implement strategies for change. 

“When educators collaborate in the research process with young people, their research has increased relevance and validity, making their findings more powerful,” says Harvard Graduate School of Education Lecturer Gretchen Brion-Meisels. During the 2020–2021 academic year, Brion-Meisels worked with 29 Ed School students and more than 75 community members to conduct 25 studies across the world investigating questions related to educational justice. The research projects ranged from young people in India examining teacher-student relationships to teachers in Alaska studying culturally responsive pedagogy.

YPAR in Action

In one example of the power of these collaborative investigations, a group of students from the Sadie Nash Leadership Program (SNLP), a community-based youth organization in New York City and Newark, worked with two Ed School students, Shannon Hawkins and Zahira Correa Aguilar, to examine the mental health and wellness experiences of BIPOC women in colleges and universities. The research team hoped to learn more about how BIPOC women were experiencing higher education during the dual challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and racial unrest. Sixty-three percent of study respondents indicated that they had struggled with mental health in the last 12 months, and only 28% indicated that the mental health support provided by their college/university was useful. 

The team’s findings highlight the need for higher education institutions to (1) establish networks of mentorship and community for BIPOC women, (2) increase access to free mental health services on campus, and (3) recruit culturally competent clinicians. Youth researcher Yuxuan Lin shares, “For returning to classrooms, effective mental health supports such as culturally competent clinicians and access to mental health services would be a must-have. With these supports, there may be more individuals with positive mental health.”

Broad Takeaways to Keep in Mind

Across the 25 projects, Brion-Meisels highlighted a few common takeaways for educators, including those who want to partner with youth and those who seek to improve schools more generally:

  1. Acknowledge the power dynamics at play. In a classroom with one adult and 32 kids, the adult is often the decision-maker. Schools will benefit if adults find a way to let go of some of that power and give students a voice. Across the studies, findings highlight the need for schools to listen carefully to students, provide them with access to investigate issues of relevance to their lives, and create space for their voices in decision-making. “Adults must come to the table with open ears and hearts, deeply excited about seeing the world through the youth’s eyes,” says Hawkins. 
  2. Build trust to create safe environments. Before schools can identify problems alongside young people, adults need to focus on building relationships and trust. As youth researcher Jasmine Greene puts it, “You need to trust an individual to be able to share what’s bothering you. Your mental health is a garden that needs proper love and care to bloom into beautiful flowers. But flowers don't grow overnight just like healing is a process. With all of the codes we have done and voices we have heard from, it is clear that these educational institutions need to provide more gardening tools to allow BIPOC women's mental health to bloom and flourish.” 
  3. Hold each other accountable. Tackling inequity is hard work because, as Brion-Meisels notes, “It's one thing to say that you want to confront inequity, but it's another thing to actually act in that way.” Adults and young people need to hold each other accountable and ensure that all voices are heard. Hawkins shares the following questions as ways to guide this work:
  • Who are we as a collective?
  • What do we hope to see?
  • How will we help one another get there? 
  1. Remember, change is a process. Slowing down and taking the time to build relationships, rather than focusing on the end result, can be a challenge. However, in their survey of mental health support for women of color in higher education institutions, youth researcher Tasnuva Shehrin says that time, support, and compassion were key elements that needed to be nurtured. “Some of the research participants expressed their dissatisfaction with their therapists who went straight to prescribing medication within the first 10 minutes, before  listening to the full extent and did not provide enough emotional support. They just want to heal and  bloom into a better version of themselves, which will require time, support, and compassion,“ shared Shehrin. “It's imperative to listen.”  

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