Voices in Education

Is It Possible for Authentic Youth-Adult Partnerships to Occur in Schools?
It’s odd that the simple act of giving adolescents a voice in decisions about their own lives might be considered revolutionary; and yet, there is something revolutionary about the efforts to center students’ perceptions and needs in school-based decision making. Given the context of schooling today, we are sometimes left wondering: Is it possible for authentic youth-adult partnerships to exist in schools?
Youth participatory action research (YPAR) is a form of critical participatory action research (CPAR) that provides young people with opportunities to investigate structural, interpersonal, and psychological factors affecting their lives, to gather and analyze data about these factors, and to demand more just and equitable systems (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Caraballo, Lozenski, Lysicott, & Morell, 2017; Mirra, Garcia, & Morrell, 2016; Torre, Fine, Stoudt, & Fox, 2010). A growing body of evidence suggests that YPAR projects improve outcomes for individual youth as well as the organizations and settings that they seek to reform. And yet, the extent to which YPAR can and should be used in institutions that reproduce dominant cultural power dynamics remains a subject of debate (Ayala, 2009; Kohfeldt, Chhun, Grace, & Langhout, 2011; Ozer, Newlan, Douglas, & Hubbard, 2013; Rubin, Ayala, & Zaal, 2017). Is it possible for educators to use the school setting as an access point for the type of participatory, praxis-oriented intellectual engagement that YPAR provides? Or, does bringing YPAR into school settings risk diluting the very essence of the process we seek to engage?
These are the questions that keep us up at night. As two educators who seek to bring emancipatory pedagogies into a school-based drop-out prevention program, we often worry about the lines between encouragement and pressure, voice and tokenism, agency and frustration. YPAR is rooted in a commitment to youth participation, communal transformation, and a collective analysis of power in our society—three commitments that can feel antithetical to the culture of schools. As the adult facilitators of a youth research team, we must balance the demands of schooling, the needs of our individual students, the well-being of our collective, and the goals of our YPAR project. This balancing act requires us to deal with our own power, perspectives, and positionality and openly discuss the challenges of bringing emancipatory pedagogies into hierarchical institutions.  
In our article in the Winter issue of the Harvard Educational Review, we share some of our ideas about the complexity of school-based YPAR. Drawing on data from an ongoing project investigating barriers to on-time graduation at a comprehensive urban high school, we offer up a framework through which school-based adults might more carefully design and evaluate projects of collective inquiry. Our framework encourages practitioners to center commitments of participation, purpose, and power (level of analysis) in YPAR, in spite of (and because of) the culture of schooling. We ask educators to grapple openly with the complexity of encouraging authentic participation in a hierarchical setting; the competing demands of individual and collective development; and the risks of engaging a structural analysis from within the walls of an often oppressive institution. Ultimately, we argue that bringing YPAR into school settings requires adults to act as honest and careful bridges between the ingenuity of youth vision and the necessity of adult practicality. When adults are an effective bridge, YPAR can provide a unique opportunity for praxis (Freire, 1977)—a space where students and adults can act, reflect, and collaborate in the project of individual and collective transformation.
Ayala, J. (2009). Split scenes, converging visions: The ethical terrains where PAR and borderlands scholarship meet. Urban Review, 41(1), 66–84.
Cammarota, J. & Fine, M. (2008). Revolutionizing education: Youth participatory action research in motion. New York, NY: Routledge.
Caraballo, L., Lozenski, B. D., Lysicott J. J., & Morell, E. (2017). YPAR and critical epistemologies: Rethinking education research. Review of Research in Education, 41(1), 311–336. doi: 10.3102/0091732X16686948
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.
Kohfeldt, D., Chhun, L., Grace, S., & Langhout, R. D. (2011). Youth empowerment in context:Exploring tensions in school-based YPAR. American Journal of Community Psychology, 47(1–2), 28–45. doi: 10.1007/s10464-010-9376-z
Mirra, N., Garcia, A., & Morrell, E. (2016). Doing youth participatory action research: Transforming inquiry with researchers, educators and students. New York, NY: Routledge.
Ozer, E. J., Newlan, S., Douglas, L., & Hubbard, E. (2013). “Bounded” empowerment: Analyzing tensions in the practice of youth-led participatory research in urban public schools. American Journal of Community Psychology, 52(1–2), 13–26. doi: 10.1007/s10464-013-9573-7
Rubin, B. C., Ayala, J., & Zaal, M. (2017). Authenticity, aims and authority: Navigating youth participatory action research in the classroom. Curriculum Inquiry, 47(2), 175–194. doi: 10.1080/03626784.2017.1298967
Torre, M., Fine, M., Stoudt, B., & Fox, M. (2010). Critical participatory action research as public science. In (Camic, P. & Cooper, H. Eds.) Handbook of research methods in psychology. American Psychology Association.

About the Author: Gretchen Brion-Meisels is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education whose research explores partnerships between youth and adults that support individual and collective development. Zanny Alter is a school counselor deeply committed to questions of equity and justice in schools. Currently, she works with high school students whose wisdom and potential exceed their school-based performance.