Advancing Social Justice Through Civic Engagement and Youth Participatory Action Research in Urban Schools

Dr. Beth Rubin has been leading the Youth in Action youth participatory action research (YPAR) program for 10 years at Rutgers GSE. During this time, Youth in Action has served over 1000 PK-12 students and, through leading the program, more than 125 pre-service teachers have developed as youth-centered educators committed to fostering meaningful civic engagement.

“In both my research and teaching, I investigate young people’s relationships with the state and civic institutions,” stated Dr. Rubin. “For many youths, these relationships are strained, and young people feel powerless. YPAR empowers young people to identify issues and concerns in their communities, conduct research and come up with solutions to address those issues. The impact goes beyond the project itself, cultivating civically engaged school districts in which youth voices are valued and young people are involved with making the community more responsive to them.”                                                                                                                                                                                                          

This year at YPAR, students from Franklin High School (FHS) choose to tackle issues of gender and racial discrimination.

GSE alum, Luma Hasan who is a social studies teacher at FHS served as an advisor to the group, along with Jared Novak, a fellow GSE graduate. Hasan got involved in YPAR as a student-teacher at the GSE and fell in love with the program.

“The program is an opportunity for students to be leaders on issues that they know best because they experience them every day,” stated Hasan. “YPAR helps develop students’ abilities to engage in research, critical thinking, and develop problem-solving strategies on issues they are passionate about. I am grateful to be involved with this project and am also grateful to Dr. Rubin for her unwavering commitment and support on these important issues.”

Natasha Ishaq and Alicia May are two FHS students who first got involved with YPAR in their junior year. Last year, as seniors, they worked with a group of 15 students to tackle the issues of prejudice and discrimination at the school.

“There were a lot of ideas about what issue we should tackle but the subject of discrimination really hit home for everyone as we could all relate to it,” stated Ishaq. “We conducted qualitative and quantitative research with students and teachers which showed that 65% of students believe that prejudice exists at Franklin High School. Solutions we proposed included student-run assemblies to raise awareness of the issue.”

“It was very empowering to present our research and solutions about prejudice and discrimination to the Board of Education at Franklin Township Public Schools this year,” stated May. “Teachers and parents thanked us and told us that they would take action. The program taught me that I can’t just wait for change to happen but that I have to make that change happen myself.”

Both Ishaq and May would like to continue their work with YPAR as they pursue college this year.

Over the years, Youth in Action students have taken on complex issues, including homelessness, the experience of new immigrants, the inclusion of English Language Learners (ELL) students in their school communities, homophobia, school violence, and theft in schools.

The young people – elementary, middle and high school students – have shared their research and recommendations with their teachers and school administrators. Sometimes, this results in actual changes to school policy and conditions. In New Brunswick, for example, the Superintendent invited the high school YPAR group to present their research on ELL students at the school to a meeting of district leaders who are using what they have learned from the students to create school settings that are more supportive and inclusive of ELL students. In Franklin, the Superintendent is reviewing the YPAR students’ recommendations on schedule as they work on the next version of the district schedule, and Franklin Middle School approved an LGBTQ club recommended by that school’s Youth in Action group.

“The research on civic learning and identity indicates that young people benefit from and crave civic learning that connects to issues in their communities,” said Dr. Rubin. “YPAR can be a transformative experience, not just for K-12 students, but also for GSE pre-service teachers as it helps grow their thinking about what students are capable of and what it means to be truly civically engaged. My vision for the program is that it goes beyond being just a club – that the work these young people do touches their entire school district, transforming adults’ views of youth and incorporating young peoples’ perspectives into the policies and practices of the district.”