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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Working Toward Social Change: Youth Researchers Using Discourse to Challenge Systemic Racism in Education

  • Author(s): Bertrand, Melanie A.
  • Advisor(s): Morrell, Ernest
  • et al.

The United States education system denies many Black and Latina/o students a quality education due to systemic racism, which is manifested in racial inequalities in access to educational resources. These disparities are multifaceted. For instance, Latina/o and Black students have fewer opportunities to take college preparatory courses than their white peers (Darling-Hammond, 2004a; Fanelli, Bertrand, Rogers, Medina, & Freelon, 2010; J. Rogers, Fanelli, & Bertrand, 2009). Also, there are inequalities in access to qualified and experienced teachers (Darling-Hammond, 2004a), college counselors (Fanelli et al., 2010), technology (Margolis, 2008), and schools that are not overcrowded (Fanelli et al., 2010).

My dissertation research examines how a group of youth and adults called the Council challenges these manifestations of systemic racism while engaging in Youth Participatory Action Research--youth-driven, critical research and advocacy. The Council includes about 30 Black and Latina/o high school students, along with a racially diverse group of adults, including me, a white woman. A partnership between a university and several California public schools, the group has been active for over a decade, cultivating a space for youth to learn and apply critical social science theory and research methods. Also the Council gives several presentations per year, allowing students to present their research findings and advocate for concrete changes in education.

My study investigates how Council students, during the 2010-2011 school year, took up and transformed discourses addressing educational inequality, and how they communicated the discourses through advocacy efforts. An example of such a discourse would be a research-supported appeal for more rigorous curriculum at schools serving Latina/o and Black students. I also study how the teachers and school administrators who attended Council presentations responded to the discourses. To study these phenomena, I used ethnographic methods and Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). I grounded the study in sociocultural theory, Critical Race Theory and the theoretical aspect of CDA, which posits that discourse can influence action, leading to shifts in social structures. My findings indicate that the students learned discourses about educational inequality from the Council adults, but not in a straightforward manner. Instead, as students collectively appropriated discourses, they transformed both their content and their form. Also, I found that students' discourses, as communicated at presentations, had some influence on teachers and school administrators. For example, one presentation prompted several teachers to reflect on their teaching and, in some instances, alter their curriculum. Also, teachers and school administrators who attended presentations reported using the Council as a curricular model in their schools. These findings point to new possibilities for challenging systemic racism in education.

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