Developing the Civic Participation of Marginalized Youth through a Literature-Infused Youth Participatory Action Research Program
Civic engagement is often discussed in terms of voting or community service and overlooks the everyday practices through which young people in general, and youth of color in particular, engage in civic life (Kirshner, 2015; Wood, 2014). Scholars argue that the civic capacity of communities of color is undermined by oppressions such as poverty and marginalization; thus, civic engagement needs to be conceptualized differently for youth and communities of color (Ginwright, 2011; Ginwright & Cammarota, 2007). Within the context of education, students of color often lack access to the learning experiences that promote civic engagement, which can influence young people’s commitment to civic participation (Kahne & Sporte, 2008), resulting in a civic opportunity gap (Fine, Burns, Payne, & Torre, 2004; Fox, et al., 2010; García Bedolla, 2012; Kahne & Middaugh, 2008; Mirra, Morrell, Cain, Scorza, & Ford, 2013; Sherrod, 2006). Youth participatory action research (YPAR), has shown promise for developing the civic engagement of traditionally marginalized youth by having young people research local systemic inequities and take action to make changes in their schools and communities (Cammarota, 2011; Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008; Irizarry, 2011; Mirra, et al., 2013).
This mixed methods study investigated how a literature-infused youth participatory action research (YPAR) program influenced the development of civic participation in historically marginalized junior high students, including low-income students of color and students identified for English language learner (ELL) and special education services. In this year-long after-school program, which was designed and implemented by the research team, 9 students in seventh and eighth grade engaged multicultural young adult literature and critical texts, researched school and community issues, and began to effect change. The main finding from this study reveals that students learned how to engage in civic participation through the activities they did in the YPAR program, including identifying local school and community issues, applying multicultural young adult literature and critical theory to understand the problem, interviewing school and community members, and using action research methods to produce and disseminate new knowledge. These activities concretized for students specific practices they can use to engage in civic action.
The pedagogical framework that informed this YPAR program also played a role in supporting students’ civic participation by deliberately re-mediating the learning space to create opportunities for students to contribute their varied expert knowledges and to take on various leadership roles. This approach to participation repositioned all students as experts, including students designated as struggling, ELLs, or having a learning disability. Our study indicates that the quality of civic learning and civic action can increase when facilitators intentionally create spaces in which hierarchical boundaries are blurred and traditional written and unwritten rules of schooling are disrupted. Under such circumstances, adults decrease their power as youth take increasingly agentive action, resulting in radical possibilities for collective civic growth. YPAR is an ideal approach to create such a space in that it attempts to disrupt hierarchies along various lines, including age, race, gender, dis/ability, language, and more. In addition, it focuses on collective inquiry with the intention of supporting social justice efforts.