As I watched the youth researchers deliver their project presentations during the conclusion of the YARI Project held in December 2020, I beamed with excitement, awe, inspiration and pride. After a formidably challenging year, to say the least, the youth researchers forged ahead and persisted to successfully complete their research projects. The final event did not just celebrate the culmination of their research endeavors but fully embodied the true spirit of the YARI Community we have built. Founded upon meaningful and supportive relationships, we had each other’s back.
The findings that the youth researchers shared have broad and deep implications for the education system and the efforts to reform it. What they have to say is all the more resonant since they are spoken within the context of their own learning journeys that shaped who they are today.
Their research projects, informed by lived experiences, touched on a range of important topics:
- The impact of racial and ethnic backgrounds on student-teacher relationships
- Advantages and disadvantages female students of color face in schools
- Steps in pursuing meaningful paths and healthy careers after high school
- Ways to improve education for high school ESL/ELL Latinx students
- The extent to which teachers’ impressions impact the quality of education for students receiving accommodations
As we continue to center and amplify these youth voices in spaces where they can rise up to be truly transformative, I often reflect upon the youth researchers’ journey from the very beginning. I have tried to identify the point at which the students began making conscious and deliberate connections between their own learning journeys and the education system that determine so many aspects of their lives.
At the project kick-off event, they used their creativity to map out this journey, identifying moments of triumph and failure. When the pandemic hit, it required us all to enter more intensely vulnerable spaces wherein authentic relationships became fundamental not only to the successful completion of the project but, more importantly, to our individual well-being. Watching the youth researchers present their findings with confidence and poise, unflinching in their willingness to openly and vulnerably share their personal journeys to a broad public audience, I can’t help but wonder how could they seem so fully realized at such a young age?
In frank conversations with them over the past few months, the youth researchers have expressed their appreciation for being allowed to be themselves, to say what they have to say, and to have peers and adults intently listen to them, to reflect them. In being provided spaces where they can be their full selves, they are able to see how their own educational experiences fit into the larger system. I believe that it is in these spaces where their voices can indeed be truly transformational.