The Youth Solidarities initiative is informed by our previous work with Proyecto Latin@, a two-phase research initiative implemented in response to the TDSB data that revealed disproportionately high rates of early school leaving among Latin@ youth. In the first phase of Proyecto Latin@, which took place in 2008 and 2009, we sought to explore how Latin@ students explained the processes and factors influencing their decisions to stay in or leave school. In order to understand these processes, we also considered the students’ conceptions of student engagement and disengagement as well as their identification of the ways in which the school system could better support their educational needs. In addition to sharing their experiences, the students made suggestions for the ways in which the school system could better serve their educational needs at the board, school, and classroom levels, including the request to more closely work with the researchers so that they could further explore the issues they identified as important to their schooling and social experiences.
To address this student demand, we designed the second phase of Proyecto Latin@ as a school-based yPAR initiative through which the youth would identify their own areas of inquiry and conduct their own research projects. Introduced in the Spring of 2011, this yPAR phase entailed a senior social sciences credit course. The program was housed at a central Toronto high school, which has been identified by TDSB's Urban Diversity Strategy as a high-needs school with a large population of underperforming and racialized groups (TDSB, 2008). The school also had the highest of Latin@ students among TDSB high schools and, importantly, a supportive principal and Student Success teachers who were eager to allow space for new and innovative opportunities. In collaboration with the students, a team of four adult facilitators designed and implemented the yPAR course: Principal Investigator and Associate Professor Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, TDSB teacher Cristina Guerrero, who was a Ph.D. student and OISE/UT graduate assistant at the time, TDSB teacher Monica Rosas, and Elizabeth Guerrero, who served as the Undergraduate research student. All facilitators were fully bilingual, which allowed them to accommodate the learning and language needs of all students, regardless of whether they were bilingual, English-dominant, or Spanish-dominant.
Through Proyecto Latin@, the students engaged with multiple processes in their own quest to proactively “speak back” to the issues that were important to their daily lives as Latin@ youth. In addition to learning about social science research, they learned that personal and systemic change is possible when they actively participate as makers of their own curriculum. Indeed, the yPAR work from Proyecto Latin@ not only laid the foundation for subsequent work with Latin@ youth at the host and other schools but also as a model for other groups of racialized students in TDSB schools, including students from the Portuguese-speaking and Black communities.
The UTS yPAR project engages the complexities and contradictions of studying and addressing social problems in an elite school context where students enjoy plenty of educational advantages and opportunities, one of which is the opportunity to conduct research. This surfaces several questions that the project continuously engages:
How do we theorize and engage the intersectionality and simultaneity of the multitude of ways in which we enact and experience domination?;
What gets unsettled when we unsettle institutional inequities in elite school contexts?;
How might we make an intervention into processes of exclusion at the school and in practices of oppression more broadly?;
What does it mean to engage in social justice when the moral distinction that this work produces may reinforce elite subjectivities and generate capitals for researchers?;
How might students engage their schooling experiences as an entry point for analyzing and disrupting the micro and macro processes of global racial capitalism and heteropatriarchy, two dimensions of power that the youth researchers identified as important to them?
These questions, which resonate with writing by scholars such as as Stoudt (2009) and Kuriloff et al. (2009) who facilitate and research yPAR in elite American secondary school contexts, animated many of our conversations throughout the year. For example, youth researchers were invited to interrogate how advantage and inequality are socially constructed, how we participate in this construction, and how schools institutionalize these processes through curricula and pedagogical relationships that require and reify hierarchical categories of teacher/adult and student/adult youth. By unsettling the naturalness of power we emphasize changeability and the ability of young people to transform the hierarchical relations that articulate through interlocking axes of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, and language. By exploring the nuances of moments of pleasure, anger, and disappointment, we emphasize how power is lived through the body. To understand how schools institutionalize power, our approach cultivates a shift from interrogating intentionality to analyzing both conditions of possibility and material and symbolic effects. These conversations and related community-building activities are shaped by concepts from critical race theory, transnational feminism, and decolonial theory.
Students learned several research methods including interviews, Theatre of the Oppressed, mixed-media collages, and Photo Voice. Our class comprised students who bring knowledge from diverse backgrounds and experiences. By creating a supportive space within which to explore this background knowledge that is often elided in traditional schooling contexts, we engaged in data collection activities that included free-writing, theatre, comic strips, and body maps to co-construct and analyze data for the purpose of building a foreground of knowledge about the youth researchers' schooling experiences that may be mobilized to make a meaningful intervention into school life and beyond.
As a result of several UTS teachers' enthusiasm about yPAR and their desire to unpack their role in the processes and practices that the students describe in their research, we created a separate critical practitioner research group. We meet regularly to read and analyze literature about elite schools and the reproduction of power. Our inquiry examines the ongoing consolidation of participants' subject positions through teaching and learning experiences, and uncovers how power is negotiated in relationships between teachers, administrators, and students.