You are seeing this message because your web browser does not support basic web standards. Find out more about why this message is appearing and what you can do to make your experience on this site better.

The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

Terms of Use ▼

María Elena Torre and Michelle Fine describe the process and potential of participatory action research with youth researchers to investigate race, ethnicity, class, and opportunity gaps in education.

Witness a scene from a workshop on participatory action research (PAR) methods:

Sara, a white middle schooler, speaking to her peers Nicole and Tasha, both African-American, says, “The survey is fine, but I don’t think we should have to ask about race or ethnicity—it just divides us.” Nicole responds, “No, I think we have to ask, ’cause our experiences may be really different and we won’t know that if we don’t ask about it.” Tasha adds, “Yeah, it might help black kids or Asian kids.” Sara repeats her concern, “That’s the kind of thing that just separates us.”

Participatory action research is based on the belief that knowledge is rooted in social relations and is most powerful when produced collaboratively through action. The above conversation signals the radical potential of PAR when used by intentionally diverse research collectives in settings where deep “local inquiry” and democratic methods are designed toward social change. In the young women’s exchange, a discourse of “colorblindness” mirrors institutional resistance to examine how racially and ethnically different youth experience school. PAR invites analysis of such local tensions and the larger political dynamics of institutions that they reflect. Our study of race, class, and achievement illustrates this potential of PAR and suggests processes for developing the skills of youth researchers to participate in social justice in education.

The Race, Ethnicity, Class, and Opportunity Gap Project
In January of 2002 the Rockefeller Foundation invited our research team¹ to investigate youth perspectives on the “achievement gap” within racially integrated suburban school districts in New York and New Jersey. In focus groups with differently situated students, we learned that once students pass through hard-won integrated school doors, they are mostly funneled into classes segregated by race, ethnicity, and social class. They call it “separate and unequal—in the same building.” Students insisted that we reject the label “achievement gap” and rename the project the “race, ethnicity, class, and opportunity gap.”

Our collective research questions focus broadly on:

  • How do students, across racial, ethnic, class, and academic levels, view their opportunities, motives, and the “achievement gap” in schools and in the nation?
  • Where do youth perceive issues of racial, educational, and social (in)justice in school and community?
  • How well prepared are students across racial groups, ethnic groups, and academic tracks for college postgraduation?
  • What are the sites of racial-, ethnic-, and class-based justice and equal opportunity in school and the community?

Research Methodology
We intentionally brought together a diverse collective of youth researchers to address (and constantly negotiate) these questions. We formed a Youth Research Community of over 50 students that collaborate in and across schools and in research “camps” on college campuses. Youth researchers are: white, African-American, Latino, Asian, and Afro-Caribbean; wealthy, middle-class, and poor; in special education and advanced placement; and from urban and suburban schools with financial and curricular inequities.

We crafted “radically inclusive” and democratic research spaces to conduct our research. Diverse and divergent experiences and standpoints shape our research questions, determine methods, influence analyses, and invent our“products.” Varied perspectives can be aired, challenged, and thoughtfully discussed—without the imposition of “making nice” or reaching consensus. This doubled research practice explicitly recognizes power relationships, situates the work in a social-historical context, and calls for both micro and macro levels of analysis. We purposefully seek places of disjuncture within our team, as these sites often provide new understandings that each of us, as situated individuals, would not likely come to on our own.

We fostered methods skills and the co-construction of instruments and analysis. In an initial research camp, youth participated in “methods training,” learning the nuances of interviews, focus groups, and survey design. Together we crafted a survey of questions focusing on distributive justice in the nation and their schools. The youth researchers insisted on including cartoons for respondents to interpret, a chart of the achievement gap, and open-ended questions (such as, What is the most powerful thing a teacher has ever said to you?). We distributed the survey to ninth and twelfth graders in 13 urban and suburban districts and received 3,799 surveys back, brimming with rich qualitative and quantitative data that could be disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, and “track.”

In a second three-day camp students analyzed qualitative survey responses, focus group transcripts, and field notes and interview transcripts from school visits, working across borders of race, ethnicity, class, neighborhood, and biography. They also developed an interview schedule to be used with a sample of recent graduates.

We are working with youth researchers to “speak back” to their schools. Now one year into the project, youth present critical data to their schools about themselves and their peers who filled out our survey. At a recent “speak back” an African-American male, Nozier, raised a concern about unfair disciplinary practices to the almost all-white teacher group, “I’ve spent lots of time in the suspension room … and you notice it’s mostly black, right?” Hesitant nods were followed by immediate explanations about how in June it gets whiter or “sometimes there are white kids, maybe when you’re not there.” But Nozier persisted, with the courage of speaking his mind to educators who may or may not listen, standing with peers across racial and ethnic groups—peers he would not have suspected as supportive before—and adults who bore witness as he spoke truth to power.

Nozier is no more optimistic than we that his critique will transform his local school policy. But in a chorus, he joins a movement of youth asking America to make good on the promises of Brown versus the Board of Education. In his presentation he assures us that he will not “walk away, to swagger the policies of life,” that instead he will continue to deepen his analysis and outrage, using the critical skills of participatory research toward social justice.

¹ The Graduate Center of the City University of New York research team includes Janice Bloom, April Burns, Lori Chajet, Monique Guishard, Yasser Payne, Tiffany Perkins-Munn, and Kersha Smith.

María Elena Torre
Ph.D. Candidate in Social Personality Psychology

Michelle Fine
Distinguished Professor of Social Psychology and Urban Education

The Race, Ethnicity, Class, and Opportunity Gap Project
c/o Michelle Fine
The Graduate Center of the City University of New York
365 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10016-4309
Tel: 212-817-7000

‹ Previous Article | Table of Contents | Next Article ›

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project