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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.

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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  For more information on the research summarized in this digest, please contact the authors at the addresses below. For help citing this article, click here.


Ten years ago, as part of a class assignment, students at the Bronx Education Services (BES) adult literacy program read a New York Times article on the state of standardized reading test performance in all of the school districts in New York City. BES students, who were mostly poor and working-class mothers, were shocked to learn that compared to citywide reading test scores, the performance in District 8, where most of BES students lived and where their children went to school, was relatively high.

It was not until parents worked with staff members at New York University's Institute for Education and Social Policy to compile disaggregated standardized test score data by school and neighborhood that they fully understood how the achievement gap affected their children's and grandchildren's education. The data revealed abysmal test scores from the southern part of the district, where more poor and working class African Americans and Latinos lived, and above-average performance of students in the northern, wealthier, and whiter neighborhoods. After visiting schools and witnessing firsthand the harsh treatment of students and deplorable learning environments, parents organized to close the academic achievement gap within District 8. They formed Mothers on the Move/Madres en Movimiento (MOM).

In early 2001, Michelle Fine met with the directors of MOM to plan the organization's 10th anniversary. Together they designed a participatory action research (PAR) project to explore how young people, their parents, and community members have mobilized for educational resources, opportunities, and the fulfillment of their dreams. PAR represents an approach to research rather than a specific method. In other words, it can employ quantitative or qualitative methods or use a mixture of both. PAR starts with the assumption that knowledge is embedded in social relations and “is most powerful when produced collaboratively through action” (Fine et al., 2003).

As part of this MOM Oral History project, social psychologists from the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), and youth from the Bronx set out to create a community of youth researchers in the South Bronx with a three-pronged agenda to

  • Study how poor and working class parents in the Bronx mobilized for radical educational change.
  • Produce a bilingual website for the organization that documents its 10-year history of activism.
  • Create a critical, empirical montage of how high school students perceive social class, race, ethnicity, and opportunity in local schools, communities, and, more broadly, in America.

Research Methods

The social psychologists and the youth used a multi-method approach (interviews, archival data collection, and participant observations) within a participatory action research model. Five youth were recruited and trained in critical social theory and basic social science research methods.

Monique Guishard and Rosemarie Roberts, two graduate students from the CUNY Graduate Center, worked with the youth over the course of six months to gather oral histories of their mothers and grandmothers and local community activists. They designed the youth research training sessions with substantial input from other colleagues¹ working on youth participatory research projects and the young researchers.

The research training sessions focused on expanding and building on the youths' commitments to social change through critical, community-based inquiry. Sessions consisted of lecture, discussion, and practical exercises, all designed to engage the youth researchers in a learning process that seriously considered their preconceived notions of research, researchers, and the researched. The youth researchers performed the following tasks:

  • Took notes, re-presented course material, and practiced research techniques with each other.
  • Designed an interview protocol and conducted 13 interviews with MOM leaders, founders, and members.
  • Engaged in participant observation in MOM organizing meetings and demonstrations.
  • Reviewed historic archival materials (MOM newsletters, photographs, newspaper clippings, reports, signs, and activist artifacts).
  • Analyzed data.
  • Learned the fundamentals of website production and shared ideas on the design of a website.

Emerging Research Findings

Critical Consciousness on the Ground
We began this project to learn how mothers, community members, and youth cultivate a critical consciousness of educational inequity. Awakening critical consciousness and a sense of injustice involves seeing, naming, and acting against policies and practices of educational oppression (Deutsch, 1988; Freire, 1970; 1973).

We learned that critical work requires the explicit “braiding” of critique and action—not just knowing something is wrong, but struggling with others to create change. We also learned that developing a critical consciousness of the achievement gap is a fluid and complex rather than a linear process (Guishard, 2003). Mothers and youth do not just blame societal structures for educational injustice. They know that both the system and individuals have responsibility for the current state of affairs, and they seek justice. We don't think this is ambivalence; we think it is something else.

For example, in response to the question of why some people fight for justice while others accept injustice, one MOM member said, “Some people think that things are gonna stay the same, there's no change no matter what they do. Just like some people say they don't vote because their vote won't count ... some people are just set in their ways and have given up.”

However, in the same interview, when asked what inspired her to make a change in the community, she answered, “Because I knew some of the things going on in our community, because of our neighborhood we weren't getting the proper attention of services we deserved.” This mother simultaneously holds individuals personally responsible for social injustice (“some people have given up”), while she recognizes that economic, social, and political forces systematically impede her children's success (“we weren't getting the proper attention of services”).

The critical consciousness literature typically creates a binary distinction between those who are “critical of the system” and those who “believe in the system.” When we speak with real mothers and youth, however, we hear a yearning to achieve in a system that many of them recognize is rigged against them. We hear a “braiding” of system critique and yearning for success.

Collective Power of Activism
Through the process of critical consciousness mothers and young people regain a sense of entitlement to quality education. They move from passive “objects” to active “subjects” in the struggle for equal education for their own children, and as “other-mothers” (Hill-Collins, 2000; Naples, 1992; Ward, 2000) for children of their community. This change occurs with opportunities for parent organizing and activist youth research.

MOM provides a forum for parents to participate in a collective struggle. Parents organize rallies and demonstrations for school improvement and housing, campaign to improve school facilities, develop alternative education plans that give parents significant rights, meet with school and district officials as consultants, and engage in outreach to the broader community.

MOM also provides youth an opportunity to participate in the struggle against educational injustice. Research is one level of activism. When youth develop critical inquiry skills, they combat the dominant representations of Black and Latino teens and deconstruct the notion that they are apathetic. At another level, by participating in MOM events such as rallies and education committees, youth sustain the activist legacy. A psychological energy is produced when youth work out the conditions of oppression with their peers. Through activism, youth resist learned helplessness; they convert their critique and pain into action and their identities as victims to organizers.

Reflections for Practice

This project affirms the power of research partnerships between universities and communities. The partnership between CUNY Graduate Center and MOM created a youth component that benefited from youth critical inquiry. Our work highlights that youth need to bear witness to activism taking place on their behalf. The partnership led to youth researchers' documenting a history of activism; indeed, many never knew their mothers were the vibrant organizers they now know them to be. The research process opened up a deep multi-generational recognition that critique and activism can, and do, occur among youth, mothers, and grandmothers. A catalytic energy emerges when these multiple generations come together to critique what is, and create what can be. We conclude with the words of two courageous leaders.

“I found out about this project through my mother ... because she is a member of Mothers on the Move. She told be about it and I grew very interested. I wanted to understand why where I lived was so much poorer than where my friends lived. I wanted to know why the schools were so bad and what MOM was doing for them. I also participated in this project to learn about MOM from a different perspective. I wanted to understand what it was about from some of their members.”

In response to the question, how far would you go to fight for change before you would give up, another woman said, “Well, like I said, my children, my daughter, my youngest child is in her second year of college. I coulda stopped a long time ago, but see I don't just take my children I take all ... I been living in this community for years so I take all the children in my community to be mine. Because I would love to see my neighbor child graduate from college also because I don't have to see them on the corner where they setting him up ... 'cause that's what they do ... they fail our children and set them up for jail. So I will fight 'til I can't fight no more ... as long as, you know, as long as I got breath I'll fight for them 'cause they in my neighborhood and every child is mine.”

¹ The CUNY Graduate Center research team includes Janice Bloom, April Burns, Lori Chajet, Maria Torre, Yasser Payne, Tiffany Perkins-Munn, and Kersha Smith.

The MOM Oral History Project, headed by Michelle Fine, is part of a larger “achievement gap” study funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Spencer Foundation. The study documents how youth across the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area view the national gap in educational opportunities, resources, and test scores based on students' race, ethnicity, class, and region. The MOM website:


Deutsch, M. (1988). Awakening the sense of injustice. Social Justice Research, 2(1), 3–23.

Fine, M., Torre, M. E., Boudin, K., Bowen, I., Clark, J., Hylton, D. et al. (2003). Participatory action research from within and beyond prison bars. In P. M. Camic, J. E. Rhodes, & L. Yardley (Eds.), Qualitative research in psychology: Expanding perspectives in methodology and design. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the opressed. New York: Continnuum.

Freire, P. (1973). Education for critical consciousness. New York: Continnuum.

Guishard, M. (2003). Political parenting, urban education, and polyphonic critical consciousness. Unpublished master's thesis. The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Hill-Collins, P. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Naples, N. A. (1992). Activist mothering: Cross generational continuity in the community work of women from low-income urban neighborhoods. Gender & Society, 6(3), 441–463.

Ward, J. V. (2000). The role of truth telling in the psychological development of African-American girls. In L. Weis & M. Fine (Eds.), Construction sites: Excavating race, class, and gender among urban youth (pp. 50–64). New York: Teachers College Press.

Monique Guishard
Doctoral Candidate in Social-Personality Psychology
The Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309

Michelle Fine
Distinguished Professor of Social-Personality Psychology and Urban Education
The Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309

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Published by Harvard Family Research Project