As a youth worker in San Francisco’s Mission District in the mid-1990’s, I witnessed a variety of contradictions that students of color confronted in their everyday lives. I remember intellectually inclined youth who dove into conversations about “urbanology” but struggled to stay engaged in middle school social studies. I saw students who did everything right in school – getting good grades, going to class, doing extracurriculars – but after high graduation learned they had not taken courses that they needed to get into a four-year college. Students in California at the time could be tried as adults in criminal court but were treated like children when it came to public decision-making: few opportunities existed to share their views about how schools could be improved or what they wanted from city government. I could go on with stories showing how the public education system was not setting young people up to succeed in life. These experiences shaped my thinking as an educator and motivated me to get training as an applied education researcher.
Since then two themes have animated my work: first, I study learning environments that engage youth in critique and action to improve the institutions that shape their lives. I study activities such as youth organizing, participatory action research, and critical forms of student voice – in which young people from marginalized communities speak up about their experiences and propose ways to improve their schools and cities. An example of a current project is Critical Civic Inquiry, in which we partner with secondary teachers to engage students in participatory action research oriented towards improving their schools. Second, I seek out ways to partner with youth and communities to carry out research that is democratic and focused on public problem solving. This is research as “public work,” in which people from different walks of life and across generations work together to uncover the roots of problems and identify solutions. For instance, right now I work with a team to understand barriers and solutions to “more and better learning time,” an equity-oriented school reform agenda in the Denver area.