Empowering Young People to Raise Their Voices and Be Heard

Insights   12 May 2021
By Robyn Lingo, Mikva Challenge


We should want all members of our democracy to know their own agency and power, to have empathy for others, to be able to listen to people who disagree with them, and to communicate their ideas and values effectively.

Robyn Lingo
Executive Director, Mikva Challenge

How do we make schools more equitable? How do we increase student engagement? How do we ensure that ALL young people have the opportunity to thrive? How can schools be more of a community resource and welcome hub for families and youth? How do we use the lessons of the last year of virtual learning to dream of what schools should look like now and in the future?

There are thousands of good and necessary questions that we need to continue asking as we reimagine what education can be now and in the future. And, before you read any further, I must warn you that this piece will not offer any ground shaking answers. Instead, this is an invitation to lean further into a disruptive idea—a shift in the process we use to answer these questions that involve the key constituency schools are meant to serve: the students. 

We know adults have attempted to “fix” the education system on their own for long enough. By evolving our learner-centered approaches, we can further tap into the interests, energy, and ideas of students to both imagine and design a new future of education.

Why Call on Students?

Students can (and should) be co-investigators and solution finders in reimagining our education system. They will provide fresh and unique insights into how to make more just, equitable, inclusive, and joyful learning environments. But, beyond the benefits they can provide us as adults and us as a community, there are three key benefits for the students themselves.

First, by empowering young people to have ownership in shaping the environment in which their learning occurs, you catalyze greater student engagement and confidence. Giving students the opportunity to suggest solutions to questions like: What will make our learning environment a safe and trusting space for learning? What will make it a place we feel pride in?” makes them more invested in the process, and in the outcome. 

Second, involving young people in community problem solving and policy making projects enables them to build core skills that will serve them for a lifetime, such as written and verbal communication, critical thinking, research skills, analysis, and advocacy. 

Lastly, this kind of learning is so key for developing young people into the type of engaged, inquisitive, thoughtful, and action-oriented citizens we need for a flourishing democracy. 

We should want all members of our democracy to know their own agency and power, to have empathy for others, to be able to listen to people who disagree with them, and to communicate their ideas and values effectively. Trying to solve a complex problem, while involving multiple stakeholders, helps build these skills and leaves students with a fuller understanding of the democratic process. 

One of education’s main objectives should be to ensure an informed and engaged citizenry. To fully live into that mission, we should create opportunities for students to be civic leaders now in their schools, their communities, and our democracy. This is the work I champion—each day. 

Students as Engaged Citizens

I have the privilege of being the Executive Director of Mikva Challenge DC, a youth civic engagement organization that develops young people to be informed, empowered, and active civic leaders who are building a more just and equitable society. In our work, we believe young people care about their world, youth voice and participation matters, and the best means of developing young people into active citizens and leaders—now and in the future—is to provide real opportunities to participate in authentic democratic activities.

Working with learning communities in Washington, DC, I’ve seen young people tackle a range of issues that improve school policies, increase student engagement, instill greater pride, and promote healing. 

Mikva Challenge’s curriculum and professional development takes teachers and students through a community problem solving process that involves community mapping, issue identification, root cause analysis, research and power analysis, and action planning. These tools, combined with students’ natural creativity, empathy, and drive, equip them to be powerful changemakers.

Peer Mediation

At one high school, students identified an increased frequency of student misbehavior as a key issue and took action. With support from Mikva Challenge’s Issues to Action curriculum, students conducted participatory research through surveys, focus groups, and interviews, as well as sought out insights and ideas from community experts. 

Students uncovered that conflicts stemming from an influx of new students into their learning community, following the closing of a nearby charter school, was a root cause of the problem. To establish trust and harmony, they knew the solution had to be designed and implemented in partnership with other learners and focus on wellness. 

To that end, the students decided to survey their peers with a proposed list of ideas and found that 70% of respondents agreed that student counselors (peer mediators) could be an effective approach for addressing student discipline issues. The result? Students are now piloting a peer mediation court program at their school, with the help of a variety of outside groups, including iCivics and other restorative justice-focused programs. 

Students Look to the Past to Inspire Hope

At another local high school, students brought up a lack of pride in their school as a contributing factor to lower attendance and engagement. They immediately went to the school’s archives and researched alumni, hoping to find an individual whose accomplishments would excite, inspire, and energize students. 

One such individual was Franklin McCain, one of the Greensboro Four from the lunch counter sit-ins of the Modern Civil Rights Movement (1954-1964). After learning about McCain, the students then advocated for permission from the school to commission a portrait of Franklin McCain that now hangs in the central gathering area of the school, along with a plaque detailing his life and legacy—where it will hopefully remain to inspire future generations of students.

Boosting Self-Esteem

As part of our work centered around using student experience and expertise to specifically tackle school cultural and climate issues, a group of 8th-grade girls surveyed their peers to identify the top three issues students wanted to improve in their school. They found many of their peers experienced both bullying and feelings of low self-esteem in shared community spaces. 

The learners presented their principal with a plan to transform the bathroom into a space of affirmation, pride, and community. Empowered to bring their vision to life, they hung up murals of powerful women and installed a mirror with affirming statements, creating a sanctuary where girls wanted to be and where they could be their best selves. 

Taking the Reins to Shape Policy

On a national level, in April of 2020, we convened a group of youth leaders from across the country to make recommendations regarding young people’s socio-emotional and learning needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how they could move elected officials to act to help meet those needs. After spending five months sharing their personal experiences, learning from each other, and bringing in outside experts, the youth leaders crafted these policy recommendations: 

  • Promoting students’ social and emotional (SEL) well-being and mental health in schools;
  • Hiring educators of color and providing culturally responsive training;
  • Building inclusive and participatory curriculum in schools;
  • Prioritizing and incorporating student voice in schools; and
  • Ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

Next, they hosted a national youth town hall and shared their recommendations with members of Congress, key educational and philanthropic leaders, and their peers. 

These examples of student voice projects are just the tip of the iceberg of movements young people around the country are driving to make our schools more inclusive, supportive, and equitable spaces for all youth, in ways that also enable their individual growth as leaders and active citizens.

Through our work, we’ve witnessed students show improvements in their civic knowledge, embrace of agency, ability to choose positive behaviors, cultivation of socio-emotional skills, and community advocacy.

Additionally, there’s been a pronounced impact on adult attitudes and behaviors regarding youth civic leadership. 90% of teachers we’ve surveyed reported being impressed by how their students took ownership of their learning, and 82% reported that they are now more likely to involve youth in decision-making.

As one teacher stated, “The Mikva Challenge program has changed the way I approach classroom culture. I now have the tools to facilitate student discussions that establish collective norms for our space and that govern our interactions with each other even outside of that space. Allowing my students to share their youth expertise and to build my instruction based on their contributions has increased not only engagement but mastery of content.”

Creating your Own Mikva Challenge to Transform Learning

So, how do you implement strong student voice and engagement work in your classroom and school? I think it comes down to choice, voice, and power—three core components of being part of a democracy. 

One, offer students the space to co-create. Let them help define the rules and norms of the learning environment, let them have a choice in the topics they study, and then give them a chance to drive the learning. 

One of our signature programs, Project Soapbox, asks every student to write and deliver a 2-3 minute speech answering the prompt, “What is the biggest issue facing you and your community, and what should be done about it?”

Research by Molly Andolina, a political science professor at DePaul University, and Hilary Conklin, an education professor also at DePaul University, found that the simple act of letting students choose their own learning topic significantly increased their engagement. And, the act of listening to their peers share their speeches increased students’ empathy and listening skills.

Two, ensure young people are connected with the right audience. In our work at Mikva DC, we believe having a meaningful voice means preparing students to effectively present their ideas to adults with decision making power. When the students’ come to the table with researched solutions to issues in their schools and communities, it can all feel disempowering if the table doesn’t include people who have the power to bring those solutions to life. 

Lastly, rebalance power. Give young people the opportunity and the authority to implement their ideas. In our student voice curriculum, we suggest students have three issues to present to a school principal for a possible student-led project. Why three? So that the adult decision maker can say no to two options and still say yes to one. 

In other words, giving young people power and a voice in how their schools are run doesn’t have to mean they make all the decisions or get everything they want. But, it does mean you have to be in negotiation with them and provide real authentic opportunities for them to be heard and step up as problem solvers. You never know what they might be inspired to accomplish next.

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