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The Power of Youth as Researchers: (Re)Defining Disproportionality for Humanizing Schooling Practices

When asked, “How does it feel to be you in school?” a Black 16-year-old male student answered, “I feel imprisoned in school. I wish I didn’t have to stand in line to be searched to get into school and then be held to a strict code as to what I have to do during the day. I wish the teachers would help us in our individual learning styles rather than having to be forced to work in ways that don’t work for me.” Conversely, he wrote that his ideal school experience would be, “a fluid environment that promotes an environment that makes kids excited to be in and participate.”

This young man goes to a predominantly Black school in Brooklyn, where the college readiness rate was 28%. His answer was among the 500 survey responses acquired by the Youth Technical Assistance Center on Addressing Disproportionality (YTAC-D) to seek to understand and (re)define disproportionality[1]. Students had a range of responses. Those at “elite” schools felt that their school was fine, though complained about too much homework. Students of color, whether at an academically prestigious or under-resourced school, felt disrespected and unheard in their educational experiences. In order to understand the context around our schooling, we worked through understandings of current and historical and sociopolitical factors that have shaped our education system today. Ultimately, through a youth participatory action research (YPAR) framework, we (YTAC-D) sought to uplift student voice and create space for more humanizing and equitable schooling practices. This piece offers the reflections of high school students who found YTAC-D transformative for themselves and their school communities.

As high school students, we recognized that we weren’t truly integrated. Although one of the most diverse cities in the nation, NYC is the most segregated school district in the country (Kirkland & Sanzone, 2017). Rising controversy over astonishingly low rates of Black and Latinx students enrolled in specialized high schools and other schools who base admissions on test scores fed the momentum of youth organizers advocating to retire segregation touting the slogan “65 years is enough!” In New York state, Black and Latinx students are disproportionately suspended, supporting nationwide persisting disparities. As a diverse group of students from across NYC, we learned from each other. We worked through understandings of historical and current sociopolitical factors that have shaped our education system today. After going through our research process, we defined disproportionality as “the outcome of institutionalized racism and bias that result in discriminatory beliefs, policies, and practices, which negatively affect historically marginalized groups in contrast to privileged groups.” We unapologetically acknowledge that the disproportionality that exists in our schooling today was deliberately shaped through a legacy of hetero-patriarchal white supremacy.

The Power of YPAR as Youth Activism (Julian)

As we went through the process of analyzing data and delving into the history of disproportionality, we quickly realized that we needed to ground our work in the experiences of current students in the education system: ourselves and our peers. In order to do this, we set out on our YPAR project. We worked extensively at creating a survey that we each brought back and gave to students at our schools. The survey asked students to draw and write about their experience with disproportionality in their school in contrast to what their experience would be like in their dream school. The responses we collected (over 500 surveys from across all five boroughs of New York City), proved invaluable in our study of disproportionality. But beyond simply providing a deeper insight into inequity, we believe that the act of engaging in our YPAR project was a form of youth activism, playing a direct role in the dismantling of disproportionality. Through YPAR, we created surveys that, when brought into our schools, validated student experiences of disproportionality and disrupted the silence that has long accompanied them. The YPAR process empowered students who responded to the surveys to take ownership of their experiences and acknowledge any injustices they may have faced while placing this in the context of an ideal school system. The act of simply going into our schools and using a youth-created survey to raise and value the voices of youth became one of the purest forms of youth activism.

Youth as Researchers- Humanizing Ourselves in the Data (Kay)

Simply looking at statistics and graphs on slides kept us far away from the work even when we were staring straight at it. We had become accustomed to putting distance between ourselves and the data: a detachment that we thought was necessary in order to objectively view research. Yet, as we not only waded through numbers on suspension rates but qualitative experiences on students of color in school, we came face to face with ourselves. It happened suddenly; one second I (Kay) was staring at black ink on a page, and the next, I was reflecting on how suppressed my own trauma and school experiences were by reading student responses on isolation and forced conformity. It was a broken realization that, unfortunately, the pain and resentment I had swallowed, was not unique to me. That every single number was not simply an extra bar on a chart on the slide of someone's professional development meeting, but a student who may or may not look like me. They might also be sitting in class, mistaking self-preservation with self-censorship. After being told that my usage of “white privilege” was triggering for white students, I pulled back from conversation - I ensued silence as a form of submission. Silence is protest too, but my silence came at the very moment when I needed to speak the loudest. That student might also be wondering why all the kids of color are sticking together in the hallways of their white school. Then came the realization that maybe they weren’t thinking these things, but they were still sitting in class and walking down hallways, and they existed. Instead of analyzing the data in a vacuum, we discussed it openly by baring all of our biases and all our experiences. In order to humanize the data, we had to be human first, rather than robots searching for glaring problems. Each percentage point isn't just another decimal on the number line, it’s thousands of students. We must visualize one percentage point increase of students of color being suspended is the realities of children’s lives being irreparably altered. Where do they go when they are pushed out of the very classrooms made to call them in? How do they find their way back after every outstretched hand or resource has been withdrawn? We must reach out to students “slipping through the cracks” whilst repairing those cracks in the first place.

Turnkeying YTAC-D Work in Individual Schools: Challenging Dress Codes (Monique)

The YPAR project and YTAC-D experience extended beyond our group. It encouraged students to go back to their schools and push for change. At Monique’s school, she worked with students and staff to demand dress code policies that were culturally responsive, particularly for its Black students. From Monique’s perspective:

Some schools might have a well-balanced code that addresses all groups of its students, but most times, that is not the case. The “purpose” of a dress code is to ensure the safety and security of the students, yet as a black female student in a school that is primarily white and Hispanic, it feels like it’s done more to secure and satisfy the opinions and cultural acceptance of those who make the rules. Having personally encountered this situation, I have felt outcasted and devalued. My school has recently very strictly enforced a ban against headwear in school, specifically durags. Durags date back to the 19th century when poor laborers and slaves needed something to tie their hair back with, then evolved into a hairstyle preserver in the 1920s-30s. It then became a fashion statement in the late 1960s and 70s after the Black Power Movements. It became common for young men to wear durags out in public and was the icing on top for the typical dressed down outfit. They became so popular in America, the National Football League placed a ban on any durag, scarf, or bandana on the football field. And so the worldwide dress coding began (Josephs, 2017,

Culture is the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social groups. The argument made by the students of color is that durags are custom to the Black community and to African Americans that embrace their heritage. Because of the significant ties durags have to our history, we feel like this should not be questioned as to whether or not it is a part of our culture. This ban in my school specifically feels personally discriminatory for the young black men and women that attend it.

A Transformative Process (Demiana)

The students that walked into the first meeting of YTAC-D and walked out of the last meeting were different people. These are changes that run deeper than the acquisition of research experience or the learning of academic terms to describe what we live every day of our lives. In humanizing the data, in seeing ourselves reflected in the numbers and recognizing their impact, we unlocked an entire part of ourselves. Many of us were faced with identities that we had either previously suppressed or acknowledged but never believed held much weight. As someone who went into the program struggling with my identity, I (Demiana), realized that even though I hadn’t made up my mind about who I am, the world and the structural powers had. To some of my high school peers, I was just another angry girl of color that wants to make every book and poem about race. YTACD gave me the space and freedom to explore my own identity which seemed to defy the neat categorization that schools provided for me. We learned the true meaning of intersectionality and how that applied to us. We explored all the different identities we hold within ourselves and how each identity tips the scales of power and privilege in different ways. We unpacked our identities, our experiences, and traumas together as a group against a backdrop of research and history. In YTAC-D, we learned that, contrary to what our schools would have us believe, our struggle to thrive is not because we are unfit to survive in a meritocracy but because society has simply deemed us unfit from the moment of our birth. After a few weeks, there was an apparent growth among the group confidence. People who would not speak up at the beginning of the year because they were not confident in the knowledge they had on the topic or did not believe they had the right to share their experience, began to raise their hands (unprompted) to share what they knew or felt. Statements that were once prefaced with apologies for what they didn’t know—or more likely, what they knew for sure and experienced but were too afraid to claim—came out more confidently throughout the year. We learned to name our traumas that came as a result of these systems of power. We learned that we are allowed to recognize them and claim them in order to heal from them. We learned that we did not need to suppress these traumas to assimilate. We learned how to exist in our own bodies, as ourselves.


Circling back to the young man who stated that he only wished school was a “fluid environment” to learn and be his full self instead of feeling “imprisoned” is the reason we must demand more from our schools and educational stakeholders. His response was not an anomaly; sadly, too many children are being pushed out physically and emotionally due to biases and structural inequities. It was critical that as high school students, we engaged in youth-led research that interrogated disproportionality in education. The process was transformational in not only understanding disproportionality but also how it sustained us as a powerful and supportive collective while boosting our self-confidence. We encourage that youth work with educators to lead schooling toward a place where we are heard, valued, respected, and liberated to fulfill our greatest potential.


[1] The overrepresentation of Black and Latinx students in both lower tracked classes and disciplinary actions (e.g., referrals, suspensions) within schooling


Author Biographies: 

Hui-Ling S. Malone, Ph.D., received her doctorate degree at New York University in Teaching and Learning, with a focus on urban education. She is a former secondary English teacher who has previously worked in various communities including Detroit, MI,  Los Angeles, CA, and the South Bronx, New York City. Hui-Ling is interested in culturally sustaining pedagogies and critical pedagogy in order to empower students and advance equity in schools. Her research focuses on community centric practices through teaching and learning in hopes of strengthening relationships among students and surrounding school community members to address immediate social issues for the greater good of the collective.



Julian Giordano is a Junior at Stuyvesant High School. Julian has been a member of SEE/YTAC-D for the past 3 years, and is passionate about promoting equity and student voice. Outside of SEE, Julian is the Vice President of the Stuyvesant Student Union and a member of the DOE’s Chancellor's Student Advisory Council (CSAC). Julian is also deeply invested in local politics, and serves as a member of Manhattan Community Board 7. In his free time, Julian plays guitar and does photography.




Born and raised in McAllen, Texas, Kay Galarza, high school senior, moved to New York City in September of 2016, a week before her freshman year. Kay is a youth leader whose work centers around different forms of advocacy and activism, particularly around dismantling systems of oppression within the school system and restoratively empowering youth voice and experience. She sits on the Panel for Education Policy, Chancellors and Borough Student Advisory Councils, and is a Facilitator of Students and Educators for Equity.



Monique Carter is a senior at the Academy of American Studies and has been a member of SEE since 2018. She is very adamant about the acknowledgment of the racial disproportionality in the school system and in America entirely and has hopes of continuing her advocacy in prison reform following high school. Monique is the President of the Student Equity Club in her school, which goes by the name Youth United Population, and actively represents the minorities in her predominantly white school. Monique is also an entrepreneur of a clothing line, Canji, and paints in her free time.



Demiana Rizkalla grew up in New York and attended NYCDOE schools her entire life. Growing up as a brown girl in predominantly white schools, it took a journey to find her voice and understand all of the social layers of her education. She is now a student at New York University studying Public Policy and History in order to one day effect change in educational policy and do her part in fighting for equity in the future.




Blog Abstract:

NYC youth action researchers interrogated disproportionality within their schooling. Through this process, students humanized themselves in the data and re-defined disproportionality as rooted in institutionalized racism (e.g., discipline consequences because of students’ dress-code by race) and systemic oppression. They urge educators to enact inclusive practices to decenter white-cis-hetero-patriarchal values and honor the intersectional identities of all students toward liberation.