ASU project helps empower civic involvement for marginalized youth

ASU English professor Sybil Durand mentors students in a literature class.

Sybil Durand (right), an assistant professor in the Department of English’s English education program, is part of a team awarded a Spencer Foundation grant to empower civic action for marginalized youth. Here, she is shown mentoring students in a young adult literature class at ASU. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU.


Civics education is not just for aspiring political scientists. A healthy democratic society, according to experts, is one where all citizens participate.

Arizona State University researchers Sybil Durand (Department of English, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences), Melanie Bertrand (Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College), and Taucia Gonzalez (College of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an ASU alum) have been awarded a competitive $50,000 small grant from the Spencer Foundation to proactively steer middle-school kids toward civic empowerment.

Their project, “Developing the Civic Participation of Marginalized Youth through a Literature-Infused Youth Participatory Action Research Program,” will utilize multicultural literature to reach youth typically underrepresented in political life: low-income students, immigrant youth, students with special education designations, students of color and English Language Learners (ELLs).

The team will consult on quantitative methods with ASU assistant professor Margarita Pivovarova (Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College), an expert in the area.

A need for participation

The next generation will come of age in a society that is increasingly diverse. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2010 the numbers of Hispanics increased at four times the rate of the total population. As well, the numbers of those identifying as biracial was also up, with a 134 percent increase in the white and black population, 87 percent increase in white and Asian, and 32 percent increase in white and American Indian/Alaska Native.

Yet data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students scored lower on civic tests than white and Asian students in 2010. Scores were even lower for ELLs, students with disabilities and low-income students.

Educators interpret these low scores as both an “achievement gap” — students don’t perform as well academically — as well as an “opportunity gap” — students have fewer opportunities to participate in decision-making. One issue is clear: non-mainstream students need to know that they too can effect social change that is relevant to their lives.

The ASU project site itself, an urban school in Arizona, is majority Latina/o, with sizable populations of ELLs and students with disabilities. It is the same school where the researchers conducted a spring 2015 pilot (the name of the school is confidential because the study involves minors).

“Our study has the potential to reveal some of the processes that can be used to develop opportunities for civic participation for traditionally marginalized youth,” said Durand.

And, the study team believes, increased civic action can “improve the quality of civic participation for a diverse group of students, thereby fostering equality.”

Why literature?

Existing research shows that using texts reflecting a variety of cultures has a positive impact on how readers from marginalized groups view themselves.

ASU’s study is unique in that it directly links young adult literature — defined by the American Library Association as written for youth between the ages of twelve and eighteen — to social activism, and to what is termed “youth participatory action research (YPAR).”

“The literature component in YPAR lays the foundation for civic participation as students discuss stories with young characters who face social circumstances that are relevant to our research participants,” Durand said.

In the structure of an after-school reading group, seventh- and eighth-grade students enrolled in the ASU program each select a book to read and then discuss it in a small group. The students then identify an issue to study, conduct research on it and devise an action plan.

“The research component shows students how they can be involved in creating change,” Durand said.

The literature used in the project, all award-winning, was chosen by the ASU research team for its diverse perspectives on social issues related to race/ethnicity, gender, class, or sexuality—and because it featured protagonists of color. Texts to be used include “American Born Chinese,” a graphic novel by Gene L. Yang; “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets to the Universe” a novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz; “Brown Girl Dreaming,” a memoir in verse by Jacqueline Woodson; and “The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano,” a novel by Sonia Manzano.

“Students who participated in the YPAR pilot last spring engaged a variety of skills,” Durand said. “[They] began to practice skills related to civic participation, including asking critical questions and collaborating with peers and adults to make a change. The issue that students choose to research this year will guide the scope of the project — so, it could involve starting a petition, drafting a letter to a congressperson, or action for change at the school level.”

The ASU research team hopes their method can increase students’ participation in tangible activities having positive impacts in their communities and lives.

“This research shows that YPAR programs foster agentive spaces in which marginalized youth can engage in civic learning to challenge barriers to academic and social achievement.”

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