A critical guiding principle of student-powered improvement is to co-create spaces of truth, care, and hope. Co-creation must be a collaborative effort by young people and adults. It will take time, patience, and a collective commitment to vulnerability and growth to co-create this space.
Truth. Care. Hope. These are separate concepts but also interdependent. Care and truth must be present in order to build trust. Care and trust must be established for a group to wrestle with notions of truth.
Creating spaces of authentic care starts with real listening. That is, deep, authentic attention to the stories and needs of both young people and adults. In order to listen, we must intentionally build time and space in our meetings–both formally and informally–to engage with one another and deepen relationships. In common spaces, we must move beyond the traditional five-minute “ice breakers” to offer more time and space to listen.
In the case study of Change Agents, a participant explained, “The tension is that people still want to meet outcomes quickly, but this work requires building relationships and trust. It takes a lot of time and patience and doesn’t necessarily achieve outcomes right away.” Listening as an act of care requires give and take, as well as vulnerability and patience from all those involved. In other words, both students and adults must share their stories.
In Design Collaborative, another case study, students and adults engaged in empathy interviews with one another. Small groups consisting of two students and one adult spent over an hour asking questions back and forth such as, “Tell me about a time you talked about race. What did you talk about? How did you feel during and after the conversation?” A similar empathy interview strategy was used in Change Agents with adults and students. In Youth Ambassadors, meetings included time for deep listening through “triads of trust,” in which three participants spent time sharing their stories in response to suggested prompts.
Deep listening must be paired with caring responses. That might mean participants:
Authentic care requires gentleness and humility. With it, we honor, support, and amplify the many beautiful and brilliant ways each person navigates this world.
Truth is something we are always working to uncover. It is a process of search and discovery, often experienced through sharing stories and being in relationship with others. What one person holds as truth might be different from what another has experienced, and thus believes to be true. Therefore, the search for truth requires us to name our personal truths and examine how they compare to what others hold to be true.
In the Design Collaborative, for example, students and adults examined their individual experiences and beliefs about identity. In Design Camp, youth and adults used empathy interviews to hear the truth about personal experiences in education during COVID. In both examples, teams listened to personal truths. They uncovered problems with current systems that could eventually lead to system redesign.
The next layer of truth-telling is organizational truth. What are the system processes, policies, and priorities that result in inequitable outcomes? Being absolutely transparent about how things work is a way of uncovering organizational truths. For example, in Participatory Budgeting, youth learned how budgets were made and examined which data were excluded or used to inform the budgeting process. This led the team to add new data from students’ experiences in school to inform budget priorities.
The third way to uncover truth is to explore historical truths. By examining the origins of the current systems, we can better understand the problems they have caused. For example, in the Design Collaborative on race and racism, students said they wanted opportunities to learn about the history of race and how it shapes the present. This led the group to create lessons about the local history of race. Students and teachers were excited to integrate those into the curriculum. In Feedback Loops, educators and community members acknowledged the role that racism played in developing education systems as they began their work together. Uncovering historical truths helps people see that since all systems were designed, they can be redesigned. This is the practice of authentic or audacious hope.
The three types of truth, personal, organizational, and historical, intersect with one another. Historical truths, for example, may influence how we interpret the personal stories people share. Uncovering truths is also a group effort; it is not up to individuals or specific groups of individuals. In this way, truth-telling requires time and the ability to pause or adjust a group’s work to tend to the truth.
For students to feel like they have the power to change their current circumstances, there must be hope. To define this further, hope is when a person can name a goal and figure out a way to achieve that goal. Specifically, students need to be able to name a collective goal, feel they have the skills and resources to reach that goal, and then see material changes from their efforts.
Student-powered improvement isn’t possible when adults defer the work or make excuses. They might say, “It will change when you get older,” or, “Your input is valuable but we can’t make these changes yet,” or the often used, “It’s okay if it doesn’t change now; you need these skills in college.” These common responses provoke despair—the opposite of hope.
So, what is an adult’s role in creating the conditions for hope to flourish? Jeff Duncan-Andrade, an educator, scholar, and community-centered organizer explains what this hope might sound like, look like, and feel like in this keynote address. To break it down, he says young people get to speak their truths, see adults wrestle with these truths, and then work together as real changes are made to policies or practices. Hope can be found at multiple levels and degrees within student-powered improvement.
Fostering hope can be as comprehensive as the Design Camp, Youth Ambassadors, or the CARPE Student Fellowship examples, where youth and adults engage in liberatory design processes that actively improve systems for historically marginalized students. In these examples, hope manifests when students and adults share and hear stories related to inequitable experiences, grapple with what these stories uncover, set goals to improve systems, and work collaboratively to make material improvements to those systems.
Hope can also be found in Feedback Loops where youth and their families had a direct impact on the policies and practices in a high school. As a result of students sharing their stories, the school created three new culturally responsive courses and established a more transparent, ongoing engagement process. In this example, youth and their families were not tokenized, and instead witnessed real, material change in the systems of the school. This work offered an authentic experience of hope for people in that community.
Hope is something we need to hold sacred. We need to be careful not to project a false sense of hope often found in initiatives that tokenize youth. Students need to see adults show up, be willing to engage in difficult conversations, and ultimately see meaningful evolution in practices and policies.
Below are some activities that organizations have used to build care, truth, and hope with teams of adults and youth.
This protocol asks team members to share their personal identities and truths, an important activity for fostering truth and care.
Useful in group meetings, this simple strategy offers an opportunity for team members to share their stories, deepen relationships and uncover truths in a small-group setting.
This protocol helps youth and adults express their hopes and fears for the work ahead, and then leads to the creation of shared group agreements.
This activity builds deeper care and truth among participants by sharing timeline stories of highs and lows. The process helps affirm similarities and differences in order to move forward together.