Student-powered improvement asks us to reflect, disrupt, and reimagine long-established forms of power and privilege. Adults must recognize and disrupt adultism and its intersections with racism, sexism, and other forms of bias that impact the true centering of youth. Teams must commit to a strengths-based approach to working together, where youth and adults are viewed as experts of their own experience and out-of-school knowledge and experiences are legitimized. Reimagining power and privilege requires humility and a commitment to shared decision-making.
Most school systems operate on the belief that adults possess a greater amount of knowledge and expertise than students. But, what if we are trying to solve complex educational problems that don’t have a clear answer and would benefit from a wide variety of perspectives? Student-powered improvement asks us to re-think the power dynamics held in conventional school hierarchies that place adults as the sole experts, solution designers, and decision-makers, and youth only as the learners and receivers of solutions. By reimagining power structures to see students as the experts of their own lived experiences, we will be able to meaningfully partner with them to make sustainable changes.
Reimagining power and privilege requires humility. Acknowledging the presence of adultism, the biased belief that adults are better than young people, entitled to act without youth permission, is an important step. Adults must recognize and disrupt adultism and its intersections with racism, sexism, and other forms of bias that impact whether youth are truly centered. In Design Camp, adults and youths brainstormed where adultism was present in schools and classrooms. They then discussed the impact that adultism had on them as individuals and as a community.
At the same time, we need to honor that youth need support, guidance, and experiences to grow and learn. We must be sure not to slip into adultification, or forcing youth to grow up too fast. Adultification has been found to especially impact Black girls and results in holding them to more adult-like standards of behavior than their peers.
In order to shift mindsets, teams of youths and adults should receive support noticing and naming existing power dynamics and privileges they bring into the space, and develop the skills necessary to solve identified problems of practice. For example, in Participatory Budgeting, one organizer noted, “Adults don’t automatically have the perceptions or capacity to even know how to do this work. You can’t just hand people students to partner with. Otherwise, they can end up tokenizing or gatekeeping…even those who are most enthusiastic.”
Over time, the group co-created a definition of shared decision-making and helped adults assess their biases about youth. Another organizer said, “To create a culture that is with students, not for students, we need to push those beliefs.” If we don’t work to shift the mindsets of power and privilege there is an increased risk of tokenizing the youth on our team. Instead, we want to give them legitimate agency to work with us on solving the problems that prevent all youth from thriving in schools.
Teams must commit to a strengths-based approach to working together. This means youth and adults are viewed as experts of their own experiences, and that out-of-school knowledge and experiences are legitimized. We must look further than a student’s academic strengths and engage more holistically with what they know and bring from their culture, aspirations, language, and social experiences outside of school. By expanding what counts as knowledge and expertise, we can amplify each others’ strengths to tackle difficult problems.
Explore a few protocols that teams of adults and youth have used on their journey to reimagine power and privilege.
This activity asks team members to name the status quo categories of power so that they can work to share power with other members.
This activity asks teams of students and adults to name the places where adultism is at play in their schools.
As part of reimagining power and privilege, both students and adults may need support in coming to a decision. This protocol will help teams arrive at a consensus when presented with difficult choices.