Pass the Mic Series: Youth Voice & Agency in Schools, How to Empower Youth Voice in Schools

By: Maya R. Johnson


  • Youth are experts on what they need and do not need in schools, so their voice needs to be heard in discussions on changes and innovations.
  • Teachers and administrators play a vital role in empowering youth voices in schools.
  • In this blog as part of the Pass the Mic series, read about the strategies panelists mentioned that schools can implement to empower youth voice from the third session about “Youth Voice and Agency in Schools” during the 8th Youth-Nex conference entitled Pass the Mic: Amplifying Youth Voice & Agency.
Source: Youth-Nex

“Students are the experts on what they are learning,” says Dr. Graves. Heads nod around the room, with mine being one of them. In education-related decisions, it is common for youth, who will be impacted by these decisions, to be left out of the conversation. A shared sentiment amongst the panelists was that youth voices should be empowered and that these voices should be heard in school spaces where decisions are made. The purpose of this panel was to address the question: How can youth voices be empowered by schools?

How to Empower Youth Inside Schools

School is where youth spend most of their time, meaning that students know what they need and what will work. The following strategies were suggested by panelists on how to empower youth in schools:

  • Principal advisory committee: Students meet with their principal and share suggestions on how to make their school a place they want to attend.
  • Student-community partnerships: Students and community partners are brought together in conversation on areas that need improvement.
  • Challenging projects in the classroom: Students complete individual multi-step projects that target challenges that youth see and allow them to create steps to solve those challenges.
  • Skill-building opportunities: Students have opportunities to practice skills needed to engage in actions and changes.
  • Create intentional spaces: Youth have access to spaces where they can practice self-governance.

How Teachers Can Help

Teachers can help empower youth voices by implementing strategies that avoid regression. Such strategies are building a personal relationship with each individual student, creating an environment of freedom of expression in the classroom, embracing the role of facilitator, and having “be real” moments during which teachers make sure that their students understand and retain the information taught. Through these strategies, not only will regression be avoided, but youth voices will be empowered because students will feel supported by their teachers and have the space necessary to grow confident and comfortable using their voice.

How Administrators Can Help

Administrators can help empower youth voices by making sure that young people feel safe when using their voice. Through consulting youth directly on what the word “safety” means to them and creating spaces where students feel comfortable sharing how they feel and what affects them without judgment, youth will know that their voice is acknowledged by leaders in their school. A key to administrators contributing to the empowerment of youth voice effectively is that they must be open and ready to hear feedback, rather than taking student feedback personally.

My Thoughts

Students know their experiences in schools. They know what innovations and systems work and do not work. They know what they need and do not need.

Students’ voices should and need to be not only heard, but also given genuine space during the school decision making process.

Once schools begin to empower and listen to youth voices, strong leaders will be developed, and schools will be transformed to effectively impact the lives of youth.

Source: Youth-Nex

Did you miss one of our six sessions from the Pass the Mic: Amplifying Youth Voice & Agency conference? Go back and watch these panels with youth voices, and read the summaries, primarily written by the youth participants, on the following topics:

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Maya Johnson is a second year at the University of Virginia majoring in Youth & Social Innovation and minoring in Religious Studies. She is a member of the Education Council, member of the leadership team for SEEDS4Change, co-event chair for the Youth & Social Innovation Executive Board, and a volunteer for Virginia Ambassadors.

Why Access to Youth Theatre Matters, Concluding Youth Performing Arts Series

By: Jessica Harris

This blog post is the fourth and final in a Youth Performing Arts Series by teens involved in the performing arts. For more posts, please visit our blog.


  • Empowered Players (EP) is a Fluvanna-based non-profit in VA designed to make a difference in the community through the arts. Their mission is to uplift the human spirit through access to quality arts experiences, youth empowerment, and community service through free & accessible K-12 theatre education and programming. 
  • For the past few months, the Youth Performing Arts Series has highlighted youth involved with EP sharing more about their experiences and perspectives engaging in the performing arts. 
  • In this fourth and final blog post, Jessica Harris, Founder and Artistic Director of EP, shares more tips and strategies for running a rural youth performing arts program, and about how applied development research is embedded into that work.
Source: EP, Midsummer Night’s Dream Cast, Summer 2019.

“The show must go on!” Many of us are probably familiar with this age-old adage.  It’s designed to remind us of the importance of perseverance, determination, and the need for the curtain to rise on a performance no matter the obstacles.

But how does this phrase apply in communities where systems, structures, and ecosystems are designed such that the show – both literally and figuratively – often cannot go on? This is the reality for many rural counties across the country, and my experience growing up where access to afterschool programs – particularly those in the dramatic arts – was few and far between. 

This access gap is felt by many students and families where programs are either too expensive, far away, or inaccessible due to the ability level needed. According to a report by Afterschool Alliance, roughly 4.5 million rural students would be enrolled in an afterschool program if afforded the opportunity; with the majority of parents citing cost and limited access as main barriers to entry.

In efforts to provide students with access to arts while closing the opportunity gap, I founded Fluvanna-based Empowered Players (EP) in 2016. The 501(c)3 organization fosters accessible theatre experiences for students who might otherwise lack access to the arts. Our mission is to uplift the human spirit through access to quality arts experiences, youth empowerment, and community service.

Photo source: EP, Empowered Players Students Rehearse Peter Pan Jr., Spring 2018.

The Power of Theatre

Arts programs are often life changing for students. As we’ve heard from our EP Teen Arts Board (TAB) members in this Youth Performing Arts Series, theatre offers students a variety of skills and benefits aside from the warmth of the spotlight. Here’s some of what our students said that affirmed the findings of researchers and experts from the field:

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) & Positive Youth Development

Youth VoicesWhat Experts Say
Maya shared that, “Without theatre I would be much less assertive and would probably care more about what people think. In theatre you regularly embarrass yourself and do ridiculous things. By doing that in this safe place, it’s easier to do in public.”Researcher Jane Dewey writes: “Theatre is an exploration of human emotion, human behavior and human action…. the process of drama is used not for production, but for exploration.” Students explore roles onstage; examine characters’ thoughts and feelings; try out new skills in improvisation games; and thus, fine-tune their SEL skills. 

Friendships & Confidence

Youth VoicesWhat Experts Say
Gloria said, “Throughout the year my confidence has gone up. For example, I can make friends easier now, and it is easier for me to talk to people that I don’t really know. I have also noticed that I have become more confident in speaking in class in front of classmates and teachers, and that I can express my thoughts and opinions more freely and without worrying too much about what they think.”Sandra Ruppert found that theatre increases students’ “self-confidence, self-control, conflict resolution, collaboration, empathy, and social tolerance” (p. 14) – all of which are essential for increased friendships and confidence.

Creativity, Problem-Solving, & Innovation

Youth VoicesWhat Experts Say
Anna and Kessler believe that theatre “can improve public speaking ability, increase creative thinking skills, and includes people from many different backgrounds and walks of life through the diverse roles available.”In a report on 21st Century Skills, Colleen Dean & colleagues found that theatre and arts programs teach essential skills such as outside-the-box thinking, collaborative skills, and innovation through elements that are required to put on a show.
Source: EP, Owen (one of the youth bloggers) and Jessica Harris working together on a project at Empowered Players rehearsal in 2019.

Tips & Advice for Adults

While EP continues to adapt to our community’s needs and interests, there are a few key lessons learned that may prove useful for others who hope to engage in this type of meaningful work. Whether you are a teacher, a community organizer, a parent, or other person invested in positive youth development, my hope is that these tips and strategies will help you support youth in the performing arts.

  • Focus on the Process: Our mantra is process is the product. Just as no theatre will have a good performance if the creative process was lackluster, the same holds true for organizations working with students. Educators should focus on offering a robust, SEL-centered experience rather than focus on “just putting on a show.” (The Educational Theatre Association has a number of SEL-informed lesson plans for theatre educators for this purpose.) And I encourage parents to recognize how learning and practicing SEL skills in theatre as a process (and not just the end show) can impact successful social functioning in the future.
  • Community & Arts Go Hand-in-Hand: One of the most meaningful parts of Empowered Players is our Teen Arts Board program, where students volunteer in our community using the arts. From holding community-wide talent shows to storytime readings at our local library, our teens find ways to use their creative talents to enhance the community and bring the power of theatre to life. I encourage educators to find similar ways to align learning and embed service into the creative parts of this work. Community organizers should reach out to theatre groups and help build bridges to the arts if they don’t already exist. If there are parents whose teens are involved in theatre, consider encouraging those leaders to find pathways to the community too!
  • Access, Access, Access: Some of the greatest parts about theatre are the infinite touchpoints it provides. Have a student who’s less comfortable onstage? Allow them to run the lights and sound. Know of students who are visual-arts-oriented? Make space on the costume design team for them. Theatre is for everyone whether it is in school-based or in the community!

Additionally, EP’s programs are all free-or-reduced cost. Recognizing that this may not be possible for every community, we encourage folks to be mindful of ways they might be able to keep their program accessible. It’s amazing what can be done with a simple gathering space, upcycled costumes, and a group of passionate students!

And if you are an adult who is fortunate to be able to monetarily support the arts, please consider donating to youth performing arts programs because it’s clear that their results have long lasting effects on the students involved.

Photo source: EP, Gloria & Ruby (two of our youth bloggers) work in the lights and sound booth at the Carysbrook Performing Arts Center, Spring 2023.

Next Steps

I am so heartened by what our students shared about the impact that theatre had on their lives. I encourage all adults and communities to consider bringing the transformative power of theatre to their own contexts, no matter how big or small. The show can go on, and I believe we owe it to all students to give them a chance to shine – both on and off the stage.

If you’d like to stay in touch or learn more about how theatre education can impact your community, you can reach me at To support Empowered Players, visit our website here.

The posts in the Youth Nex Youth Performing Arts Series are submitted by teens who are a part of the Empowered Players Teen Arts Board (TAB). The TAB is designed to create a space for teens to shape the arts landscape of Fluvanna County, VA, volunteer in their community, and co-create arts programming for EP. Each blog will feature topics selected by TAB members, and is designed to uplift their thoughts around the importance of the performing arts.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Jessica Harris is the Founder and Artistic Director of Empowered Players, a 501(c)3 arts education nonprofit in Fluvanna, VA, and Community Research Program Manager at the UVA Equity Center. Through EP, she directs and provides yearlong accessible arts programs for K-12 students, and her TEDx Talk titled “The Transformative Power of Theater in Rural Communities” highlights her work. Jessica holds a Master’s in Applied Development Science – Educational Psychology from the University of Virginia, where she also earned an interdisciplinary B.A in arts nonprofit management & education.

Youth Engaged in Research: Why Young Investigators Are Important

By: Shereen El Mallah

This post is the 2nd publication is a YPAR series, which aims to explain participatory research, youth-led measurement and evaluation approaches, and strategies for youth-adult collaborations in YPAR.


  • Participatory research is an approach to research, rather than a single research method, that intentionally considers power and equity with respect to both processes and outcomes.
  • The added value of participatory research for both academic and nonacademic partners can be seen at each and every phase of the research process.
  • In this blog, I share more about why youth involvement in research is essential and how having youth researchers working with youth participants can improve the quality of data collection efforts.
Source: Canva

In a recent Q&A I described what participatory research is, how it is important, and why more researchers should be using it. In this second publication of the series, let’s examine why engaging youth in participatory research can change the existing researcher-subject power dynamic as well as amplify the voice of under-researched groups through meaningful involvement in the research process.

Youth Expertise in Research Processes

Typically, adults conduct research on youth and youth serve as the data source. Accordingly, adult researchers are considered the experts and hold ownership over the research process and data use. However, we know youth have unique insight into their own needs and lived experiences.

Engaging youth in the research process can leverage their expertise on how best to support their own learning and development. By incorporating their voice in the design, implementation, analysis, and/or dissemination stages of research, we are likely to increase the accuracy and validity of research findings, as well as enhance research translation.

Additionally, engaging young people in participatory approaches during adolescence is a developmentally responsive practice.

By collaborating with adults throughout the research process and actively participating in group decision-making, adolescents develop the skills, knowledge and dispositions to be active and engaged community members.

This includes cultivating a sense of self-efficacy and belonging, inspiring a sense of purpose, generating psychological empowerment, promoting strategic thinking…all of which helps to bridge the “civic empowerment gap,” and pushes both adult and youth researchers to more accurately consider how the lives of marginalized individuals are often shaped by their culture, their communities, and the social, political and economic systems they live under.

Young Researchers Engaging Other Youth

When adults interview youth it tends to be a unidirectional process in which the interviewer asks questions and the participant responds. In this case, the power imbalance tends to be two-fold: first in the researcher-participant paradigm and again in the power and social imbalance between adults and youth.

Having youth researchers interview youth participants through peer interviews recognizes that interviewing is a more dynamic social process that involves co-construction of knowledge. It helps to minimize or eliminate a number of factors that can influence adult-youth interviews including:

  • power imbalances,
  • insider/outsider status,
  • language and ways of using language,
  • ways of knowing,
  • the socio-cultural environment, and
  • societal and economic status.

In a recently published study, it was very easy to see how the use of peer interviews between youth researchers and youth participants facilitated the development of rapport and increased the level of candor, both of which ultimately reduced potential bias and improved the quality of data collection.

Challenges to Note

There are many benefits to engaging youth in the participatory research process, but there are also challenges to the collaborative process that are important to note.

The reality is that youth sometimes struggle to appreciate their own expertise (or accept the idea that adults may not have the “best” or “smartest” answers). This can make it challenging to break out of the typical “adult as authority” and “student as subordinate” patterns of interaction. So, it will likely take time and some trial and error to identify the most effective ways to empower youth researchers and to uncover the right strategies to promote hierarchy flattening.

Youth researchers can also be lose interest when they do not see concrete progress or tangible outcomes related to their efforts. This can be the difference between participatory studies seeking ameliorative change—creating change within a system and transformative change—changing the system itself. The latter takes more time so it becomes important to celebrate early and small “wins” with youth researchers along the way.

Missed a post in the YPAR series? Check out all the tips and resources:

  1. The Benefits of Engaging in Participatory Approaches to Research
  2. Why Young Investigators Are Important
  3. Youth Voices in YPAR (includes youth)
  4. Strategies for the YPAR Collaboration Process (includes downloadable resources)
  5. How Can Youth Voice Amplify Research? Listening & Leadership Are Key
  6. 4 Universal Facilitation Tips for YPAR Collaboration
  7. Asset & Power Mapping as Tools for Youth-Led Research (includes downloadable resources)
  8. Why YPAR Matters: Youth Are “Looking at the World Differently” (includes youth)

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Dr. Shereen El Mallah is interested in the intersection of applied science and social justice. As a scholar-activist, her work draws heavily on rapid cycle evaluation, participatory approaches, design-based research, and the framework of QuantCrit to address three notable gaps: 1) The gap between what works in research and what works in practice, 2) The gap between valuing what we can measure and measuring what we value, 3) The racial/ethnic and socioeconomic gaps in developmental and educational outcomes that are rooted in longstanding structural and systemic inequities. El Mallah regularly engages in research-practice partnerships intent on interrupting inequitable practices, policies, and research, as well as explores communication and dissemination strategies that facilitate the use of evidence. She is committed to working with and for underrepresented, marginalized, or systematically minoritized groups to leverage both quantitative and qualitative data in challenging dominant narratives.