Pass the Mic Series: Amplifying Youth Voices in Politics, Organizing, & Civic Engagement

By: Isabel, a first year at UVA


  • Youth-Nex recently hosted their 8th conference entitled Pass the Mic: Amplifying Youth Voice & Agency, co-chaired by Drs. Wintre Foxworth Johnson and Nancy Deutsch.
  • In this Pass the Mic blog series, we are highlighting each of the sessions from the conference, sharing videos, and uplifting youth voices to summarize and reflect on what was discussed.
  • Isabel, a first year at UVA, summarizes the 5th session about “Politics, Organizing, & Civic Engagement,” highlighting important take-home points about empowering youth voices, engagement, activism and education.

Joined by experts and professionals including, Dr. Edward Scott, Dr. Josefina Bañales, Aaron Azelton, and Dr. Johari Harris, this panel focused on the importance of young voices in political engagement. Public policy and politics are often fields where youth voices can be overlooked for a plethora of reasons, however the leaders on this panel address this issue while simultaneously advocating for the increased involvement of young people, especially those who belong to marginalized groups, within the political atmosphere.

Youth Voices & Civic Engagement

Right off the bat, moderator, Dr. Scott, sets up the discussion by asking a question that focuses on the importance of youth voices when it comes to political and civic engagement. Dr. Bañales jumps in by highlighting the framework that women of color have built to support “youth using their voice[s] to challenge oppression and whiteness” within society. For Black and Brown youth, civic engagement has always been a major aspect of their lives due to the intertwined relationship between politics and racial justice. Coincidentally, young people who are part of minority groups are often hurt most by oppression but are on the front lines of fighting oppression as well. To create more individuals who will fight for democracy and equity, it is important to support young people, especially those who belong to marginalized groups, who are interested in politics, and also encourage more youth to engage with policy-making and government, both locally and nationally.

Diverting the conversation, Dr. Scott asks the panelists to speak on the level of engagement that young people have in different scopes of government, whether that be internationally, nationally, or locally. Aaron Azelton starts off this discussion with a strong statement: “young people are inherently political.” Regardless of their future career plans or goals, youth are very politically aware and oftentimes are extremely involved with local politics that address issues affecting them in their communities. Additionally, it is very important to understand that young people’s political awareness and engagement show up in various ways that may not be as visible or as public as a protest or social media campaign. Many times political engagement for young people is happening in their day-to-day lives through conversations they have with one another, or even adults as well. Also, especially for youth who are first-generation Americans, their form of political engagement may look like translating legal documents and navigating the political landscape of this nation to help their immigrant parents. Supporting adolescents’ involvement in civic engagement means understanding the different ways that each young person displays activism and political organization, depending on their strengths and individual backgrounds.

Youth Activism & Education

The panelists also focused on where and how young people can build crucial activism skills that they need in civic engagement. Schools become a major aspect of this conversation with two panelists (Dr. Bañales and Dr. Harris). They had different opinions on the ways schools can be used as a place to create more activists:

  • Dr. Bañales highlights that, historically, we would focus on building activists in schools because young people spent most of their time there. However, we are moving away from schools due to the sensitivity around conversations that focus on race and oppression; additionally, many teachers don’t have the capacity to educate students on these matters in addition to completing their workload. Due to this, most opportunities for advocacy are moving out of schools and utilizing media to encourage more youth political engagement.
  • Dr. Harris acknowledges the issues highlighted by Dr. Bañales, however she explains that schools can be the perfect place to encourage activism, especially in public schools where there are typically diverse students with different backgrounds. Schools can resemble micro democracies where students can negotiate and learn how to navigate simple issues like sharing pencils or combat larger problems like changing unjust and oppressive structures.

Despite the two contradicting opinions, both panelists agreed that it is important to move away from traditional and historical ways of encouraging civic engagement.

Moderator, Dr. Scott, continues the panel by asking a highly anticipated question about the impact of CRT (critical race theory) bans on youth political awareness and education. Panelist, Dr. Harris, begins that conversation by stating that laws like the CRT bans are not new. All throughout American history, there has always been pushback against progress; educators who have always been teaching content that is similar to CRT will continue to do so, while educators who have not been teaching CRT content will continue avoiding the topic regardless of the CRT ban being passed or not. Therefore, attempts to overanalyze and break down this ban may not be as impactful as people imagine. Dr. Bañales emphasizes that “the work will continue”; conversations about race will still occur outside of school, in homes, amongst friends, and via social media. Although school is a very important place to have these conversations, we can still continue to educate youth outside of school and ensure that they continue to be politically aware.

How To Support Youth Civic Engagement

The panelists divert towards another discussion about the support that youth need from adults to be more politically engaged. The intergeneration approach is the best way to really encourage youth advocacy; collaborating with adults and learning from them can greatly contribute to the growing political voice of a young person. Dr. Harris brings up a great example of the civil rights movement and how the partnership between adults and young people led to an immense amount of success. Additionally, adults, especially adults who mentor young people of color, need to recognize that oftentimes youth advocacy has many Eurocentric features. However, a young Black person cannot speak up in the same ways that a young White person can speak up, so it is important to teach Black and Brown youth to be an advocate in their own way and not force them to emulate the actions of young White activists.

As the panel comes to an end, panelists are asked about the resources to promote youth well-being as they navigate their political voice and civic engagement. They highlight some resources that adults working with youth activist should take into consideration:

  • Money is the first resource identified by panelists that youth need in order to continue leading and speaking up. Coincidentally, this is not the first time that the subject of money has come up during this conference, and the panelists in this discussion emphasize the impact money has on youth engagement. Money can be used as an incentive to engage more youth and persuade more adults to listen to youth; additionally, youth need to be adequately compensated for their time and efforts, and money is one of the many ways to show appreciation.
  • Community and compassion are other ways to support youth in civic engagements. Activism can be very heavy because oftentimes youth are dealing with various forms of oppressive systems. It is important to encourage youth to take time in order to heal and do things that bring joy. Essentially, even though young people may be activists, they are still young and they deserve to be able to participate in hobbies and activities that have absolutely nothing to do with activism.
  • Lastly, understanding that young people play different roles in activism. Oftentimes, adults create rigid definitions of political engagement and expect all youth to fit into these stiff roles. However, it is important that youth have various opportunities that appeal to their different personalities. Not every single youth has to be on the front lines or at every single rally/protest, so it is crucial to find roles where youth with different interests can thrive.
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: Originally from Nigeria, Isabel Ohakamma was raised in Houston, Texas. She currently attends the University of Virginia as one of a handful of Posse Scholars selected from Texas and given a full tuition scholarship to UVA. She is currently a first-year student and plans to double major in Psychology and Youth & Social Innovation. Isabel is passionate about amplifying the voices of youth. In high school, she led conferences where she facilitated discussions with leaders of school districts about the importance of diversifying curriculums in K-12 public schools in Texas. In 2021, her advocacy and dedication to highlighting the voices of young people in her community led her to be recognized as one of twelve Bezos Scholars in the nation. Isabel is also a member of UCLA’s Youth National Scientific Council on Adolescence where she is able to actively represent adolescents and their views. On UVA Grounds, she is a member of the Student Council Legislative Committee and is a proud Echols Scholar. In the future, Isabel plans to complete a Ph.D. program and continue advocating for youth in her career!

How Can Youth Voice Amplify Research? Listening & Leadership Are Key

This post is the 5th publication in a YPAR series, which aims to explain participatory research, youth-led measurement and evaluation approaches, and strategies for youth-adult collaborations in YPAR.

By: Jessica Forrester


  • In this series on Youth Participatory Action Research (or YPAR), we’ve argued that youth engagement at all levels of research design can leverage their expertise and increase the validity of research findings. 
  • There are several ways to increase youth voice in research, including listening, collaboration, and leadership.
  • In this blog, I will describe how I’ve listened to youth in my collaborative research and how I envision youth leadership could amplify my future work.
Source: Canva

Increasing student voice and engagement in the research process has many benefits for youth development. These benefits include creating a network of justice-oriented adults and youth, developing critical thinking skills, and cultivating a sense of empowerment and purpose. Listening, collaboration, and leadership are three approaches to increasing youth voice in research that align with expert suggestions for transforming school decision-making. I will describe how I’ve used these practices below and give strategies on how you can apply these ideas to your work.

Increasing Student Voice Through Listening

Not all research studies are designed to be youth-led, and that’s okay. Sometimes adult researchers can include instances of listening to seek youth perspectives and opinions about our data and work.

Within my doctoral research process, I was the leading developer of culturally responsive mathematics activities for an after-school tutoring program in the North Minneapolis community. Even though I was the primary designer, I felt there were ways to include youth voices and feedback to improve my research. For example, one activity idea included an infographic of the distribution of Black teachers in the United States by region. It was clear from the infographic that the Midwest had drastically fewer Black teachers compared to the South, West, and Northeast. I was hesitant to include this figure because the students attending the program were predominately Black, and my aim of the activities was to create joyful learning experiences for students. Questions I asked myself were:

  • How can students help transform this activity from bleak to joy-centered?
  • How can we work together to change this activity into one focused on students’ identity and community?
  • How can we highlight Black teachers in Minnesota to inspire students and future teachers?

I held a reflection meeting with two 11th grade students participating in the program to gather youth input and feedback. I showed them the infographic, expressed my hesitancy to include it, and asked how they thought we could make this infographic more joyful. They gave several insightful possibilities:

  • Using the chart as an introduction to the lack of Black teachers locally and nationally,
  • Creating a survey for Black teachers to know more about their experiences, and
  • Designing a call to action for more teachers of color.

The revised activity would still allow students to mathematically explore the data while critiquing Black teachers’ working conditions and suggesting recommendations for change. We left that conversation feeling hopeful that a somewhat depressing activity could transform into a multi-dimensional learning moment for students.

Moving from Listening to Leadership

Listening is an excellent start to increasing youth engagement but it comes with challenges. For instance, Dana Mitra mentions the possibility of misinterpreting youth voices when students aren’t fully engaged with all steps of the research process. A way to improve youth engagement and move past a limited practice of only listening is to create opportunities for leadership and decision-making. A future direction of my research would incorporate students in the development phase of curriculum writing. At the end of the day, students are the ones engaging with curricular materials and deserve opportunities to give their voice and input. A fully collaborative curriculum with researchers, educators, community members, and students would provide opportunities for youth leadership over their learning.

If you are interested in moving from listening to leadership in your work, here are some tips and questions to ask yourself:

  1. Acknowledge your bias on what partnerships between youth and adults look like. What are my preconceptions of youth-adult collaboration? How can I change my everyday practices to create reciprocal youth-adult relationships? Am I willing to learn from the insider knowledge of youth?
  2. Establish clear goals, roles, and responsibilities at the beginning of the collaboration. Do I know everyone’s competencies, strengths, and talents? Are those strengths aligned with their roles and responsibilities? Am I providing valuable training opportunities to support youth development?
  3. Regularly reflect on your practice. Is there any misalignment between the partnership’s goals and actions? Is anything holding me back from transforming my current youth-adult collaboration? Over the next few months, what can I do to improve our decision-making process, communication, or shared responsibility?

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. Jessica Forrester is a postdoctoral researcher working directly with Youth-Nex and the Youth Action Lab. Before joining the University of Virginia, Jessica earned a Ph.D. in STEM Education from the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s and master’s degree in biomedical engineering. Her dissertation combined her interest in STEM engagement with justice-oriented practices in education to create mathematics activities for an after-school tutoring program in North Minneapolis. Specifically, qualitative and community-based approaches were utilized to acknowledge community assets and, in turn, value those assets during mathematical learning to influence students’ identity development, skills development, criticality, and joy. Additionally, Jessica explores equity and justice through youth participatory action research and mentoring networks.

Youth Engaged in Research: Strategies for the Collaboration Process

This post is the 4th publication in a YPAR series, which aims to explain participatory research, youth-led measurement and evaluation approaches, and strategies for youth-adult collaborations in YPAR.

By: Shereen El Mallah


  • In this YPAR series, I’ve shared that 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.
  • Youth have a unique insight into their own needs and lived experiences, and engaging them in the research process can leverage their expertise on how best to support their own learning and development.
  • In this blog, I share specific strategies that facilitated the collaboration process to support the design and application of participatory research in practice.
Source: Dr. Shereen El Mallah

Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) is an approach to conducting research increasingly used by educators, administrators, practitioners and researchers alike. However, there is still a lack of practical knowledge about how participatory research can best be designed and applied in practice.

In a recent publication, I provide examples or starter templates for researchers who are seeking to develop culturally sensitive measures and/or who are inviting youth stakeholders to transition from the passive role of informant to the active role of co-researcher. These are included below but first, I share some of the strategies that supported the youth-adult collaboration in this study.

How To Guide

The collaborative process can be broken down into multiple phases. During the planning phase (i.e., prior to engagement), the research team took the following steps:

  • Planning a “shadow day,” to follow a subgroup of students for three hours as they went about their regularly scheduled school day. This has previously been used as a teacher training and professional development exercise, and in the context of the case study, it held the same purpose of better understanding the realities of students in their daily environment.
  • Toward the same goal, disposable cameras were handed out to 30 randomly selected seventh and eighth grade students. They were asked to take pictures throughout the week of “things that were important to them.” The adult researchers were asked to do the same. All pictures were printed and later put on display in the room where collaborative working sessions took place.

During the partnering phase, the research team took the following steps:

  • The first collaborative working session was dedicated to collectively drafting a “contract” that discussed expectations, identified priorities and articulated the collective goals of the team. This conversation revealed varied outlooks among the youth researchers, from hesitation and apprehension (stemming from poor experiences in the past or a general distrust of adult outsiders) to hope and excitement at the prospect of playing a role in improving the student survey experience.
  • A lot of attention was also directed towards ensuring the statements in the contract were explicit, with very little room for ambiguity. For example, stating a commitment to shared decision-making was followed by a detailed description of the voting process (two-thirds majority for all votes) and a clear rationale provided for the few decisions that would be exempt from the process (e.g., the adult-driven research design decisions that were already underway, the decisions around any disciplinary matters that might emerge, etc.).

During the training phase, the research team took the following steps:

  • Youth researchers were encouraged to coin their own terms for the research concepts. For example, most youth researchers referred to quantitative and qualitative analysis as “numbers” analysis and “word” analysis; and although this may not be a technically accurate, it helped them more quickly distinguish between the two approaches
  • With regard to preparing students to lead cognitive interviews with their peers, the adult researchers employed reciprocal teaching strategies (“I do, we do, you do”): first modeling the interview protocol, then role-playing the interviewee for the youth researchers and eventually creating space for the youth researchers to offer one another feedback as they honed their interviewing skills.

During the learning phase (i.e., data analysis and interpretation), the research team took the following steps:

  • Youth researchers were guided through semi-structured data interpretation activities which included reflecting on surprises between what they expected and what they found in the data, as well as identifying patterns within the sample.

During the sharing phase (i.e., dissemination), the research team took the following steps:

  • The youth researchers created a social media page to highlight some of the key decisions and work products that emerged from each collaborative session.  One member of the team was charged each week with taking candid photographs to include in the updates that were co-authored by the adult and youth researchers on the team.
  • At the end of the data collection and analysis process, the youth researchers prepared four more comprehensive presentations to be delivered at a schoolwide assembly (targeting their peers), a school board meeting (targeting school and district leadership), a staff meeting (targeting their teachers) and a parent-teacher night (targeting families). Adult researchers in attendance took notes during the interactive presentations, documenting any questions or concerns raised by audience members. During the subsequent collaborative working sessions, the research team debriefed on key take-aways from the experience, as well as brainstormed new strategies to refine the dissemination process (e.g., after the first presentation, the decision was made to have handouts available for audience members).

Download Resources

To promote more widespread use of YPAR approaches, five resources were included in the publication and linked below. These resources were written for a general audience to ensure broad applicability and include examples, templates, and tools that may be helpful for those seeking to initiate research involving youth-adult collaborations. Each one was designed with the intention of drawing a more explicit link between the abstract guidelines and the concrete practices that are often associated with the YPAR process. 

A template of a recruitment flyer that can be used to invite students to work with adult researchers on improving school survey experiences.

An example of a project plan that begins with a broad overview of the research process in a youth-adult partnership, followed by a more detailed breakdown of the focus and purpose of each collaborative working session.

A newly developed measure called the “KIVI” used by both youth and adult researchers to examine the clarity, relevance and coverage of items on survey measures.

A training handout explaining the different types of validity used to evaluate surveys in an age-appropriate and relevant way for youth researchers.

A training handout used to help youth researchers obtain richer responses from their peers when conducting interviews.

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.