Social Justice and Meaningful Student Involvement

Social justice is effort specifically taken to rebalance the injustices faced by any group of people who are routinely, systematically and consistently disregarded and disrespected.


Growing up, my family experienced situational poverty and occasional homelessness. In my teenage years, once we had settled in the Midwestern United States, I was hired by a neighborhood nonprofit to co-teach in a summer program for young people who lived in Omaha, Nebraska’s public housing projects. The program, called “You’re The Star!”, was developed alongside Augusto Boal’s notable approach called “Theatre of the Oppressed.” My director, Idu Maduli, became a lifelong inspiration whom I sought to mold my work with young people after.

Idu instilled in me many things, not the least of which being a love of learning and teaching. I developed a deep appreciation for the history of the predominately African American community where I eventually grew up for a decade. I also learned the elements of social justice from my work with Idu. Social justice, which is the deliberate empowerment of oppressed people within a system of intentional or coincidental injustice, can be fostered throughout education in many ways. (Banks, 1998 ) Through its focus on social justice, Meaningful Student Involvement holds multicultural education at its heart.

From my young efforts in social justice education, I transitioned to youth development programs with historically disengaged children and youth. Working in out-of-school learning programs in low-income communities and communities of color, the places I mentored, tutored and taught often reflected my own upbringing in a socially, economically and emotionally depressed community. However, I was enthralled to facilitate student empowerment outside and within the education system. In my first AmeriCorps term, I worked with Kurdish and Iraqi refugee students in the Midwest. For the first time, I observed the elements that made successful student learning, and discovered intersections leading to student empowerment. Since then I continued exploring the topic, and today, I understand that student empowerment is the attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby learners gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people, including students and adults. (Vavrus & Fletcher, 2006)

That centers student empowerment and social justice in the heart of Meaningful Student Involvement. I hold that the frameworks, considerations, concepts and applications explored throughout this book can affect every student in every school across every nation and around the world. As several others have posited, Student/Adult Partnerships are student empowerment and social justice in action. (Beane & Apple, 1995; Cervone & Cushman, 2002; Beaudoin, 2005; Mitra, 2006; Fielding, 2010; Beattie, 2012)

Considering my own background, it should come as no surprise that I merged my undergraduate studies in critical pedagogy with my graduate and professional studies focused on student voice. After studying works by Paulo Freire (Freire, 2004), Michelle Fine (Fine & Weis, 2003), bell hooks (hooks, 2014) and Peter McLaren (McLaren, 2003), Henry Giroux (Giroux, 2013) and others, I began examining some of my basic assumptions about student voice. I explored the reasons why student voice is so frequently qualified by adults, and saw how adults selectively choose which students to listen to and which to ignore, consciously and unconsciously. Looking for the faces of the low-income young people and youth of color I worked with throughout my career, I saw very few of them being invited to share their voices. Yet, as these young people (myself included) got in fights, cheated on tests, vandalized classrooms and dropped out of school, I also heard them call out. This was reinforced by other critical literature, too. (McDermott, 1998; Rubin & Silva, 2003; Cook-Sather, 2007)

However, it was my mentor Henry Giroux whose definition of voice resolved these differences for me. According to McLaren, Giroux says voice “refers to the multifaceted and interlocking set of meanings through which students actively engage in a dialogue with one another.” (McLaren, 2003)

Together, McLaren and Giroux built an early understanding of the potential for student voice to affect social justice in education. (Giroux & McLaren, 1982) Wanting to simplify and expand common understanding of student voice, I believe it is important to hold the intent of Giroux’s definition by holding a lot of different ideas and critical conceptions inside of the term. In my 2014 publication, The Guide to Student Voice, I wrote, “student voice is any expression of any learner, anywhere, anytime related to education.” (Fletcher, 2014) I continue to share that explanation and explore it throughout my work.

Social justice and student voice meet at the intersection of Meaningful Student Involvement, providing powerful, positive and purpose-filled opportunities for historically disengaged students to drive active, substantive and transformative change throughout education. Who can ask for more?

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