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To cite: Stickney D. (2022). Transformative Student Voice – Learn, lead, and create changes through action research. International Journal of Youth-Led Research, 2(1).

Transformative Student Voice –  learn, lead, and create changes through action research

        Leadership is one of those shapeless words that is truly hard to see, touch, or hear. Within schools the term often conjures stereotypical images of class presidents planning dances or cheerleaders drumming up school spirit. 

      My work supporting a Student Voice and Leadership program in a large school dis-trict in the western United States has provided clearer examples of what youth leadership in academics truly is – and what it isn’t (Hipolito-Delgado et al., 2022). Our Transformative Student Voice collective works with nearly 300 students in 30 schools to conduct their own youth participatory action research (YPAR; Cammarota & Fine, 2008). We’ve developed curriculum and rubrics to guide the process, but perhaps the most powerful work we do is working with youth researchers on the ground in classrooms. 

      There, academics, educators, and youth work together in intergenerational collec-tives (Kirshner, 2015); the young people, however, are the true leaders and guides of this work. Youth name the problem that will be examined, develop their own research methods, collect and analyze data, craft a policy statement, and deliver it to adults in power. 

        The young people’s work has spanned a variety of topics and created meaningful change. In one instance, high-schoolers were able to convince administration to fund a comprehensive health teaching position with an explicit focus of sexual consent in response to what students called a rape epidemic at their school. In another example, high school mothers fought for better nutritional offerings after their research found that the district’s lunches didn’t meet the caloric needs of lactating students. 

      In a particularly striking example that pierced the boundary between school and society, middle-school students dove into transportation policy after their teacher’s friend was killed by an intoxicated driver while walking across a busy street full of bars and restaurants. This fall, the youth have video-conferenced with local elected transportation officials, brainstormed with executives from Uber, and met in person with city council members. While their solution is still taking shape, the youth have been energized by the response to their emerging civic voices. These 13- and 14-year-olds are asking questions of adult power players. Not only are they getting answers, but they’re being consulted about what solutions might have the biggest impacts. 

        Assessing or measuring the learning or importance of these approaches is difficult. I would argue that things like grades, test scores, and attendance are the wrong measures. I am far more interested in the following question: How did these youth grow as leaders?

        I am curious about how the young people relied on each other–and trusted adults–to deeply examine a real, difficult problem on their own terms. It’s often messy with cold trails, dead ends, and rabbit holes. The leadership skills include picking a new route, overcoming an unexpected hurdle, or navigating a delicate tension. These difficult moments often are fertile ground for learnings around leadership, as students assess what’s worked, what hasn’t, and their own personal motivation related to the work. This often involves the students splintering off into different roles–researchers, facilitators, speakers, connectors, artists, mathematicians. They can, in other words, get in where they fit in, bringing their own talents, experiences, and expertise to the project (Stickney et al., 2022).  

     This sort of messy, individualized, interpersonal, intergenerational space creates a sort of action leadership, where young people are learning about themselves and the real world and tinkering with their understandings, responses, and actions. It doesn’t look like the stereotypical school leadership like class presidents, prom queens, or quarterbacks. It, instead, sounds like youth asking for a comprehensive health class, young mothers demanding that their nutritional needs be met, and middle-schoolers working with elected officials to make their streets safer.
       This type of leadership excites me, not only in the present but the future. These youth give me hope that they will continue to blossom into the dynamic, just, and creative leaders that will serve our communities for decades. Make no mistake, though. These youth are leaders now, identifying injustices, conducting their own research, and crafting equitable policy solutions that make immediate impacts. We can also learn much from them now as their work in the classroom gives us clearer and exciting contours to this word leadership.

Dane Stickney

University of Colorado-Denver


© Author(s) 2022. Re-use permitted under CC By-NC. 

No commercial re-use. 

See rights and permissions. Published by IJYLR.

Youth Research Vox, 

Los Angeles, CA, U.S.


Cammarota, J., & Fine, M. (2008). Youth participatory action research: A pedagogy for 

transformational resistance. In Revolutionizing Education: Youth Participatory Action Research in Motion (pp. 1-11). Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.


Hipolito-Delgado, C. P., Stickney, D., Zion, S., & Kirshner, B. (2022). Transformative Student 

Voice for Sociopolitical Development: Developing Youth of Color as Political Actors. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 32(3), 1098 - 1108.


Kirshner, B. (2015). Youth activism in an era of education inequality. NYU Press.


Stickney, D., Cordova, E. M., & Hipolito-Delgado, C. P. (2022). Get out of your own way: 

Sharing power to engage students of color in authentic conversation of social inequity. In J. C. Lo (Ed.). Making Discussions Work: Methods for Quality Dialogue in the Social Studies (pp. 192-209). Teachers College Press.

Stickney, D. JYLR Open 2022.

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