With Leni Wolf, Research & Policy Analyst, & Anthony Chavez, External Relations Associate
Q: So what is Hear My Voice about?
Leni: It’s about telling the stories of what goes on for our male students of color as they work toward college and beyond. We wanted to build on what we know from the data and research by hearing from students about what’s working, what’s not – and hearing from leaders in these schools and colleges about how they’re putting equity into action. We know from the research we need strong leaders in these schools and colleges, so hearing how they think and act right from the source gives us more to learn from, in order to replicate best practices.
Anthony: We can learn a lot from the stories Leni is mentioning, the stories behind the data. This report is about how the education system often falls short for these young men, and about the determination and perseverance they have in spite of that. We also learned a lot about what is working. It was informative and important to really see what’s working – from the actual places and spaces to the student voices themselves telling us what they are experiencing.
Q: Why was it important to you to hear from the students themselves in this research?
Leni: As a researcher, I know what the data tell us, what the research says on improving outcomes and shifting our schools to better support students. But as a former teacher, I also remember the stories of my students. I think traditional research often misses the voices of students themselves, who know better than anyone else what their experiences are. We talk in research about supports, but often there’s a disconnect between having these supports and making those work for students. We wanted an opportunity to hear what’s happening and what’s not happening but should be—and to really lift up examples from places that are trying to eliminate that disconnect.
Anthony: I think sometimes we have this idea that we can fully understand the nature of the challenges students face – and how to address them – without talking to students themselves. So doing interviews and focus groups, being on the ground, really reinforced that there are still barriers, but there is also some shifting, in pockets around the state, toward treating these young men with the respect for their potential that they deserve. I remember my own time, as a younger man of color, in school and college here in California, and I wasn’t as fully engaged, as fully supported as I could have been.
Q: How did you think about your own identity as you approached this work?
Anthony: Well, like I mentioned, I didn’t feel supported or engaged in the ways we heard some students talk about. So I can’t help but compare what I heard to what I experienced as a Latino young man. There does seem to be a growing realization that we have to better prepare those who are in our schools for the future that they’ll be facing and leading. We saw and heard about the ways some schools are sending messages to their students – telling them they’re worthy, respected, and on the path to college. If I had been in an educational environment that completely supported my potential, I know my opportunities would have been different.
Leni: Honestly, because of my identity as a White woman, I thought it was important for me to think a lot about my role as a researcher here and I tried to bring an extra level of sensitivity and awareness to this work. For example, I was very aware that if I was walking into a room with young men of color, I may be looked at differently and skeptically – and with good reason given their experiences. So I was very upfront about that and I would acknowledge the dynamic, and share about me and why I do this work and be clear that I’m here to listen. Students seem to appreciate that honesty. There were perspectives students shared that reminded me about the importance of understanding intersectionality – places I shared common experiences because of economic status, for instance. And there were also perspectives the students shared that I hadn’t previously considered, and probably wouldn’t have without these interviews. We also made a conscious effort to have a diverse research team too. I don’t think it’s enough to have White researchers who bring awareness of their identity and privilege to their role. That’s important, but it’s not enough – it’s crucial that researchers of color are involved, and front and center in this work.
Q: What stuck out in your interviews, was there anything you kept hearing?
Leni: One thing I heard consistently from community college and university students was that their experiences in high school were a mixed bag. They talked about fighting against low expectations from their schools – whether being discouraged to enroll in challenging courses or being actively discouraged from applying to college. And some students in college who we spoke with were still feeling a lack of support – especially supports tailored to their experiences as young men of color. A lot of students spoke about recognizing that their skin color meant others would assume they would fail, and that they were fighting against that every day, and persevering in every class and course. Some students also talked about what’s working – and when they spoke about that, it was the encouragement, the mentoring, the high expectations they felt and heard daily. Students talked about not just having access to A-G courses in high school, but being in a school culture with a consistent expectation that they were on the path to college.
Anthony: I kept hearing about master scheduling! Some of the administrators really highlighted this – they were honest and forthright in sharing their thinking about how to make college-preparatory courses available and how they’re working to make sure they’re not preventing access for students – in particular students of color. I also heard about the ways positive academic culture manifests in support as well as expectations – from the high expectations of administrators to the high level of commitment on the part of students themselves and how they support each other. One thing that really stood out to me too was that these young men of color had such strength – strength not presented in bravado, but in sincere tenderness and caring. They’ve been navigating a very complex universe as young men of color, dealing with a lot of stereotypes in society. So their ability to code switch, as swiftly and smoothly as they do on a daily basis is a true testament to their strength and ability.
Leni: They were incredibly inspiring, and their self-reflection was amazing. We need to keep listening as researchers, to understand not just the collective experiences, but the nuances of students’ lives.
Anthony: I agree. There’s a depth to student experiences that we can only get from listening to them. For some of them it seemed almost liberating to talk with us. We need to do more listening.