Chapter 10: Teaching to Empower: Social Justice Action Projects as Imperatives for Educational Justice

by Stephen D. Hancock, Ayana Allen-Handy, John A. Williams III, Bettie Ray Butler, Alysha Meloche & Chance W. Lewis - 2021

Background/Context: Teaching to empower requires a critical focus on the unique challenges and opportunities of teaching in socially unjust educational environments. Effective teaching happens in an environment that engages students and teachers in critical investigation of content, knowledge, and activities. Critical learning environments simultaneously nurture the development of multiple perspectives and challenge the status quo. Establishing a critical learning environment is imperative in an educational system that is plagued with academic and social injustices. Therefore, teaching to empower necessitates that teachers, with the help of students, dismantle injustices through culturally responsive teaching, the development of agency and activism, the growth of multiple perspectives, and the capacity to challenge the status quo.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose of this chapter, a conceptual paper, is to lay the foundation for a framework of social justice action projects, which we differentiate from social action projects on the basis that social justice action projects are enveloped in critical race theory. Three educator vignettes are shared to illustrate how this framework functions in practice. We provide an example of a classroom teacher, a teacher educator, and a research perspective.

Research Design: This chapter, a conceptual paper, examines four components that we believe are essential for transforming social action projects into social justice action projects. Through personal narratives, we illuminate the challenges and successes of social justice action projects as they relate to learning, students, educators, and the community. Four of the authors, who are also researchers and educators, share autoethnographic experiences of their participation in social justice action projects in education.

Data Collection and Analysis: This chapter is a conceptual paper that seeks to illustrate the conceptual framework presented in the introduction of the chapter with three practical examples told from the point of view of the author teachers.

Findings/Results: When critical race theory acts as a framework for social action projects, these become social justice action projects, which, when properly applied, avoid many of the pitfalls that are common when social action projects do not serve the priorities of their community partners. For students, critical race-based pedagogies can serve to develop critical consciousness. Meanwhile, critical methods provide means by which students and community partners develop agency and activism.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Teaching through social justice action projects engages both students and teachers in critical dialogues that support empowered, action-oriented learning. While many effective teaching methods and strategies exist, the use of social justice action projects provides knowledge production, dialogue, and thinking beyond the whitewashed curriculum to create a world in which students, teachers, and community partners are empowered to make positive differences.  

I tell my students, when you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. ~ Toni Morrison

Given the current sociopolitical and racial context in America, the urgency of social justice education is as powerful as ever as we contend with how best to educate our children in the midst of the raging COVID-19 pandemic, and during a deeply painful reawakening for racial justice after the violent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Walter Wallace. Their names join in harmony with the many Black Americans who came before and after them, who too lost their lives with little to no justice being served. Notwithstanding, our 2020 presidential election and resulting Insurrection on our nation's Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 revealed a deeply divided nation grappling with the years of an administration that demonstrated minimal to no regard for human, civil, or voting rights, nor the sanctity of the lives lost to the virus and racial injustice. In short, the four years of the Trump Administration illuminated the vehement polarization of perspectives, disagreement on basic and relative "truths" (i.e., global warming, institutional and systemic racism), the nostalgic desire for past social constructs (i.e., racial segregation and white supremacy), and the overt and explicit criminalization of Black Americans both in society and in schools (i.e., prison, suspension, and expulsion rates, not to mention; the all out assault on critical race theory and voting rights. As such, it is salient that our educational system critically transforms into empowering learning environments for teachers and students, places and spaces that are equipped to foreground the current landscape of our nation

Dynamic critical learning environments are places and spaces where both teachers and students are empowered to not only reflect on, analyze, and discern the sociopolitical, historical, economic, and racial forces that undergird racism, discrimination, and inequity, but also ultimately act on them (Friere, 1973). The extant literature in such disciplines as urban education, multicultural education, and a host of other social sciences has demonstrated that any effort to create critical learning environments must first support teachers in the development of cultural competence (Cherng & Davis, 2019; Cross et al., 1989; Gay, 2010; McAllister & Irvine, 2000; Nieto & Bode, 2008), sociopolitical consciousness (Au, 2010; Dover, 2013; Ladson-Billings, 2009), pedagogies of the oppressed (Freire, 1970), and critical learning experiences that have the potential to nurture critical consciousness (Banks, 1994; Durden & Truscott, 2013; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Land, 2018). Only after critical consciousness is developed and translates to a level of praxis can teachers meaningfully empower themselves and their students to think about and effectively engage in social justice imperatives (Akom et al., 2008; Allen-Handy & Thomas-EL, 2018; Ginwright & Cammarota, 2007).

Teaching to empower requires a learning environment that is a safe, trustworthy, and brave space and that embraces open and critical dialogue while also interrogating the historical, personal, and cultural perspectives, lived experiences, and ways of knowing of teachers, students, and our collective society. Teaching to empower recognizes the unique challenges and opportunities of teaching to transform inequitable and socially unjust environments. Because teachers are inundated with an endless stream of professional responsibilities, creating a critical learning environment can become cumbersome and what some teachers may view as being outside the scope of their duties. However, through the professional and personal development of culturally responsive, relevant, and sustaining teaching, status quo classrooms can become critical learning environments (Gay, 2002; Krings et al., 2015; Paris, 2012; Rios et al., 2003).

In this chapter, a conceptual paper, we explore social justice action projects (SJAP) and the ways in which they can support the development of critical learning environments for both teachers and students. First, we explore the existing literature on social action projects and how a critical race theory (CRT) application can further move social action projects to social justice action projects. CRT is a needed point of entry to take social action projects to the next level toward educational justice. We explore how critical consciousness, agency, critical race-based pedagogy, and critical methods can be integrated to execute SJAPs in various learning contexts, including K–12, higher education, and community-based learning. These four components are essential to the development of SJAP because they are purposed to challenge and disrupt school and societal injustices. In this chapter, we will share three SJAPs and personal narratives from the authors that highlight the challenges and successes of developing a stance of social justice action in teaching, learning, and research. We give an example of a classroom teacher, a teacher educator, and a community-based research perspective to illuminate the ways in which SJAP can be purposed to empower teachers, students, and community members.


In casting forth the framework for multicultural education, Banks (1995) offered five critical components: empowering school culture, prejudice reduction, equity pedagogy, the knowledge construction process, and, finally, content integration. While these dimensions offer the structural foundation to support students’ ascent toward democratic citizenship (Banks, 2007), the dimensions of content integration and empowering school culture work in a synchronous manner to produce a distinct and continuous outcome. Banks (2017) asserted that content integration is the effort by teachers to use examples and content from their students’ cultures to present topics, principles, and theories related to the subject matter at hand. He envisioned teachers embarking on this endeavor as transforming the curriculum to affirm and sustain the cultures of students. This transformation is not void; content integration contributes heavily to students from marginalized communities becoming “participatory citizens in multicultural nation-states” (p. 366).

Content integration can only be considered effective when teachers and students acknowledge how social structures and forces (i.e., education, ecology, policy, socioeconomics, etc.) are interconnected, and they are able to put forth actions that are meaningful, thoughtful, and essential via an empowered school culture. Again, school culture(s) and social structure(s) are intertwined and cannot be disconnected. Banks (1995, 2007, 2013) asserted that when a culture of empowerment is coupled with content integration, students are aided in understanding how specific transformative actions are only impactful when conducted toward a community or societal goal, with an intercultural collage of community members in what is known as a social action project. Again, Banks’s vision for social action projects based on the core dimensions of multicultural education are rarely enacted consistently in classrooms across the United States because they require teachers and students to courageously unpack inequitable artifacts (i.e., laws, values, beliefs, norms, etc.), which are often embedded within the same curriculum that is ideally supposed to promote social change (Banks, 2017).

Social action projects are learning opportunities that allow students and teachers to identify issues and challenges in the local community, while utilizing their voices and power in conjunction with those who may be disempowered to bring about change (Allen-Handy & Thomas-EL, 2018; Banks, 1994; Ginwright & Cammarota, 2002; Ginwright & James, 2002; Jocson, 2015). Social action projects typically involve students working in a collaborative capacity with each other (Arches, 2012) and with a community in which they wish to effect change (Wright & Mahiri, 2012). These projects typically use pedagogies of project-based learning in which students learn about a topic by conducting their own research and analysis and designing their own deliverable, but with the added element of addressing a topic for social change (Schultz et al., 2013). Social action projects allow students and teachers to develop awareness of pressing social, political, economic, and educational issues impacting their community (Lash & Kroeger, 2018). Research contends that social action projects encourage students to form collective groups in collaboration with community stakeholders, perform research by collecting historical and contemporary data on the selected issue(s), and proposing executable actions to create realistic impact (Arches, 2012; Lash & Kroger, 2018). Students learn not only how to consume knowledge, but also how to produce it, build communication skills, reflect critically, and analyze how to mitigate barriers through experiential learning opportunities (Fehrman & Schutz, 2011; Olafson et al., 2011). Social action projects are also likely to increase student engagement because of the active, hands-on pedagogies (Moje, 1999; Weis, 1972), and the selection of social topics, which often appeal to youth who see issues of inequality as impacting their everyday lives (Schultz et al., 2013).

Social action projects should not be confused with the definition of “social action”: the initiation of agency (purposeful action) that accounts for the behavior of others or the causes that necessitate such action from an individual/agent (Nelson Laird et al., 2005; Weber, 1991). Social action projects in essence are examples of social action, in which students identify individual and collective forms of inequity and then form executable reforms to actively engage sustainable change (Storms, 2012). In addition, social action projects have several benefits for students, teachers, and the community. First, social action projects have the capacity to operationalize social and cultural networks in the community to address communal and social issues. One example of this type of collaborative social action is students, teachers, and the community working to improve urban access to healthy foods by installing urban gardens; this is a social action project that requires students to actively depend on and invest in social networking.

A second benefit of social action projects is that they engage students and teachers as active participants in learning and impacting change. Social action projects encourage students and teachers to grapple with historical and contemporary issues as researchers and activists in their own learning journey (Cammarota & Fine 2010; Jocson, 2015).

Third, social action projects build teachers’ and students’ critical analysis and collaboration skills through collective analysis and goal planning on personal and communal issues (Kirshner, 2015). In addition, students who engage in social action projects grow a capacity to intellectually navigate complex concepts (i.e., race, class, gender, privilege, learning socioeconomics, etc.) and practice the necessary skills (knowledge creation, group work, intercultural communication, social empathy, and emotional regulation) to promote social change (Allen-Handy et al., 2020; Hatchimonji et al., 2017; Linsky et al., 2018; London, 2007).

A fourth benefit of social action projects is that they are purposed to bridge the gap between theoretical supposition and practical solutions to social issues by centralizing learning within the project itself. Teachers endeavoring to engage in social action projects must have the skills to identify issues of oppression and marginalization in their communities (Sleeter, 2015) and facilitate how students critically deconstruct and analyze the sociohistorical roots of the issue (Freire, 1970; Kilroy et al., 2007). By understanding factors that influence social action projects, students and teachers are able to craft innovative approaches to promote social action, while remaining engaged in and passionate about their initiative (hooks, 2003).


The aforementioned benefits of social action projects support learning at a high level of engagement; however, without an intentional focus on societal inequities, social action projects are often passive and elitist ego-building opportunities, which is against their original intent (Banks, 1994). For example, a social action project in an affluent private school may require students to collect school supplies and visit a low-wealth elementary school for distribution and a day of collaboration. Although this social action project may provide students with an opportunity to engage in “community service,” it lacks a focus on the inequitable sociopolitical reality that perpetuates generational poverty juxtaposed with what may well be their own generational wealth. Projects that take a superficial approach to the underlying causes of inequality and social injustice can do more harm than good because they serve to reinforce stereotypes that privileged students may already hold about marginalized communities having “no socioeconomic capital” and needing to be “saved” (Moje, 1999). Such top-down action projects presume to know what challenges a community is facing, what they need to meet those challenges, and how to measure success. This approach not only ignores the community cultural wealth (Yosso, 2005) that is already embedded in communities, but also can falsely reinforce the status quo rather than responding to the community's actual, culturally specific needs and wants. A final common pitfall in social action projects is that teachers and students become preoccupied by academic curriculum outcomes or grades and ultimately forfeit social action goals. In some cases, community members may already have become invested or involved and, upon seeing their needs go unmet, may determine that such partnerships with schools are ultimately not worth their time.



Developed as a social construct, race and the explicit and tangible manifestations of racism perpetuate a visceral cycle predicated on fear, power, marginalization and the subjugation of people of color. The existence of intergenerational inequities along the stratified social lines of race interlocks multiple societal systems (i.e., education, socioeconomics, employment, housing, health care, environment, etc.) and negatively impacts the daily lives of racialized communities through procedural, structural, and systemic barriers. To address well-known and less conspicuous forms of race/racism, legal and education scholars Bell (1995), Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995), Solórzano (1998), and Crenshaw et al. (1995) constructed seminal pieces of literature that prescribe how to recognize and remediate intentional and collateral damage caused by whiteness and the insatiable need to protect whiteness as superior property to all other living beings and inanimate objects. CRT centers on key five tenets: (1) that race and racism are embedded within society and the systems that function in society; (2) decentralizing whiteness as the demarcation line of social, cultural, and racial superiority; (3) the removal of barriers for groups of color only occurs when it benefits whiteness (interest convergence); (4) defocusing ahistorical perspectives and affirming counter-narratives brought forth by the individual and collective experiences of people of color; and (5) recognizing and using interdisciplinary approaches to problematize the influence of race on historical and contemporary issues, and critiquing liberalism to secure social justice for all (DeCuir & Dixson, 2004; Dixson et al., 2020; Ladson-Billings, 1998).

Grounded in a critical race theoretical orientation, as mentioned, and undergirded by our review of literature across various disciplines, such as education, law, politics, economics, history, and race and gender studies, in the next section, we lay out a conceptual framework inclusive of four key components to support teaching to empower and moving from social action towards social justice action projects: critical consciousness, agency and activism, critical race pedagogy, and critical methods.



In a system of education that haphazardly encourages social justice through empty diversity statements while simultaneously oppressing authentic thought and intellectual stimulation with a whitewashed curriculum, it is paramount that critical consciousness be genuinely developed. Established by Paulo Friere (1973), critical consciousness is anchored in CRT, and the practical work of critical consciousness requires the continuous practice of critical reflection and the intentional growth of cultural competence (Bizzell, 1992; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 2006; Watts et al., 2011), which will be discussed. Critical consciousness is the capacity to deeply comprehend and critically reflect on the intersectional dimensions of social phenomena, surrounding oneself as well as the perspectives of others (C. I. Bennett, 1986; Ladson-Billings, 1998). In this sense, critical consciousness deeply analyzes who benefits and who is disadvantaged by social injustices that happen at the intersection of race, ethnicity, and economic status; gender, race, and mobility; law, justice, and race; education, politics, and race; and many others. If critical consciousness is to grow and develop in a society where racism is the dominant social concept, it is imperative that the notion of race (and its nebulous and manipulative features) endure a most crucial deconstruction. The initial instrument of deconstruction must come in the simultaneous development of critical reflection and cultural competence couched in a CRT paradigm.

Critically reflecting on personal beliefs, dispositions, and worldviews is extremely important if one is to authentically and humbly interact with others and work toward social justice (Freire, 1970; hooks, 1994). Godfrey and Grayman (2014) contended that critical reflection refers to “the ability to analyze current social realities critically, and recognize how social, economic, and political conditions limit access to opportunity and perpetuate injustice” (p. 1802). The deliberate or systematic limiting of opportunities that perpetuates injustice can only be challenged by a critical consciousness that deeply reflects on the intersectional dimensions of social injustice. Thus, it is the practice of critical reflection that deconstructs the internalized myths, stereotypes, prejudices, and biases at the intersections of race. In concert with the practice of critical reflection, the development of cultural competence is a natural and necessary manifestation. Cultural competence refers to an intimate and critical awareness of self-knowledge and lived-learned experiences as it relates to others (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Cultural competency is not a binary concept; rather, it is composed of multiple levels of development. Because students and teachers enter the classroom environment at various stages of cultural competency (Hammer et al., 2003; McAllister & Irvine, 2000; Sandell & Tupy, 2015; Williams et al., 2019), it is important to understand how levels of competence might impact the work of social justice. Students and teachers who lack a mature development of cultural competence also lack the necessary empathy and intellect to see beyond personal experiences, worldviews, and beliefs. Personal awareness through the practice of critical reflection and development of cultural competence is imperative so that students and teachers can authentically engage in social justice action projects. If racial and social issues are to be addressed through social justice action projects, then critical consciousness must undergird, inform, and lead all impactful experiences for social justice.


There is no social justice work in educational systems without the genuine and informed agency and activism of students. By definition, the word “agency” characterizes an individual’s urgency to use their social and cultural capital to bring about societal change (Goodman & Eren, 2013; Sexton, 2008). We assert that student agency is brought about when experiential learning opportunities are presented that pique students’ interests and empower them to use their voices to effect change in educational environments and in the future. The operationalization of one’s agency is known as activism: the specific actions and interventions that draw out policy referendums to establish social change (Cohen & Kahne, 2012). Constructing measures through which students can develop their sense of agency requires that we, as educators, fundamentally understand and critique the factors that directly affect students’ social environments. Furthermore, it is incumbent on us as educators to not only be aware of the sociopolitical environments our students reside in, but also lead the discussion collaboratively with students and the community about how to reform the inequitable environmental factors that stifle individuals’ ability to live and thrive in socially just education settings (Goodman & Eren, 2013). As students start to actualize their definition of agency in connection to the issue(s) that matter to them, teachers must remain vigilant and diligent toward immersing students in critical learning formats. When teachers provide transformative and authentic multimodal learning formats, students can become genuinely passionate about social change because they are critically aware of how national, state, local, and community challenges converge (Jocson, 2015). We contend that a summative outcome of supporting and promoting student agency and activism, for the student, produces a higher sense of self-efficacy toward consciously engaging in civic discourses around pressing sociopolitical, cultural, economic, and educational issues (Krings et al., 2015).


As students’ understanding of agency and activism develops, so does their knowledge of the importance and purpose of intentional campaigning for social change. Essentially, activism without agency can produce culturally incompetent outcomes that can exacerbate current inequities through multiple societal sectors. For example, students at the affluent private school mentioned in the earlier example were not provided opportunities to build agency and thus did not have the voice or intention to campaign against negative or misinformed attitudes and thoughts about “disadvantaged children.” Agency and activism are vitally important because they relate to the development of critically informed students and teachers. And the consciousness required to enact agency into activism cannot be achieved without long-term relationships with diverse groups through an intergroup dialogue (Krings et al., 2015). To create rich and meaningful change that shifts inequitable environments into more socially equitable zones of opportunities, it is imperative that students be coached on how to co-construct mutually beneficial partnerships with community organizations and stakeholders. The classroom serves as a practice facility for students as they critically consume knowledge; however, the work conducted with community partners can serve to heighten the critical learning opportunities that teachers present in the classroom. In essence, students are forced to intellectually sustain partnerships with community members whose agendas are complex, while adapting their agency to parallel the community members’ push toward social justice outcomes (Nagda et al., 2003).



Any attempt to address systemic Eurocentric ideologies that are firmly rooted within U.S. schools and the curriculum requires teachers and students to apply critical race-based pedagogies (CRBPs) throughout their analytical and contextual discourse (Alemán & Gaytán, 2017; Freire, 1970; Lynn, 1999, 2004, 2005). As race continues to exert an enormous toll on students of color and their communities, the rationale of why race has enacted, and continues to enact, an ill-rational and unowed debt on students of color is important for teachers and students to recognize. To engage in activities and projects that hinge on confronting social injustices, teachers and their students must engage in learning opportunities that reveal the intersectional dominance that racial identity has over sexual and gender identity, nationality, religion, and economic wealth. When teachers and students forgo comprehending their own positionality at the nexus of race and racism, their ill-informed actions only serve to reproduce the same inequitable learning conditions they are striving to change (K. P. Bennett & LeCompte, 1990). The act of schooling and the pedagogical practices within can produce either antiracist outcomes or racially oppressive outcomes for students of color. Thus, schooling in its totality must be analyzed and critiqued as a racialized structure, intentionally designed to uphold white dominant power structures that marginalize students of color. Students and teachers employing CRBPs examine every aspect of schooling (i.e., the curriculum, teachers, administrators, school building, school board, etc.) to leverage practices and opportunities inside and outside the curriculum to subvert the racializing components of a U.S. education (Banks, 1995; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Smith-Maddox & Solorzano, 2002). Ultimately, teachers and students who invoke this pedagogical approach do so to promote a liberatory ideology, one that promotes justice and equity in schools—and in society.


To be clear, we are not adamantly prioritizing race above other social constructs, such as gender, class, and nationality. Yet, when teachers and students critically investigate the explicit and nuanced pervasiveness of race and racism in social structures such as education, all efforts to reverse systemic oppression must be targeted and sustained (Lynn et al., 2013). When students are deconstructing how their positionality exists within a racialized society, it becomes imperative that they recognize the binary position within social justice work: You are either an informed, countervailing force against social inequities, or you are elevating injustices through stereotypes, biases, prejudices, or bigotry (Bernal, 2002; Bernal et al., 2009). Critical-race pedagogical practices inform and support social justice approaches by offering transformative critiques of society and education through the valuable lived experiences of students and teachers of color. To engage in critical-race pedagogical approaches requires that one be able to seriously reflect on their own positionality through critical experiences that question the distribution of power, wealth, and racial hierarchy in the school curriculum and society. Additionally, to bolster the effectiveness of these critical race-based artifacts, we assert that all teachers and students must be engaged in SJAP that promote the deconstruction of deficit-based cultural and racial ideologies in educational spaces (Alemán & Gaytán, 2017; Solórzano & Yosso, 2000), including (and especially) White teachers.


The critical sociopolitical consciousness and activism required to efficiently rebuke systemic oppressions can only become a reality through calculated and authentic measures enacted in the classroom. In sum, to assertively undertake creating social change, students must be immersed in critical methods, which we describe as the approaches and practices that allow students the invaluable opportunities to interpret, reflect, and discuss information within the context of education and society (hooks, 1994, 2003). The traditional format of classrooms centralizes power, authority, and knowledge within the mind and understanding of the teacher. When students are learning within a course or class that is immersed in critical methods, they will find themselves engaging in multiple learning formats; participating in robust discussions with peers about the interconnectedness of inequities; analyzing historical texts and contemporary artifacts to explicate applicable solutions to real-world community issues; and experiencing transformative reflection and learning through community-oriented service learning projects (Cammarota & Fine, 2010; Ginwright & Cammarota, 2002; Kirshner, 2015). The aforementioned examples of critical methods are not exhaustive, nor is the list an attempt to “prioritize” what approaches should be used in the classroom. As scholars, we assert that when attempting to facilitate SJAPs, students should be offered numerous critical methods to help them become cognizant of the power dynamics inside schools and throughout their surrounding community (Kincheloe et al., 2011). Failure to properly inject activities and approaches that reside within a critical methods framework situates students to misidentify and ignore oppression, racism, sexism, discrimination, and other marginalizing mechanisms in society—and in themselves (Kincheloe, 2007, 2008). Teachers and teacher educators who employ critical methods center students’ learning by transforming interdisciplinary theories and concepts (i.e., critical race, culturally relevant pedagogy, critical pedagogy, critical race pedagogy, experiential learning) into functional assignments that support students’ cultural competency and sociopolitical consciousness.


Our conceptual framework highlights four interconnected components of SJAP that are couched in CRT. (1) Teachers who use SJAP must develop critical consciousness (CC) which enables an understanding of intersectionality in society; (2) it is essential that SJAP support the voice and social capital of students in an effort to create authentic agency and activism (AA); (3) critical race-based pedagogy (CRBP) provides teachers and students with a conceptual tool to facilitate transformative critiques of school and society from a racial lens; and (4) the use of critical methods (CM) is a practical tool that allows teachers and students an avenue to discuss, debate, and co-construct the appropriate actions to take to address an identified issue. In short, SJAP are learning opportunities that engage students and teachers in an active and deeply personal exploration of relevant issues that require change toward equity and justice. To produce genuine and impactful SJAP, all four components work in tandem to interrogate intellectual, instructional, and identity capacities. Because authentic SJAP cannot be developed without intellectual and experiential knowledge of the systemic inequitable conditions of oppression, the path toward developing social justice solutions is rooted in CRT. SJAP are rooted in CRT because SJAP are designed to challenge the social and power dynamics in society and schools. CRT also supports SJAP because it requires educators to reflect on their participation in challenging or promoting inequities. Additionally, CRT requires teachers to reevaluate how racial, gender, SES, religious, and other forms of privilege can alienate and belittle the same communities they seek to support with SJAP. Hence, we conceptualize that in an effort to support SJAP, the use of CRT must permeate educational pedagogy, the consciousness of the participants, and the methods used for instructional delivery of content.

As depicted in Figure 1, we use CRT as the foundational theoretical tool to inform, interrogate, and undergird each component. Because “CRT offers conceptual tools for interrogating how race and racism have been institutionalized and are maintained” (Sleeter, 2017 p. 157), it is an important theory to support the critical analysis of experiences in school and society. Howard and Navarro (2016) asserted that CRT is an apt tool to investigate racism, inequality, and injustice in schools. In fact, CRT gives voice to “unvalued others” while exposing the normality of institutional racism and the inauthentic movement of liberalism. CRT frames agency, activism, CRBPs, and critical methods as components that support the countering of white narratives, deconstruction of curriculum whitewashing, and exposing of societal privileges afforded to whites. Howard and Navarro (2016) suggested that CRT challenges dominant perspectives, is committed to social justice issues, and values the experiential epistemology of students and teachers. As such, CRT instigates the critical examination and exposure of racist and other oppressive methods in schools and society in an effort to undergird authentic SJAP.


Figure 1. A Framework for Social Justice Action Projects



In a multiauthor chapter such as this, it is important for us to share our positionalities in this work and how we came together to collaborate. We are a diverse team of six scholars (Stephen, Ayana, John, Bettie Ray, Alysha, and Chance)—former K–12 teachers, teacher educators, researchers, historians, mothers, fathers, husbands, and wives, and Black and White Americans. We also range from graduate student to assistant, associate, and full professor. Ultimately, we are united in our quest for social justice education, and all of us employ critical theoretical orientations within our work. Through sharing our stories of SJAP, we recognized that there was much synergy among our work and that together, we could provide insights into how SJAP can be operationalized in various contexts such as in K–12 classrooms, in higher education classrooms, and through community-based learning.


A single bracelet does not jingle. —Congo proverb

My development as a social justice activist is a natural and effortless thread in the fabric of my identity. Having grown up in Richmond, Virginia, I understood early in my childhood the reality of implicit segregation and the injustices it created. One injustice of implicit segregation was the food desert that encompassed my community. Growing up in a large family that truly believed in the idea that a single bracelet is silent, we were taught that we were stronger and more effective when we acted together. This belief and practice played out in several very tangible forms. One such form was fighting to get transportation to other food markets. I watched my mother and other Black mothers push to get the city to pay for a charter bus to the Giant Open Air Market, where they were able to buy a larger variety of healthy foods. As my mother took me and my younger brother and sister to the meetings, I learned what it meant to turn an idea into a voice, and a voice into an action. I witnessed determination and a deep understanding of the positives and negatives of the fight. It was the birth of consciousness for me. Later that year, my life changed, fallacies fell, and critical consciousness was born. I was 7 years old the last time we went to Giant Open Air Market, and I remember it because it was Christmas time, and the place was festive and full of holiday joy. Santa was everywhere, and I was eagerly waiting for him to bring us toys. A week later, I was bouncing around the house, excited about Christmas and showing my older brothers the letter I was sending Santa, when my brother Kevin told me that Santa wasn’t real. I didn’t believe him, but he left me no choice as he took me to the closet where my mother had stored the gifts. I only had to see my sister’s new doll to realize he was telling the truth, but his next words would cement my dedication to critical consciousness and social justice. He said, “Do you really believe that some fat white man is coming to the projects after midnight? Don’t give the hard work of momma to some fairytale that white people want you to believe.” Though I was initially hurt to learn the truth, I realized that my mother and all the other Black mothers deserved the credit for working together to provide for their families.

Years later, when I was an early childhood educator, the tenets of critical consciousness, activism, and social justice undergirded my values and actions inside and outside the classroom. After having taught grades pre-K through second grade, I decided to end my resistance to teaching third grade. I had resisted third grade because students were required to take standardized tests. Thus, in a quest to transform common classroom norms into a critical learning environment, I decided that I would give students an authentic voice in classroom policy and procedures and that I would not write any referrals for my third-grade students. I knew these goals were going to be a challenge, but I started the year with the mantra “stronger together” and posted it above the board in our classroom. Growing a capacity for students to have voice is both scary and challenging enough, but writing no referrals was potentially more challenging because my classroom was intentionally loaded with the “bad boys” from the second-grade student roster by me, other second-grade teachers, and the principal. Though it was my choice to support the bad boys in an affirming environment, my final class roster included 24 third graders, and 19 were boys. Nonetheless, I was determined to create a learning environment where students were seen, heard, and empowered.


The summer before I was to teach third grade was both challenging and rewarding. I prepared to rethink teaching and learning in order to provide students with an authentic voice in the classroom. As a result, I threw out worksheets and textbook activities. I knew that this class required a more social justice-oriented and critical learning environment. The goal of the project was to engage students in both intellectual exercises, such as open discussions, debates, and research, and action-oriented activities, such as public speaking, letter writing, campaigning, and voting.

I had decided to set up our classroom to function as a democratic government. Using the three branches of government model, I divided our class into the legislative (senators), judicial (judges), and executive (president) branches. During the first two weeks of school, we learned about the duties and responsibilities of each branch of government. Then, students randomly chose a state to research and wrote and delivered a presentation on their state to the class. Next, I announced that each student would be a senator from the state they researched. I encouraged the senators to vote for a leader of the senate. I then announced that I would act as president of the classroom and that I would choose five students to represent the judicial branch. At the end of the first month of school, our classroom government was set up to support 19 senators, five judges, me as president, the principal, the student handbook as the constitution, and me as teacher. Our class senate met every Friday, pushing toward being stronger together.

The SJAP engaged students in planned projects that focused on critical questions that tackled issues in society and the classroom (i.e., Should the penny be abolished? Should Puerto Rico become a state? How should we line up? Why are people poor?); these projects were engaging and impactful, but the organic projects exceeded my expectations. Students brought topics to the senate that focused on saving wasted food in the cafeteria, getting fresh vegetables in their neighborhood, and fighting for a crossing guard at the four-lane street that many students had to cross to get to the school. Each time the senate wanted to pick up an issue outside of the action project, they went to the justices to see if it was something a senator could do. It was the justices’ responsibility to consult with me (as the teacher). On each occasion, the senators were given approval to create proposals to address each issue. The issue that was the most impactful and that yielded the greatest angst for me, and the largest celebration for the senators and justices was Proposal 33: Changing the Homework Policy. After a long voting process, the policy that the students proposed was ultimately accepted.


Through this SJAP, I and my third grade students learned how to use democratic structures as a vehicle for social justice. In our classroom, we employed critical methods by using open discussions, debate, student presentations, and public speaking as vehicles to argue for justice. The impact of this SJAP reverberated throughout my time as a teacher, how I currently teach as a university professor, and even how I raised my own children. This SJAP taught me how to navigate a classroom environment that gave students authentic voice and agency over their learning. At the end of the year, we had accomplished more than I set out to do. Collectively, we built a class where we truly understood that a single bracelet doesn’t jingle, but a collection of bracelets can be harmonious and powerful together.


As a Black woman growing up in the South, I always had a passion for justice. I lived in a predominantly Black community, attended majority-Black schools through college, and worshipped at a nearly all-Black church. In these spaces, I was privy to deep and transformative conversations on racial justice. Listening to stories about “how things used to be” from neighbors, being taught “Black” history all year long, and singing the same songs of Zion that my ancestors and freedom fighters sang while praying to God for a better tomorrow, would each play a significant role in shaping my life of activism. From grade school through college, I mentored students of color, participated in school/community protests, and even organized and led campuswide marches during my time in college. For me, civic participation was not an option—it was a lifestyle. I believed this strongly as a child, and even more now that I am an adult.

Today, as an urban education faculty member in a college of education, I have a responsibility to prepare the next generation of teachers and school leaders. This is a charge that I have not taken lightly. Personally, I have always had great admiration and respect for professors who engaged their students in meaningful, relevant, and impactful social justice fieldwork in education. Taking my cue from them, I set out to design a SJAP for my first doctoral seminar on educational policy, and I have used this project in this course every year since. Many of the students who enroll in this class are in-service teachers, principals, social workers, and counselors, and few are church pastors or ministers. Completion of the SJAP is required for all of my students and worth 50% of their grade. The main premise of this project is to teach them the importance of sustaining community partnerships in a culturally responsive way. The conception, major components, and student responses—some positive and some not-so-positive—to the SJAP are presented in the narrative to follow.

I had lived in the city for less than six months when I taught a course on urban educational reform. Unfamiliar with the area, I was cognizant of my “outsider” status. I knew that if I wanted to design a SJAP, I would need to spend considerable time building relationships. I needed to familiarize myself with the needs of the community. My primary goal was to understand political and community dynamics. So began my journey that took roughly three years—observing, partnering, asking questions, and listening to all voices and perspectives. Through this process, I ultimately gained important insights into the challenges and possibilities of education reform in an urban school district.


To avoid the common pitfalls associated with designing a SJAP, I chose to give myself time to thoughtfully consider the cultural nuances of the community. Even with the best of intentions, spearheading social justice initiatives without having the proper context can do much harm. To keep from making this mistake, I investigated historical and contemporary factors that shaped education policy and practices. I learned quite a few things reading reports and having conversations with natives of this large urban city located in the South. I found that the schools were, and remain, racially segregated post-Brown v. Board of Education. Community members and colleagues also shared that the local school district was particularly cautious when collaborating with university researchers because of past experiences with data exploitation. Having this information (among other things) meant that I needed to be intentional about designing and implementing a SJAP that would use a culturally responsive approach to building community partnerships. Without it all, advocacy and engagement efforts would potentially fail.


For the SJAP to be successful, several important factors had to be included. First, it was salient that doctoral students developed cultural competence by immersing themselves within the community, just as I had done. There is a natural level of discomfort that students generally encounter when entering unfamiliar spaces. This disease can be exacerbated by racial, cultural, linguistic, and/or socioeconomic differences. Having students read books grounded in CRT and facilitating reflective dialogue both helped them to deconstruct and dismantle their fears and increase critical consciousness. Second, university students had to understand culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP)— a critical race pedagogy that leverages an individual’s experiences, knowledge, and perspectives as a conduit for learning and engagement (Gay, 2018). Knowledge of CRP was considered essential to participating in in-depth discussions and engaging in socioracial analysis of school-based issues. Third, students had to learn how to be effective activists and agents for the change they were working toward. Through this experiential process, students began to draw connections between theory and practice, acknowledging CRT as both a framework and an action-oriented process. Finally, students had to find time and remain consistent in critically reflecting on personal biases, prejudice, and other -isms. With this in mind, I laid out two critical components of the project. Students were required to first identify a policy issue within the local urban education community. They would do this after having developed a collaborative relationship with community members; this was critical because much of the information gathered would come directly from a combination of sources, including, but not limited to, public data, one-on-one conversations, news reports, and gossip. Next, they would actively participate in a public-school board meeting to directly address the board of education concerning the given policy issue. The main objective of the assignment as stated in the syllabus was to “expose, and actively involve, each student in the initial stage of the policy making process—specifically agenda setting—with the intent to operate as a bridge between policymakers and their constituents.” It is worth noting that the university students did not determine the policy focus. Instead, they had to rely exclusively on members from the community to identify a key issue of importance for them. Considering the objective of this SJAP, I chose to call the assignment the Agenda Setting Service-Learning Project (ASSLP).


The purpose behind the ASSLP was twofold. First, I wanted students to understand social justice as having meaningful interactions with everyday people. I wanted to push them to talk to people with whom they perhaps may have never engaged. For me, this gives them an opportunity to learn outside the classroom. It shows them that experiential (active) learning is just as valuable as traditional (textbook) models of learning. I personally feel that this also helps students to counter the savior complex (i.e., the deficit framing of underresourced communities of color by “well-meaning,” privileged individuals whose sole agenda is to “save” them from their troubled environment), given that the community, not the student, is considered the expert in this undertaking. The ASSLP forces students to listen more than talk.


Second, I wanted my students to become familiar with the policy-making process while also creating a sustainable collaborative partnership with the board. When students present at the school board meeting, it allows them to observe the process of agenda setting through the eyes of board members. They make note of how members of the community advocate for themselves and the dispositional responses of the board members during these community presentations. In turn, students get to see various forms of advocacy—some more effective than others. This exposure provides them the necessary preparation for their own presentation as they act as liaisons between the board and their constituents. The hope is that the board will embrace my students as community advocates, finding the information that they share to be relevant and pertinent to the social, academic, and personal lives of K–12 students, staff, teachers, and administrators. The reality is, sometimes they will, and sometimes they won’t. That’s the beauty of experiential learning and, even more so, the labor of SJAP. Social justice work is never easy or simple, it can never be done perfectly on the first attempt. Rather, social justice work is messy and complex—it is not for the faint of heart, but those with both tenacity and passion.


I began each seminar by telling my students (who are mostly teachers) that this course is not a typical class. After going over the expectations of the ASSLP, students were generally receptive to the assignment and eager to get started. Within weeks, however, this excitement began to wane when students realized that the project was not “easy.” They started to see social justice initiatives as laborious and time intensive. My students viewed the ASSLP as an impossible and unrealistic task. By mid-semester, they were feeling defeated; some grew indifferent, while others become resistant. Deep-seated issues of race, gender, SES, meritocracy, and religion began to surface, and students faced the challenge of navigating these intersectionalities from a social justice perspective. As the intersectional issues burrowed deeper into the personal realities of the students, the resistance to the project grew more vehement. Unfortunately, many teachers were not professionally or personally prepared to successfully grapple with complex issues that challenged perspectives, privileges, and patience.


I have learned that SJAP requires the development of a culture of care. When my students got to the point of social and emotional resistance, I became both a coach and a cheerleader. In an effort to get students through the tough phase of the project, I became their motivator, prayer partner, counselor, voice of reason, and encourager. Through a process of providing additional articles, chapters, videos, and critical reflective practice activities, and engaging in deep conversations—all centered on how to overcome barriers to just and lasting educational reform—students eventually found the strength they needed to forge ahead. While the project encompassed academic requirements, it also demanded that students develop critical consciousness. Only after the consciousness peaked did students see the revelation in the work of SJAP.


The social impact of the ASSLP has been the creation of a strong school–community–university partnership. Many students later shared that this project not only transformed their perspectives, challenged their ideals, and nurtured their competence, but also changed their lives. They were able to see the power of activism and agency in education and their role as social justice activists. Over the past eight years, the ASSLP has evolved based on feedback (internal and external), expanded partnerships, and consistent course revision. However, advocating for social justice in the lives of students and the community, challenging education policy and practices, and developing more culturally competent teachers is a staple in this course.


Ayana’s Reflective Narrative

I come to this work as a Black woman having dedicated my 19-year career to social justice urban education as a former urban elementary school teacher and high school counselor. Now, as a faculty member at a predominantly white institution in my hometown, often the boundaries between my work, family, and everyday life are blurred. I see my work as a professor to be intricately linked to K–12 students, teachers, and community members, striving relentlessly to break down the walls of the ivory tower. I grew up in Philly. . . Philly is my home. . .West Philly, my roots. . .West Philadelphia High School (WPHS), my family history. My maternal grandparents migrated to Philly from Spartanburg, South Carolina. They moved from South Philly to West Philly in 1957, when my Mom was three years old, and remained in the same home in the 58th block of Addison Street until my Grandma passed away in 2014. Having lived away from home for almost 18 years, I often wondered who would take over my Grandma’s legacy, never knowing that within 3 short months of her passing, I would receive news of getting the job that would ultimately bring me back home. I know now, even more so than I knew then, that my purpose was intertwined with my own family history and story, and this was so far beyond anything “the academy” could understand. I currently live just minutes away from my grandparents’ home, minutes away from campus, and often find myself experiencing many moments of nostalgia as memories of my youth engulf me daily—and I am yet reminded that I am home. Yet, the buzz of rapid gentrification, sounds of bulldozing of historically Black schools, churches, homes, and precious cultural edifices, being replaced by “new” ones, signal the swift change a-coming and the legacy of our history crying out and longing to be remembered. This is where the story of how the Preserving History for the Persistent Legacy of West Philadelphia High School SJAP was born.

Almost everyone in my family on my mom’s side attended WPHS. I grew up hearing incredible stories of the “Blue and Orange,” the pride of the Speedboys and Speedgirls, and the long-lasting rivalry with Overbrook High School. Meanwhile, these monikers of pride ring loud and strong today. My mom is an active member of the WPHS Alumni Association, participating in many fundraising events and programs such as West Fest, Fish Fry, and other programs that support the current WPHS students. During the first few months of returning home to Philly in 2015 to start my current job, I began attending bimonthly alumni meetings with my mom to begin to explore potential partnerships with the school. I showed up as “Michelle’s daughter,” not on behalf of my institution or as a researcher. Several of the alumni knew me from a young child and had watched me grow up in the neighborhood or at church. During the alumni meetings, alumni shared stories of the “Old West,” which had recently been closed and renovated into high-end apartments. I marveled at the stories the alumni told and wanted to more deeply understand their perceptions of the school building’s closing and how they were continuing to make an impact in the community and for current WPHS students. After some time, I shared my idea to start a youth-led SJAP with the Alumni Association Board and the principal, who were excited about the prospects of the project. While attending a college day on my campus, I met Mrs. Walker, the CTE technology teacher at WPHS, and a strong partnership ensued. She was looking for enriching opportunities for her students, and I was excited to collaborate with her to get the project up and running. Mrs. Walker and I work closely together, and our partnership is truly special. We received an internally funded grant from the school of education to seed the project, and we launched in January 2019. In the summer of 2020, we received a Scholarly & Creative Activity Grant from my university to expand our project. After the first year of the project, my graduate research assistant Alysha took the reins and currently manages the curriculum and daily operations of our SJAP.

Alysha’s Reflective Narrative

I am a white woman and PhD candidate in education. I have an educational background in classical studies and the history of art. In my time as a student and adjunct at various institutions, I witnessed firsthand how these disciplines give primacy to European cultural narratives, resulting in the exclusion of nondominant cultural narratives. In my time teaching university art history, I witnessed how students who did not see themselves represented in the cultures that we studied either disengaged from the material, or worse, came to believe that their culture did not contribute anything worthy of studying. I believe that critical social justice measures are necessary to bring marginalized cultures to the foreground of study and using critical participatory methods to counter the current disciplinary bias as well as the dearth of content knowledge about non-Western cultures. When I returned to school to get my PhD, I wanted to work with Ayana because I recognized in her a critical consciousness of her positionality as a researcher, and I wanted to increase my own understanding and practice of CRT. I had worked on social action projects before that were directed by privileged, predominantly white researchers, and the top-down nature of these projects made me wonder, “Did anyone ask the teachers and students if this is what they need?” and “Who is this really benefitting?” In Ayana’s invitation to work on this SJAP project, I saw a great honor and responsibility. I knew it was an honor to trust me to interact with students and teachers in a culturally competent manner, and I knew that it was my responsibility to live up to that expectation. This is, of course, in addition to my duty to use my skills and background knowledge in archiving and digital preservation to help support the project to the best of my ability.

The development of my own critical consciousness could be the subject of a much longer publication. I can share here that the most important thing for me was that once I learned about the lives and culture of our project students, my job was not to try to correct their perspective to bring it in line with my own, but rather to correct my own bias that the “white” way of doing things was the best way. I also recognize that my experience as the only white person in an all-African American space is not the same as being the only African American in a white space. At the summer annual West Fest Alumni Event, where hundreds, maybe even a thousand, WPHS alumni come together and celebrate the pride of WPHS, our project team worked with the alumni association to support their efforts, conducted interviews with alumni, and captured footage from the day’s events. I was one of only two or three white people in the entire park. I actually regretted wearing shorts that day, because I could feel how much my white skin made me stick out. This was actually the first time I became aware that my skin even had a color. I could tell that I was being treated differently; some people were a bit aloof and reserved, but never disrespectful. There were moments when I felt left out or did not understand a cultural reference, but I never lost the privileges that accompanied the color of my skin. No one questioned my credentials or my right to be in the space. People who wondered about my motivations to be part of the project were too polite to ask (it was only later that some students shared that they had these questions). Additionally, most everyone that I met at West Fest was exceptionally welcoming and quick to give me a chance to demonstrate that I was there as a project ally.


“African American heritage is like a rock-solid, strong, steadfast, and for many years, silent.”

~ JoyEllen Freeman

The preceding quote by JoyEllen Freeman guides the work of the Preserving History project. The purpose of this project is to preserve the rich history and heritage of WPHS through a youth-led participatory heritage project design. When the news hit that the original school building from 1912 (the first high school built west of the Schuylkill River, which took up an entire city block bounded by 47th and 48th Street between Walnut and Locust Street) was going to be closed down and replaced with high-end apartments, the community mobilized. This decision to rehab the iconic building was complex, entangled, and layered with tensions around race, gentrification, and African American residential displacement that plague not only West Philly, but many historically Black communities and neighborhoods across the country. Although a new school was built a few blocks away, the community had many concerns about this transition. Community members wondered how the history of the original WPHS building and the legacy of former students and teachers would be maintained, and if in fact the new school would one day serve families who looked nothing like the Black families who had attended the school for generations—particularly considering that the school was being turned into high-end apartments in a quickly gentrifying community. Unfortunately, during the move to the new school, several school artifacts and archives were displaced or damaged. Our SJAP is a participatory heritage project that was created to directly support the preservation of the high school’s history in consideration of the challenges shared.

Participatory heritage demonstrates an inclusive approach to community-based documentation and preservation of artifacts; those that the youth and community deem most important can be included in social and collective histories (Roued-Cunliffe & Copeland, 2017). Moreover, youth-led participatory heritage is dynamic and involves youth-generated and executed problem identification, research and plan development, collection and analysis of evidence, reflection on the findings, sharing of results, and taking action (Burns et al., 2012). Our project follows a youth participatory approach, as proposed by Ozer et al. (2010), which includes (a) iterative integration of research and action; (b) training and skills; (c) practice of strategic thinking and strategies for influencing change; and (d) adults sharing power with students in the research and action process. In doing so, this project seeks to build the capacity of our youth researchers to engage in critical social analysis and develop archival and digital literacies and creative processes, but ultimately, our project seeks to develop their agency and activism to espouse justice within their school and community. Through multimodal techniques, including oral histories, document and artifact archiving, digitization, and digital media, we are in the process of creating a virtual repository that will serve as a virtual museum of the school’s rich history and heritage as told through its current students and alumni. Our project seeks to bridge the generational divide between the alumni, our youth researchers, and our university project team.

The project goals are four-fold: (a) to execute a youth-led participatory heritage project to explore and document the rich history of WPHS, which has served as a pillar of the Black community since the early 1950s; (b) to illuminate the voices of students, alumni, families, teachers, staff, and administration to push back against prevailing pejorative narratives about historically/predominantly African American urban schools; (c) to build the capacity of youth researchers (whom we also call youth archivists) to engage in scholarly endeavors that integrate new media and digital literacies and also center their community cultural wealth and culturally sustaining pedagogies; and (d) to inspire a new generation of urban youth archivists dedicated to community preservation, innovation, and social justice.

We recognize that the past, present, and future are intricately linked; thus, our project has a core focus on employing a SJAP framework wherein we situate our work in CRT and employ critical race pedagogies and critical methods to support students’ critical consciousness development and, ultimately, their agency and activism. In our project, not only are students engaging in the literal preservation of their school’s history, but we are also learning how to critically analyze our historical and contemporary contexts within a critical race theoretical backdrop. It is amazing to see our students engage with WPHS alumni and the various school artifacts and archives, such as yearbooks from every class since 1912 and historical pictures, newspapers, and memorabilia. This intergenerational approach to our project is powerful to experience. Throughout our weekly meetings, students have various opportunities to interrogate notions of segregation, community demographic changes through white flight, and now, contemporary demographic patterns onset by gentrification, as well as their own feelings of being marginalized for their various intersecting identities and being overlooked as leaders and change agents because of their age. On the contrary, our project is cultivating a rich and reciprocal learning environment. Students have agency over the research teams they want to participate in, such as the oral history team, the artifact and archival team, and the digital media/website team. Our project is youth led, so our students are the ones driving the direction of our project. Moreover, our project extends beyond the school building; all of our youth researchers and teacher are paid interns in the Justice-oriented Youth (JoY) Education Lab. We presented our project and research at the 2020 Penn GSE Ethnography in Education Conference and the 2020 Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Association of Multicultural Education Association Conference. Our students were the lead presenters at both conferences, and we have moved our project virtually this fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2021 our project received the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development (PHENND) Lindy Award for Excellence in K-16 Partnerships


The impact of our project has yet to come fully to fruition. We like to think of our project as planting seeds of possibility and opportunity for our students, but ultimately, we are engaged in reciprocal relationships wherein we also learn so much from them. Our project serves as an example of a SJAP that brings together various stakeholders around a shared purpose of community preservation in a contemporary context of gentrification and residential displacement wherein Black communities in particular are finding themselves deeply impacted. Not only is the project supporting the development of critical consciousness and justice-oriented future leaders, but we also believe that the project has cultivated the same within myself, Alysha, Mrs. Walker, and our entire project team. Preserving History for the Persistent Legacy of West Philadelphia High School can serve as a model of a SJAP that presents a vision of partnerships between universities and local schools and communities that is intergenerational, co-constructed, empowering, and transformative.


In this chapter, we offer a framework for teachers, teacher educators, and researchers to integrate SJAP into their practice. Through first-person accounts and reflective narratives from Stephen, Bettie Ray, Ayana, and Alysha, we have shared how components of SJAP can become integral supports for K–12 in-service teachers, teacher educators, and teacher education, as well as for forging partnerships between universities and K–12 schools and communities to engage in SJAPs together. Although our narratives are situated within different contexts, there is synergy across all three narratives, and their collective counternarrative is a powerful tool to critique dominant ideologies (DeCuir & Dixson, 2004). In this discussion, we draw out similarities and differences, and illuminate why SJAP are imperatives to advance justice in all its forms, particularly within our current sociopolitical, health crisis, and economic context.

At the onset of all three SJAP, Stephen, Bettie Ray, Ayana, and Alysha engaged in critical reflexivity. Stephen was impacted by seeing his shared identity with the boys in his class, his own experiences growing up in a food desert in Richmond, and the influence of his own familial cultural wealth (Yosso, 2005). For Bettie Ray, this meant fulfilling a lifelong purpose that centered the importance of agency and activism both professionally and personally. For Ayana, this included reconnecting with her family history and alumni, and forging a relationship with a teacher. Alysha, as the only white person in a predominantly Black space, had to navigate her own bias and critical consciousness. Critically reflecting on one’s racial and cultural positionality within community systems is prerequisite for teachers and teacher educators to initially engage in SJAPs (Banks, 2017; Durden & Truscott, 2013).

Within each SJAP, CRT played an intricate role in shaping our mindsets and dispositions toward our work. Each SJAP involved recognizing situations in which an imbalance of power could be attributed to factors such as race, gender, or SES and seeing ways in which we and our students might forge our collective positive impact (Freire, 1970; Kincheloe, 2007). In Stephen’s narrative, his SJAP was developed out of an attempt to push back against the pejorative narratives of Black boys at his school. He understood how effective teaching required him to develop his own critical consciousness by acknowledging the social and academic injustices perpetuated by his colleagues and the school system. In an effort to disrupt status quo teaching and academic marginalization, he employed SJAP as a viable and dynamic teaching and learning modality. The deployment of SJAPs as dynamic methods hearkens back to the importance of situating students and communities within the context of real-world community issues. It is irresponsible for teacher educators and teachers to rely on stagnant ahistorical methods or one singular method to empower students to recognize the power dynamics surrounding their community and world (Kincheloe, 2008).

In Bettie Ray’s SJAP, she describes the labor-intensive process of SJAPs as someone with an outsider status. She carefully attends to the significance of building and sustaining relationships. Bettie Ray shows that implementing SJAPs in a culturally responsive way requires having an ongoing awareness of the broader sociopolitical context of the community. She reflects on the challenges (i.e., time constraints, community distrust, and student resistance) of implementing her ASSLP, noting that SJAPs require not only a well-thought out curriculum, but also patience, critical reflection, and an unwavering commitment if the transformative impact of the work is to be fully realized. In the Preserving History SJAP, Ayana and Alysha recognized that rapid community change through gentrification and African American residential displacement was in need of a critical race theoretical lens to draw connections between the issues the project would directly address and the need for a youth-led approach. This foundation is also connected to the development of CRBP, wherein students in the project interrogate the historical and contemporary context—which literally changes daily. This is particularly clear during COVID-19 and uprisings for racial justice, which recently hit our West Philly community, reeling after the death of Walter Wallace Jr. at the hands of police just block from their school. This current sociopolitical context sets the stage for critical dialogue and the development of agency and activism within the project; students realize that while they are preserving their school’s history, they are also directly responding to the current challenges facing their community.

Both Bettie Ray’s, Ayana, and Alysha’s SJAP prioritized the voices of the community and the use of interviews and oral histories to collect community voice. Bettie Ray also began building critical consciousness in her students by providing them with critical readings, allowing time and space for reflective writing assignments, and facilitating in depth—and often difficult—conversations. She required her students to engage and interact with members of the community in meaningful and relevant ways. Bettie Ray encouraged her students to listen more and talk less. Although a simple practice, it is one that is often disregarded when participating in SJAPs. With the youth-led approach, Ayana and Alysha focused on building students’ capacity to critically interrogate the changes they were witnessing in their community and how they wanted to preserve their school’s history. This approach relied on augmenting group discussion among the students to address and unpack our collective experiences. Hearing the perspectives of people who were experiencing the effects of harmful race-based systemic disadvantages served as a way to develop CC for both groups. For Bettie Ray’s students, this meant in some cases confronting their own biases and privilege. For the youth involved in Ayana and Alysha’s SJAP, learning about the history of their school brought to light an awareness of inequalities that they themselves were experiencing—not only how the erasure of the history of their school further marginalized their community and alumni, but also how changes in the school over time meant that they didn't have access to the same quality of education, sports, and extracurricular activities. The tendency to repeat the pathological actions of dominant groups is prevalent when researchers, teacher educators, and teachers are unwilling to listen and acknowledge the counternarrative that marginalized groups have to offer (Bernal, 2002; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). It is from this counternarrative that the individual and collective agency necessary to create and sustain systematic change is born.

All three SJAP center on agency and activism; students were afforded the opportunity to have a choice in the projects and problems that they tackled. In Stephen’s SJAP, the execution of the branches of government in their classroom gave students agency over basic decision-making in their classroom and their community. In Betty Ray’s SJAP, her students used CRT to identify the community they wanted to address, and in Ayana and Alysha’s SJAP, the students used CRT to find problems to address that would both benefit the community and inspire them personally. For Bettie Ray, this inspiration was essential because it helped motivate the students during difficult parts of their project. Agency developed into activism with the introduction of CM. These three SJAP required that the authors serve as coaches to drive and support their students as they learned how to navigate the ambiguous and challenging social structures they selected. Through hard work and perseverance, students saw that by using CM, their activism could make an impact in the forging of relationships.

CRT serves as the instigation for SJAP in the sense that it inspires teachers and their students with a sense of purpose. CRBP can take many different forms but are most apt when teachers go out of their way to select pedagogies that are tailored to the cultural needs of their students and the community partners they engage. For students, CRBPs should serve to develop critical consciousness, and critical methods should develop agency and activism. For teachers, staying grounded in CRT is one of the most important factors because it is necessary for them to meet the needs of their students while also maintaining relationships with the community partners.


In conclusion, Tuck and Yang (2018) centered the unwavering need for social justice in education:

There is no future of the field without the contributions of people who are doing their work under the rising sign of social justice. There is no legitimacy to the field if it cannot meaningfully attend to social contexts, historical and contemporary structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and antiblackness. Social justice is not the catchall; it is the all. (p. 5)

Social justice is therefore what the purposes of teaching and learning should be—not an outlier or random isolated topic throughout curricula and learning endeavors. In SJAP, what cannot be ignored is the intentionality required to move students to places of empowerment and thus toward the implementation of praxis for the transformation of communities (Freire, 1973). Teaching through SJAP engages both students and teachers in critical dialogues that support action-oriented learning. Although there are many effective teaching methods and strategies, the use of SJAP provides knowledge production, dialogue, and thinking beyond the whitewashed curriculum presented in traditional schooling practices. In fact, SJAP have the power to change perspectives, ideals, and self-concepts. SJAP supports social justice and critical consciousness because it exposes and explicitly discusses oppression, racism, sexism, and other discriminatory practices that impact the school community. This explicit attempt to confront systemic issues requires that students be transformed from passive or neutral uninformed participants to informed active social agents of change (Bernal, 2002; Bernal et al., 2009). SJAP center students’ learning by transforming interdisciplinary theories, concepts, and subjects into practical projects that support critical consciousness, cultural competence, agency, and activism. Finally, teaching to empower requires that teachers and students offer transformative critiques of society and education through lived experiences, knowledge production, and critical dialogue. We hope that our conceptual framework may serve as a tool for empowerment across education and the social sciences. In a country that is grappling so desperately with how best to heal during unprecedented times of the global pandemic, proliferation of centuries of systemic racism and race-based hate, and a host of other challenges, an education predicated on SJAPs can serve as an imperative toward justice and a critical learning environment where teachers, teacher educators, students, and community members can be empowered.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 13, 2021, p. - ID Number: 23750, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 11:12:30 PM

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