Racial Justice and Youth Voices at Heart of Research and Scholarship
Dr. Jamila Lyiscott began to lay the groundwork for the Center of Racial Justice and Youth Engaged Research (CRJ) as soon as she joined the faculty of the UMass Amherst College of Education in 2017. In her first conversations with the dean, Lyiscott, an assistant professor of social justice education, introduced her vision. “I felt that there needed to be a cohesive, explicit focus on race as it relates to social justice,” she recalls. Further, she believed that research and scholarship on schooling needed to put youth voices at its center. “It felt like it would behoove us to create this mechanism for bringing together various stakeholders across the campus, the community, and the nation; to think about the relationship between racial justice, youth voice, and the kind of transformation that our society needs right now.”
Lyiscott invited Dr. Keisha Green, assistant professor of teacher education & school improvement, to join her in creating a center at the college that would engage in this work. Lyiscott saw Green as an ideal partner in this effort. “Dr. Green and I have for a long time, individually, in our respective lines of scholarship and work, been doing work at the intersections of race and youth voice, youth activism, in teacher education, and in the field of education broadly,” she explains. Green, for her part, was excited to partner in a venture that brought together her passion for education and youth engagement with a focus on race, while supporting and sustaining students and faculty of color and engaging the broader community.
The fruit of Lyiscott and Green’s work is a research and outreach hub that centers Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in the work of racial and educational justice through community-school-university partnerships. The CRJ brings together community members, youth, faculty, and students engaged in research and action across interlocking areas of impact: critical teacher education, youth leadership and youth voice, fugitive literacy practices, and community engagement. It offers professional development, programs, scholarship, media, events, and models for systemic change in education. Although housed at UMass, Lyiscott and Green see the community and the work of the CRJ reaching far beyond Western Massachusetts.
“It felt like it would behoove us to create this mechanism for bringing together various stakeholders across the campus, the community, and the nation; to think about the relationship between racial justice, youth voice, and the kind of transformation that our society needs right now.”Jamila Lyiscott
In the context of the CRJ, youth engaged research means, in Green’s words, “prioritizing youth ways of being and knowing, and believing that youth should be listened to and engaged.” To this end, the CRJ engages youth as partners in educational research, using a method called “youth participatory action research.” In this, young people engage with their peers and adult allies to examine issues of concern in their communities—studying theory, conducting research, and developing solutions to the problems they’re experiencing. “It’s an opportunity for young people to be leaders in changing their material circumstances through research,” Green notes.
Green and Lyiscott developed the CRJ through extensive conversations, talking about their purpose and vision, how their work aligned, and how they could make an impact, while keeping the work sustainable —what Lyiscott calls “mapping our why.”
They also reached out to mentors and fellow scholars for guidance, especially those who had founded or directed similar centers, who, in Lyiscott’s words, “have already beaten in such powerful paths, their insights and wisdom and gems.” Their colleague and friend Dr. Susan E. Wilcox served as an executive coach, helping them re-envision and refine their plan so that it was truly pushing the academy and the work forward.
“It’s an opportunity for young people to be leaders in changing their material circumstances through research.”Keisha Green
It was a priority for Lyiscott and Green to create a space that was unlike conventional academic entities, one that dismantled the lines between individuals, disciplines, generations, between academia and the broader community, and undermined the formality of academic institutions. “It’s really deeply embedded in our orientations, as black women, as black scholars, to do this kind of work in community,” Lyiscott explains. “In academia, a lot of times work is done in isolation, in silos. It’s a very individualistic landscape. And that just goes completely against the communities that we’re from. And so creating a space for everyone to break bread, to be together, to nourish kinship and joy, felt like a sustainable way to go about the work.”
In naming the center, Green and Lyiscott chose to call it a Center of Racial Justice rather than a Center for Racial Justice. Their intention was to express social justice work as something that is embodied, rather than something that has to be mapped or learned, or that exists outside of an individual. “It has to do with our orientations and our calling, in a way that we hope to inspire in others,” Lyiscott explains. “We want to be of this so deeply that no one ever has to ask, ‘how do you do this?’ as much as you ask, ‘how do I become this?’”
Once they had a clear vision for the CRJ, Green and Lyiscott built a team for the center that includes faculty and graduate student fellows as well as apprentices who are undergraduates, graduate students, and community members. They are generating a “dream list” list of faculty, students, educators, and community members locally, nationally, and globally, with shared values, who aligned with their “why,” and with whom they wanted to be in relationship and community.
They then encouraged those who joined the work of the CRJ to select a freedom fighter, activist, or artist—someone who inspires them in their work—to add to the name of their position. In that spirit, their team includes a Toni Morrison faculty fellow and an Audre Lorde graduate student fellow, among others. “I think that adds another dimension to the work and connects us to our elders and folks who forged the path, and folks who model and embody the kind of work ethic, spirit, and visions that we hope to move into,” says Green.
“It’s really deeply embedded in our orientations, as black women, as black scholars, to do this kind of work in community. In academia, a lot of times work is done in isolation, in silos. It’s a very individualistic landscape. And that just goes completely against the communities that we’re from. And so creating a space for everyone to break bread, to be together, to nourish kinship and joy, felt like a sustainable way to go about the work.”
In its short history, the CRJ has launched several initiatives already deeply engaging in the work Green and Lyiscott envisioned. The Racial Healing Collective, which received a 2021 Faculty Visioning Grant from the UMass Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies (CLACLS), brings together youth from across the county to think and learn about the power of racial healing and what it means to engage in the undoing of racial trauma. In the coming year, they plan to launch a similar Intergenerational Healing Collective.
The CRJ has also created a White Co-Conspirator Collective to work in tandem with the Racial Healing Collective. This group is exploring the role of white people in dismantling white supremacy, and how to work closely with predominantly white communities and with white youth to think about racial equity and justice in those spaces. “Because, so often, the work happens in spaces with people of color and nowhere else,” Lyiscott observes.
Through their Liberatory Teacher Education programming and with the support of Fulbright funding, the CRJ is planning to take 12 educators to Ghana in a cultural exchange. Due to COVID-19, they weren’t able to go in 2020, so while they are planning forward they’re working in community with the educators—co-authoring, presenting, and working on Inquiry to Action projects together—primarily led by Toni Morrison Faculty Fellow, Dr. Esther O. Ohito, an assistant professor at UNC Chapel Hill.
Finally, the very active CRJ social media team is looking at what it means to build coalitions and community and disseminate knowledge around racial equity, justice, and youth voice in the increasingly digital virtual world.
The CRJ hosted their official launch event, Black at the Center— a three-day online coming out party focused on racial healing, liberatory education, and youth voice—from April 21 to April 23, 2021.
Organized by a team of undergraduate and graduate student volunteers, Black at the Center was created to engage all of the senses, with speakers, workshops, conversations, performances, dance breaks, yoga, and cooking. It was interdisciplinary and intergenerational, bringing together educators, scholars, activists, and artists, and was infused throughout with art and culture.
“It’s a way for us to announce our presence and invite folks to be in partnership.” Green explained before the event. “It’s also an opportunity for us to listen,” Lyiscott adds. “We want to be in a position of hearing the needs and desires, dreams, frustrations, hopes of the people. That’s going to inform how we move forward; that’s going to inform what our future work can and must look like.”
In the short time that the CRJ has been active, it has already met many of Green and Lyiscott’s aspirations and they love the opportunities it has given them as scholars and as community members. “I think it’s a real gift to be able to work with colleagues, work with folk who are engaged in the kind of work that you dream about,” Green asserts. “I hope that we’re creating pathways and models, and illustrating how we don’t have to just write about our dreams and hopes, that we can actually live, and do, and be these ways of being.”
They also love seeing the opportunities the CRJ is giving others—especially their younger partners—to engage in what they see as sacred work. “It’s almost breathtaking to watch the evolution of the racial healing collective, the launch team, the social media, and the research team,” Lyiscott affirms. “They’re all beautiful spaces that the students have complete ownership over. And it feels really good—I just can’t wait to continue to sustain that.”
With such a strong foundation already in place, Lyiscott and Green have great hopes for the CRJ to be the site of true innovation and true change. “I’m excited about how so much magic and on-purpose work happens when folks are able to work in their passions,” says Green. “I’m excited to bear witness to what it looks like when somebody is fully aligned, and they’re able to engage in the work that speaks to them, that resonates with them, that elevates not only them, but also their communities.”