Not Only What, but Who: The Civic Identities of Students

We don’t want to only look at what our students know when they graduate, but we want to put a stake in the ground and say who our students are. Ontologically. At their being. Who are they when they leave?

Pattie Cortese, ESUHSD Board of Trustees President

While the purpose and role of schools in society is multidimensional and complex, schools are universally accepted as much more than places where students “learn.” Schools are spaces, places, and communities in which students become. However, as we acknowledge this charge, schools and districts find themselves juggling various, and often contradictory, visions. One dominant paradigm involves becoming a “productive” adult and developing “human capital” (Gillies, 2015). This paradigm promotes the acquisition of skills and knowledge that are important and useful to students, both as individuals and to the broader economy. Another perspective views schools as a force for public good meant to create a responsible citizenry and a more democratic society. In this paradigm, students are constantly developing civic identities as members of a shared society (Labaree, 1997). 

If we delve deeper into how schooling contributes to the development of civic identities and of sociopolitical development (Kirshner, 2015), it is clear that the majority of schools in the US typically endorse a vision of education for democracy where students are prepared for their future participation in the democratic life of their society (Carr & Hartnett, 1996). However, this vision often confines this work to “civics classrooms and lessons” and focuses more on the what (skills and knowledge about how government works and what is our civic duty) than the how (sets of practices about how to do and live democracy as part of daily life). In addition, most schools and school districts embody undemocratic practices, especially in classrooms. 

For this case study and its analysis, we have deliberately chosen an understanding of civic identity and development that focused on opportunities for democratic action and “learning-in-action” (Biesta, 2007). Most importantly within ESUHSD, it was in these opportunities to practice democracy, rather than learn about it, that we observed a clear shift in how students saw themselves and understood their role as civic actors. 

Moreover, we found that opportunities for youth voice, power, and participation were not only beneficial to The District and to educational policies and practices; but that these also fostered a shift in students’ civic identities and how they saw themselves in relationship with schools and the broader contexts in which they live. 

Our findings are consistent with research that shows civic identities are not only crucial to the health and improvement of our democracy, but also to the learning, development, and agency of students, especially for students of color (Kirshner, 2009). Multiple examples from ESUHSD demonstrate that participation in youth leadership spaces had reconnected students with school, given them purpose, and had profound implications for their careers and futures. Not only did many students share how their own trajectories had changed, but both adults and students could name examples of many cases in which that had happened. Engaging in spaces where staff and students could collaborate towards shared goals helped forge new student-staff relationships, which in turn forged new conceptions of their identities as students, civic participants, and agents of change. 

“I’m actually letting my voice and my thoughts be heard, rather than just keeping them in and silently observing. It’s good to be able to let them out because there might be other kids that feel the same way but are scared to speak up for themselves. I’m doing myself and them a favor by showing them it’s okay to speak out and voice your opinion. LCAP has also helped us gain power to take back our schools. I know there’s a lot of focus at our school on academics without really seeing other things. We are much more than only academics.” 

Gaby, Student Leader

Like Gaby, many other students shared that they had changed significantly as they had taken various roles in leadership, advocacy, and through their participation in some of the youth-led committees. 

Centering Social Justice, Equity, and Engaging with the World

“With me being part of this stuff, I’m able to retain knowledge and tell my friends, for them to understand what’s going on in our district, because no one really knows what’s going on in The District. Many students don’t care, but it’s really something that we should be more knowledgeable about. It’s very important. It is our future. It is our next generation’s future.” 

Zoe, Student Leader

A final theme that emerged when capturing the development and change in the civic identities and civic engagement of students was how centering issues of educational and social justice played a key role in fostering relevance, enthusiasm and commitment in regard to their own education and of broader issues of social justice. Consistent with research that shows that civic identity flourishes when youth are empowered to confront unjust institutions and practices within their schools and beyond, we found that students thrived when they felt that they were working alongside The District to tackle important and real challenges. Students spoke about the relevance and importance of their work with passion, directly illustrating their sense of civic empowerment and responsibility, and the nurturing of what Westheimer and Kahne (2004) call a justice-oriented citizen.. Moreover, through critical engagement with the world around them, students can come to feel “like masters of their thinking” (Freire, 1970). 

“We [students] feel more like a school, that we’re doing shit. We’re not far away from what is happening and the decisions that are being made. We’re actually there, and we’re going to meetings, and we’re seeing what’s really going on and taking action.” 

Brian, Student Leader

Freire points out that “authentic thinking that is concerned about reality can only take place in communication” (Freire, 1970). When students engage critically with their peers and teachers in a shared mission to discover the world and to uncover knowledge, “the subordination of students to teachers becomes impossible” (Freire, 1970). By fostering and creating these spaces for youth voice, power, and participation, students and teachers become allies.

Reflecting a clear shift in values and perceptions of schooling, as student leaders engaged with each other (including engagement across schools, which was previously not present), they continuously sought to both center the voices of those who are most marginalized, and actively look to include those who are often not included in their committees, leadership bodies, and meetings. Janah shared what she thought her role as a student leader entailed: 

“To figure what needs to be done, so that the underdogs and the ones without voices or are being unheard have a say in what should be changed.”

Janah, Student Leader

Lupe echoed the sentiment: 

“The District always recruits students from the leadership class for meetings, and we need to expand recruiting to other students because I think every student has something valuable to say, like shy students. I always tell them, ‘You need to be in this space; we really need to expand the voices that we’re hearing from.’” 

Lupe Navarro, former Student Leader

Regarding their ability to discuss challenging topics about educational equity with their peers from different schools, we found students were clear and critical about educational disparities, inequities in access to opportunities, and the importance of centering the needs of those most marginalized. 

“Because our school is for people who are left out, we feel like we are lower or we feel like we’re treated less than they [students at schools in high socioeconomic status areas] are. Their campus is humongous and they have so many opportunities. We lost the Physics class, we lost Photography, we lost this other class, and then you notice students want to go to the other school because they have that class. It’s little things we don’t think about that nudge students one way or another. Then colleges look at your application and they see iMentor instead of Photography, or Drama, or an AP (advanced placement) class, and they would probably choose the student who has the photography class, right? It is a cycle.”

Krystal, Student Leader

“Because the students don’t feel like [the opportunities] they have are good, they don’t try hard enough [to excel in the opportunities] they do have, and because they don’t try hard enough, more opportunities aren’t provided. It’s like a loop.”

Janah, Student Leader

In addition to highlighting the differences between schools, students also pointed out the racial dynamics and disparities inside of schools, which became clearer as they engaged in conversation with students from other high schools in The District. One student, referring to a conversation with student leaders from another school, shared: 

“They [student leaders] were the minorities at the school… they spoke a lot about how their school is [full of] upper-class rich people, and African-Americans and Spanish-speaking students are put down because their voices aren’t heard.”

Student Governing Board member

Another student continued to build:

“When you think of Independence [High School], what do you think of? Asians, right? When you think of our school, it is like, you [students] speak Spanish, right? And then you think of Evergreen, and you think of white students, and rich successful people. It makes you feel like we need to go there to be like them.”

“Without these meetings, we would just live our lives, and just feel like this is normal. But it’s not normal, it’s not okay for teachers to target students because of their race. If I wasn’t in this meeting, I wouldn’t really care, because I thought it would be normal, but it’s not. And in AP classes, there’s no diversity. And students are talking about how the counselors don’t motivate BIPOC students to take rigorous classes, because they think that BIPOC students are not capable of doing so. I was looking around my three AP classes, and it’s all students who are either Asian or white. And I talked to my BIPOC friends, and they were like, “Oh, yeah, they [counselors] feel that we’re probably not able to be in that class.” I’m like, “Excuse me?” And they’re like, “Yeah, they don’t encourage us to be in those classes.” And it really hurts that we live in a society in which we still have to deal with this type of situation.”

Student Governing Board member

This activation of a civic identity directly informed their engagement at school, in their classes, and in their communities. Research shows that students involved in youth organizing and leadership are more likely to volunteer, participate in civic organizations, believe in social change and understand what actions they can take to improve their local community and make the world a better place (Rogers et al., 2012). This has been clearly borne out in the case of ESUHSD and the work of CFJ. Rosa de Leon shared how she has witnessed how youth leadership and youth organizing fosters a lifelong commitment to civic engagement:

“A good number of our alumni are organizing or teaching. I was chatting with an alum who’s teaching here at Independence High School across the street, and he said being a student with CFJ gave him a different perspective now that he’s in the classroom as a teacher.”

Rosa de Leon, CFJ Strategy Director

In one of our focus groups with students, a student leader pushed back against dominant understandings of success as she shared: 

“I think that we all have different types of success… for me personally, it’s being able to live a life in which I feel accomplished somewhere doing something. For me, [accomplishment] has always come from helping others and being able to advocate for something. I was so lucky to be able to establish my values in high school and not after. I’m so thankful that CFJ is at my school, because CFJ is not at every school.”

Student Governing Board member

When we heard this statement, we asked the group whether they felt being a part of this process had changed them or what they wanted to do. Aric reflected: 

“In my freshman and sophomore years, I wasn’t really involved. When I was choosing my classes for this [junior] year, I chose Leadership, but I didn’t really know what it was about. I thought it was just a bunch of popular kids just doing what they want with the school and trying to run it. I went into [the class] this year and my perspective changed. I was invited to the district meetings, and I found all this information about the schools, and The District. It was mind blowing, because I never thought it [leadership] was like this and of these injustices, you don’t really look at it, but then after those meetings, I started to look at the minorities, and think, ‘what are the opportunities for them, what do they want?’ That’s how I changed.”

Aric, Student Leader

“I’ve always wanted to become a biochemical engineer. Because of this [organizing experience], now I want to go into political science. It has changed my outlook of life, who I want to be in my future and how I want to have an impact. Even though I might still choose a science major, now it is going to be very different.”

Zoe, Student Leader

As we begin to observe how that civic spirit continues beyond the school walls, we also recognize the importance of these shifts in civic identities as pillars to improve our democracy as we practice it collectively in our daily lives, from our relationships and our classrooms to the halls of governments. When we asked Brian what he would share with his peers as they prepared to be leaders next year, he responded:

“For students next year that join this [leadership program], they shouldn’t be afraid of what to say. This year, we didn’t know what to say because it was our first time. I would have tried to say something. If things are bad, they are bad. Nothing is going to change if you don’t bring it up.”

Brian, Student Leader