When disadvantaged youth engage in social activism, they tend to have high-status occupations in adulthood, according to Clemson University and University of Michigan researchers. The findings also suggest there's a place for more discussion of social issues in our educational systems.
"We have strong evidence that directly addressing and challenging—instead of avoiding—inequality is good for historically marginalized youth. This implies that when educators provide a space for students to reflect, discuss and challenge inequalities, those students engage and learn more," said Luke Rapa, an assistant professor of adolescent development at Clemson, who co-authored the study.
The research published in the journal Developmental Psychology used data from the Maryland Adolescent Development in Context Study, a long-term research project that has followed a sample of children from 23 public middle schools in Maryland since 1991. Rapa, along with paper co-authors Matthew Diemer and Josefina Bañales of the University of Michigan, studied a subsample of these students from ages 17 to 29 that was made up of poor and working-class African-Americans.
Examples of social action, for the study's purposes, ranged from a donation of time or money to political action groups, participation in women's rights groups and even protests. These are all examples of action arising from critical consciousness and awareness of social inequalities.
"Youth in the sample we studied who were engaged in social action had higher expectations for their own career trajectories," Rapa said. "This suggests that students who engage in social action take the time to reflect critically on their surroundings. That critical thinking motivates them and that same sense of motivation may be what pays off for them in whatever career they choose."
Diemer originally became interested in questions of critical consciousness from his time in classrooms with children struggling to make sense of inequalities in their day-to-day lives. It's in settings like this that Diemer hopes the real impact of the research will be felt; the study's results strongly imply that educators should meet topics related to social justice head on in classroom settings instead of shying away from them.
Diemer said time for reflection and discussion helps schools achieve their mission and often helps students attain jobs that are more prestigious and higher paying as adults. He said teachers should take the opportunity to tackle all issues related to social inequalities whether they appear large or small on the surface.
Diemer said teachers may be reluctant to do so because of concern they will discourage students, fear of becoming too political in the classroom and a feeling they are not adequately prepared to broach such topics. The researchers hope their findings might help ease some of those fears, both for teachers and administrators.
"It's meaningful to see that by broaching these topics and supporting the development of critical consciousness in students, educators are actually opening the door for marginalized youth to better navigate the structures that marginalized them in the first place," Rapa said.
Explore further: Marginalized ninth-graders think critically about inequality, political power