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TDSB makes history with first student-led Youth Participatory Action Research Conference

By Hilary Caton, Communications Officer

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The first ever Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) Conference is all about its students. It’s student-led, student-organized, and student focused. It’s also student moderated and its organizers wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Planning this conference took a lot of teamwork. It was an amazing opportunity to network with other amazing Black students who have common interests and goals as myself,” said Aria Brown, one of the student leaders who organized the conference.

“It’s really amazing to see all the things that we as young Black students can accomplish despite there being negative and harmful stereotypes against us. It feels so great to have a platform where we can be acknowledged for our skills and talent while also having our Blackness highlighted.”

The YPAR Conference, Using Student Voice to Inform School Policies and Practices is the first of its kind in the country. It allowed what 13 Black-identifying students have researched and transformed it into an exciting opportunity for them to present their research and findings to TDSB staff and education partners. Throughout the conference they were able to share their experiences, perspectives and realities with attendees surrounding Pathways and Transitions, the Black identity in K-12 education, and equitable learning opportunities for Black students.

“Students can see their lived experiences acknowledged as critical components of the learning process, strengthening their personal identity and outlook,” said Tanitia Munroe, Research Coordinator for the Centre of Excellence and the Research and Development Department.

“Elevating student voice means involving young people in conversations that directly impact their learning, while ensuring that they are prepared to grapple with issues and participate in conversations related to the broader education system.”

The presentations were split across five panels which were developed during their participation in the Centre of Excellence for Black Student Achievement’s - Black Student Summer Leadership Program ( BSSLP).

Melanie Bennett was the moderator for the conference and is a former YPAR participant and graduate from Newtonbrook Secondary. She said she was honoured to return and collaborate with YPAR students, work with guest speaker Dr S. Nombuso Dlamini, Associate Professor of Education York University, and of course provide “unwavering support and encouragement” to this year’s participants. She admits, coming back felt like a mentorship and shows the community “how necessary it is to uplift and empower our youth.”

“Most importantly, it reveals how our youth flourish when they are given an enriching space. We all learned from and were inspired by every participant in the program,” she added.

STEM and race 

One of those participants and presenters at the conference was Grade 12 student Idris Hersi. He presented, STEM and Race: Understanding Black Student Representation in Technology in 9-12 Education, which discusses the factors that contribute to the continued lack of Black representation in STEM careers and education. Hersi said he chose this topic because he realizes that the lack of representation is a deterrent to many students, himself included.

“Not seeing people who look like me discourages me from entering the field and makes me feel uncomfortable knowing that there's so many Black students in (Grades) 9-12 education who are being discouraged from entering STEM based courses,” he said.

For him, getting to be a part of the YPAR conference was a great experience and further emboldened him to pursue a career as a developer or as a cybersecurity analyst.

“Ever since I completed the BSSLP, I found it really interesting to dive into how research is conducted, talk about big issues that are really important to me and how I can put all of the skills I learned to create an excellent project,” explained Hersi, adding that that working with YPAR and BSSLP gave him the self-confidence and skills he needed. Bennett echoes that sentiment.

She said the research, communication and networking skills she learned and continues to use to this day are “not only essential for future professional opportunities but vital for personal development.”

“My advice to Black-Identifying students thinking about joining YPAR is to join YPAR!” said Bennett.

“I never imagined that completing this program would unleash abundant and pivotal opportunities for me…you may be a few new choices and commitments away from one of the most transformational seasons of your life.”