Organization Echoes Institute for Arts and Social Justice and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).
Michelle Fine and Maria Elena Torre
A collaboration between researchers from The CUNY Graduate Center, youth from New York and New Jersey, Poet-educators from Urban Word NYC, dancers and choreographers from Ron K. Brown's Evidence dance company, the Rockefeller Foundation.
Echoes of Brown is an innovative multimedia book comprised of intergenerationally-produced writing, research and analyses about the persistent problems of educational inequity. A DVD, along with contemporary art, photography, poetry, performance documentation and social scientific research, is incorporated into one hip red/black and white bounded package with punch.
Released at the time of the 50 anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education's landmark decision, Echoes of Brown was quickly lauded by communities, scholars and activists as a seminal youth-centered examination of the ongoing fractures in the delivery of educational justice and equality. Echoes of Brown is one unique outcome evolving out of the Opportunity Gap Participatory Research Project, a series of research camps involving high school students, school districts, elders, artists and educators that were conducted over the period of two years in the region of New York and New Jersey (2002-2004). The research camps were organized and led by Dr. Michelle Fine, Dr. Maria Elena Torre along with several Graduate Center students of City University of New York (CUNY). In addition to the multimedia book, additional outcomes include numerous student-led presentations to schools, public performances, and a mountain of original research data accumulated and analyzed by youth about their own educational environments. While the depth and scope of the Echoes project can appear daunting to those wishing to emulate it, Maria Elena Torre affirms that the essential principles of Echoes can be replicated by any youth media practitioner. "Even if you don't have a big budget, you can tailor and scale back a project like Echoes quite easily." According to Torre, "The core of what makes it such an exciting and important project is the way it brings together a radically diverse group of young people (contact zone) to engage in very focused research (PAR) about questions important to their lives.
In the context of youth media work, this strong participatory action research (PAR) component represents a notable shift away from "the politics of identity construction and self-expression" towards one that favors inquiry, critique and analysis. "Certainly, we are interested in having conversations and making media, but more importantly, we are engaging in the kind of work that helps youth come up with informed solutions for real social problems that they identify as compelling." For Torre and Fine, the serious allocation of time and resources for conducting and analyzing original research is essential to learning and change. As a result, the art, poetry and performance by youth included in Echoes of Brown are anchored in evidence and rooted in a shared desire for social change.
The Opportunity Gap Project
The Opportunity Gap Project, from which Echoes of Brown emerged, began in 2002 when a consortium of school districts invited Michelle Fine of The Graduate Center at City University of New York to collaborate with them on a project investigating the "Achievement Gap." Ultimately, over 100 youth from urban and suburban high schools in New York and New Jersey joined researchers from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in a participatory action research design to study youth perspectives on achievement/opportunity gaps. Participants were recruited for the project from youth groups and public schools in the greater New York metropolitan area and northern New Jersey.
Youth participated in a series of "research camps," each held for two days at a time (except for a week-long Institute), in community and university settings, where they were immersed in methods training and learned about interviews, focus groups, survey design and participant observation as well as the history of the Brown decision, civil rights movements and struggles for educational justice. Some received high school credits (when a course on participatory research was offered in their schools) and 42 ultimately received college credit for their research work. While some may marvel at the willingness of students to spend free time doing rigorous research, Torre said that in her ten years as a youth worker, she never experienced more commitment and passion from young people. "They weren't even getting paid but they never missed a meeting." Student researchers even called her up on snow days when school was cancelled to make sure they could meet. "Literally, I was so struck because they were yearning for spaces like this and that is exciting for anybody - adults or young people."
Across the research camps, Fine and Torre worked with students to design surveys and and distribute them to 9th and 12th graders in 13 urban and suburban districts. Together, they analyzed the qualitative and quantitative data from 9,174 surveys, 24 focus groups and 32 individual interviews with youth. Teams of youth and adult researchers cross-visited four urban and suburban schools to document structures, opportunities and social relations layered through a lens of race/ethnicity.
School Reactions To Student Research
The Opportunity Gap Project culminated in a series of focus groups, feedback sessions and public presentations. As Torre describes, the reactions from parents, school officials, teachers and students were mixed. "Often, our audiences were moved to tears. Yet, the action felt like it was getting wiped away with the tissues." At the same time, students presenting research findings that offered evidence of race and gender bias in schools were often met with "crossed arms" and condescension. As Torre explains,
One young person had spent a fair amount of time in the detention room, and so, as part of his PowerPoint presentation, he focused on race and gender breakdowns of students serving detention. The data showed that twice as many blacks had served detention as whites. So he presented this information and asked the faculty, 'What do you think?' The faculty sat there with a defensive posture, nodding their heads and saying, "It just can't be.' Here was this African-American students being flanked by an army of 700 surveys and they were getting stiffer and stiffer.
A New Strategy
At this point, Michelle Fine, Maria Elena Torre and many of the young people began to sense that a new strategy was needed. Around this same time, the anniversary of Brown vs. The Board of Education was approaching even as the Opportunity Gap Project was winding down. "The student researchers didn't want to let it go." Torre was inspired by other works such as The Vagina Monologues for effectively bridging social science and performance. This approach excited the young people as well, who were looking for their work to create action and resonance. Eventually, they decided to organize a final research camp which they called the Echoes Institute for Arts and Social Justice. Here, youth participants came together for one week in an intensive workshop to analyze the research findings and learn dance, writing and performance from professional artists. Through this process they chose to publish a book and DVD and create a live performance. "It came from the students who were struggling with how to place their knowledge into a public forum where it could be considered seriously by multiple audiences."
From the beginning, Fine and Torre were committed to the dissemination of the students' research findings, but they never imagined that it would take the form of a multimedia book and a performance art project. Torre maintains that the youth conversations were essential to the formation of Echoes of Brown. "I really feel that an effective project evolves out of the needs of a community and its own questions. The most interesting productions of knowledge come from these processes that pay attention to the communities that are most impacted by the very problems being addressed."
This joint commitment to democratic participatory practice of research created an environment where all participants imagined themselves as researchers and agents of change. As a result, Echoes of Brown continues to inspire and inform young people, activists and educators throughout the world.