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Giving Minoritized Students a Voice

by Tom Hanlon / Jun 13, 2022

Professor Rachel Roegman

Through Rachel Roegman’s research projects, transgender and gender nonconforming high school students are finding their voice—and educating their peers and administrators.

In conducting youth-led participatory action research, Rachel Roegman is giving a voice to minoritized high school youths who rarely are heard.

Roegman, an associate professor in Education Policy, Organization and Leadership, has been working the past two years with students from two high schools, one from Indiana and one from Illinois, on issues impacting transgender and gender nonconforming youth.

“We’re working on how to make schools more inclusive places for them,” Roegman says. “What kinds of systems do we need for all youth to feel safe and supported?”

Roegman went in with the idea of talking with school administrators about the types of changes that would make transgender and gender nonconforming youth safe, but the students she met with wanted to directly address their high school peers.

So, Roegman practiced what she was preaching. She listened to the students. She gave them the voice they were yearning to use. She empowered them to take control of their environment.

“I’m giving them the opportunity to give direction to the research, with guidance,” she says. “What I think is important isn’t always what they think is important. I’m honoring what they bring and where they want the research to go.”

Launching Surveys, Presenting at Conferences

“It’s a little more challenging to educate their peers” as opposed to their administrators, Roegman says. “What do you do if you see someone in the bathroom and don’t think they’re the right gender? The answer is you don’t do anything. You just trust that they’re in the right place. But creating a culture where that can happen is a challenge.”

It’s a challenge that the Illinois group is taking head-on. Roegman began meeting with this group in January 2022. “We’re about to launch a survey to get a better understanding of students’ and teachers’ beliefs of what it means to be transgender,” she says. “It’s a GLSEN survey [formerly the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network], a national school climate survey that we’ve modified. Once we get the results, we’ll share the data with the school next year in an assembly, and then we’ll go to some leadership conferences around the state and some LGBTQ conferences.”

The Indiana group, which began meeting in January 2021, created a video in which they shared some of their experiences. “They also presented at a teachers’ conference, and now the students are working on policy changes they would like to see and will share that with the school board,” Roegman notes.

Expanding the Vision

Another way Roegman gave the Indiana group more voice was in expanding the original research idea. “When we went in, we were really focused on gender and gender nonconforming students, but they are thinking more inclusively about all minoritized groups,” she explains. That includes the large Latinx population in the school, many of whom have names that their teachers Americanize.

“That’s insulting and dehumanizing,” Roegman says. “So, we began talking about how to get teachers to call students by their right names. That’s not where we started, but that’s the exciting part of working with youth.”

The Indiana students are also expanding the focus to include transgender students of color, understanding that their experiences are different from those of white transgender students.

“I’m excited that students want to engage with their school board and with their classmates,” she says. “It’s nice for me to take a break from talking with school administrators, who are lovely, and spend time talking with teenagers.”

Conducting youth-led participatory action research can be a bit like riding a wave. “You’re looking at how to harness the energy,” Roegman says. “You go through this process and think about, okay, if you want to do this, if you want to present at an assembly for your school, what needs to happen to get to that point?”

Working With Students, Supported by Administrators

The answer is likely “a lot.” And it can be a challenge, because there’s this fine line between the slow process of building relationships with the students and the realization that at the end of a school year, some will be graduating. Key members of both of her groups have just graduated, and she’s looking for ways to keep them involved.

“Maybe I’ll recruit them to come here and do some undergraduate research,” she says.

The makeup of the two groups is a mix of students, about 10 at each school. “Some identify as transgender, some as gender nonconforming, and some are cisgender allies,” Roegman says. “High school is a time fraught for everyone.”

That time is made less fraught by supportive administrators, which Roegman says is the case at both sites. “In both schools, administrators have been supportive of the project, and that helps the youth to see that it’s not just me; the school values what we say and is open to listening and making changes, and that’s really important,” Roegman says. “In both schools, there are teachers who are LGB, and there are at least a small number of clearly outspoken teachers and administrators offering safe spaces.”

Funded by Two Grants

Roegman’s research is funded by two separate grants, one from the Illinois Campus Research Board and the other from the Spencer Foundation. She will be conducting interviews over the summer and into next year to find out if the students feel validated and safe. From there, she hopes to write about either or both of the projects for possible publication in an academic journal.

Giving Students a Voice and Schools a Message

“I hope from this experience the students see that their voice, their perspectives, are valued and important,” Roegman says. “I hope they learn some research skills and advocacy skills and see that they are able to effect change in their schools. All young people can be change agents. So, the question is, how can we help make spaces for them to learn some of these skills and do some of the work?”

Her message to schools is straightforward. “Whether you know it or not, you have students who are transgender and gender nonconforming,” she says. “You have the choice in your language and policies and practices to make it a place that is inclusive and accepting for them or not. But they’re there. I hope that people working in schools are aware of that and doing what they can so students feel like they can be themselves in their school environment.”

Roegman says that the Illinois group wants to share their learning and experiences with a larger audience.

“They want to help people see that transgender kids are just kids. They’re not scary. They’re not trying to turn your kids into whatever dark side you might imagine,” she says. “They’re just kids who want to go to school and learn and play sports and go to the bathroom and not have gender be an issue all the time.”