Youth Voices and Agency in Democratic Education

Julie Anne Taylor

I’ve learned you are never too small to make a
difference. And if a few children can get headlines
all over the world just by not going to school, then
imagine what we could all do together if we really
wanted to. But to do that, we have to speak clearly,
no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

(Thunberg, 2018, n.p.)

Inspired by the Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, middle and high school students around the world are participating in school strikes on Fridays to draw attention to global warming and to call for policy changes. In light of this movement, high school students in Detroit wrote political speeches on environmental issues, two of which were sent to their congresswoman in the United States House of Representatives. To raise funds as well as awareness of environmental matters, the students also participated in an art-based, service-learning project in the community. Concerned about environmental issues, today’s
youth value participatory, democratic learning experiences. This article examines teaching practices that encourage youth voices and agency.

The theoretical framework of this study was shaped by Deweyan ideas of democracy and education (Dewey, 1916/2012). John Dewey argued that democracy requires the participation of all people in defining the values that govern social life (Dewey, 1937). Recognizing the importance of educational institutions, he advocated for democratic methods in social relationships. The work of Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy (2015) also influenced this article; they concluded that engaging students in political deliberation is fundamental to civic education. Students must learn how to persuade with evidence, grapple with diverse perspectives, and participate in decision-making. Preparing students for participation in democratic life requires the cultivation of skills and dispositions (Fay & Levinson, 2019; Hansen, Levesque, Valant
& Quintero, 2018).

At the core of the guiding framework for social studies education in the United States is the Inquiry Arc, which calls for students to communicate conclusions and to take informed action (National Council for the Social Studies, 2013). The framework is designed to promote the skills and competencies that active and engaged citizens require. When youth believe that their voices are being heard, school experiences become more meaningful and relevant (Quaglia & Corso, 2014). Student-voice initiatives foster youth agency and leadership (Mitra, 2008). Dewey (1916/2012)

A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of
associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. The extension in space of the number of individuals who participate in an interest so that each has to refer to his own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his own, is equivalent to the breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory which kept men from perceiving the full import of their activity.
(p. 94).

This study’s uniqueness lies in its interdisciplinary approach to civic engagement.
Through artistic design and persuasive writing, students applied their knowledge of global and local environmental issues. They communicated artfully to effect change. Pedagogically, the methods in this action-research study were constructivist. Learners transferred knowledge as they created relevant products (Pellegrino, 2015; Zhao, 2015). By emphasizing critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving, deeper learning supports student agency and collaboration (Bellanca, 2015; Trilling,

The School and students

The 28 students, who participated in this IRB approved study, attended a public secondary school in Detroit. The school is the only all-boys, public school in the state of Michigan. At the time of the study, about 165 students were enrolled. The
majority of the students were eligible for the National School Lunch Program. About 98.5% of the young men were African American. The school has a college preparatory focus.

The participants in this study were engaged in an enrichment program that is the outcome of a long-term partnership between the school and a
regional university. The program explores project and inquiry-based learning as well as arts integration in the social studies. Offered through the school’s World History and Geography course during the 2018-2019 academic year, the program examined the human impacts on the environment and democratic practices for realizing change. The student participants spanned three grade levels. Five students were in the twelfth grade, 22 were in the eleventh grade, and one was in the tenth grade.
Parental and student permissions were given to include first names and photographs in this article.

The two-fold project

To increase their knowledge of how humans are affecting the environment, the students engaged in a videoconferencing series on environmental topics with the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, the Lee Richardson Zoo, Zion National Park, the Buffalo Zoo, the Denver Botanic Gardens, and the Royal Botanical Gardens in Canada. In addition to participating in interactive lectures and viewing videos, the young men conducted research to learn about environmental issues such as climate change, plastic pollution, the extinction and endangerment of animals, and water quality. Thirteen students built upon their knowledge of human impacts by
participating in guided tours of the Huron River watershed. To communicate their ideas, the students designed mugs with persuasive, environmental messages for local use, and they wrote speeches for their congresswoman in the U.S. House of Representatives. The experiential project taught students about civil discourse and civic engagement.

Persuasive design and civic engagement in the community

Before designing mugs with environmental messages, the students analyzed eight green, political posters from Siegel and Morris’ (2010) collection, Green Patriot Posters: Images for a New Activism. Created by contemporary and international graphic designers, the posters were selected because of their foci on diverse and current environmental issues as well as their use of persuasive techniques. Designed for a global audience, the Green Patriot Posters collection was inspired by the work of New Deal artists, who were employed by the Works Progress Administration in
the United States during the Great Depression and World War II.

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) were used to engage students in discussions (Yenamine, 2013). VTS is based on three questions: a) What’s going on in this picture?; b) What do you see that makes you say that?; and c) What more can you find?. Additionally, questions from the Poster Analysis Worksheet of the National Archives and Records Administration (n.d.) fostered critical analysis: a) Who do you think is the intended audience? and b) Why was it created? The students examined the meaning and impact of colors and symbols. While identifying written and visual messages, they considered the artists’ intentions. They also evaluated the overall effectiveness of the posters.

The analysis of green art led to an exchange of ideas about politics, the environment, and free artistic expression. In discussions, the students commented on the dramatic image of an inverted human figure with smoke-stack legs in Frédéric Tacer’s (2007) poster, Global Warming (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Global Warming, Frédéric Tacer, 2007,
Courtesy of the artist

The poster sparked conversations about industrial
carbon emissions, climate change, and rising water levels. The students recognized and pondered Will Etling’s (2010) adoption and modification of the Black Power fist in Sustain (Figure 2); Etling’s green fist is clenching a carrot.

Figure 2. Sustain Figure, Will Etling, 2010 Courtesy of the artist

With his message, “Push a pedal for the planet,” Jason Hardy (2009) offered the students a fitting example of alliteration in his poster, Let’s Ride (Figure 3).

Let’s Ride, Jason Hardy, 2009
Courtesy of the artist

Individually or in pairs, the students selected environmental topics of particular concern or interest. In addition to drawing images with colored pencils, they wrote relevant messages. As they were drawing and writing, the students kept their
primary audience in mind: adult customers at a popular, local café. They concluded that their customers would probably use the mugs at home or
at work. To scaffold the students’ artistic work, stencils were made available.

The drawings were uploaded to and edited on a retail corporation’s photography site for production as mugs. Each student’s drawing was rendered on a mug for him to keep. Six drawings were selected by educators based on the quality of the artwork and the persuasiveness of the messages. Multiple copies of mugs with those designs were produced for sale at the café for fundraising purposes. The state chapter of the Sierra Club, to support the fundraiser, posted images of the drawings and mugs to its website. Profits from the sale of the mugs were used to purchase peach trees and lilies for the school.

Creating environmental mugs taught students how to influence people in the local
community through design. With the funds raised by the sale of their products, the young men “greened” their school. When students are empowered to shape their school environments, they gain a sense of ownership (Mitra, 2008). The students agreed that fruit trees should be planted because they yield food; they wanted the produce to be available to students as well as people in the local community. They opted to plant lilies because of their hardiness and tendency to multiply. During
and after the planting of the trees and flowers, the students made comments which suggested an increased connection to the school setting. “We are making this place look nice,” said one young man. “The flowers brighten the school,” observed
another. “The cafeteria will make something good to eat with the peaches,” stated a third student.

After the greening of the school grounds, the students were ready for the next level: the use of complex language and data to influence policymaking at the national level. Thunberg’s (2018, 2019) work on the global stage served as their inspiration for political speechwriting. Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Thunberg was the recipient of the Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award. She was named one of the most influential people by Time magazine, which featured her on its cover in 2019.

Persuasion through political speechwriting at the national level

“The political orator is concerned with the future: it is about things to be done hereafter that he advises, for or against,” observed Aristotle (350 B.C.E./2015, p. 14). In this study, the students embraced democratic praxis by composing and delivering political speeches on environmental issues of their choice. The format for their speeches was Monroe’s (1935/1943) Motivated Sequence (MMS). MMS includes the following steps: “1) getting attention; 2) showing the need: describing
problem; 3) satisfying the need: presenting the solution; 4) visualizing the results; and 5) requesting action or approval” (p. 94).

The students considered persuasion through oratory (Leith, 2012). Effective speechwriters often use vivid language, repetition, alliteration, active verbs, short sentences, transitions, compelling quotations, metaphors, and rhetorical questions
(Lehrman, 2010). When appropriate, they integrate humor. Speakers determine when to pause for effect, project their voices, and make eye contact (Leith, 2012). Model texts for the speechwriting assignments included Thunberg’s (2018) speech on
climate change at the United Nations Climate Change COP24 Conference, which the students viewed and examined in the form of a transcript, as well as a four-minute excerpt of Thunberg’s (2019) speech to leaders of the European Union, which the
students viewed only.

To respect different styles of working, the young men had the option of crafting their speeches independently or in small groups. The students, who opted to work collaboratively, selected their own groups. Prior to writing, the young men completed a template. Monroe’s (1935/1943) Motivated Sequence was slightly modified to add an impactful closing statement or clincher.

To find evidence for their own speeches, the students visited websites such as those of NASA (2019), the United States Geological Survey (2019), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (n.d.). They also culled information on
sustainability and data from books by Margaret Robertson (2017) and Leslie Paul Thiele (2016). In their speeches, the students integrated evidence, and they related stories about how environmental issues adversely affect people today. They identified how governments could take action to protect the environment. Using a portable public address system, the young men delivered their speeches before their classmates and educators (Figure 4). The independently prepared speeches were
comparable in quality to those crafted in groups.

Figure 5. A student delivers a speech on climate change

Selected by educators, written copies of two speeches were sent to a U.S. congresswoman. With an encouraging letter, the representative responded;
she addressed environmental issues in Detroit, and she urged the students to continue to be civically engaged. Her letter was read to the class by student
volunteers. Copies were posted in the media center and front office, not far from the desks of the administrative staff and educators, who were using the students’ environmental mugs.


Action research is a systematic and participatory process to gain understanding of issues or problems (Stringer, 2014). Action research challenges educators to be methodical and reflective in examinations of innovative teaching and learning
practices (Mills, 2011). Through data gathering and inquiry, educators gain insights that can lead to positive changes (Mertler, 2014; Mills, 2011). In this action-research study, mixed-methods were employed. Suitable for interdisciplinary investigations, the mixed-methods approach invites diverse perspectives and viewpoints (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011). Inquiry through mixed methods offers insights into complex phenomena; the methods capture additional data that lead to deeper understandings of context (Greene, 2007).

An optional and anonymous eight-item survey, with an embedded design, was administered in hard copy when the program concluded. The survey was designed to capture students’ concerns and voices on the environment. In addition, the survey was written to measure the students’ sense of their own preparedness to communicate effectively through political speechwriting and design. Of the 28 participants, 21 opted to complete the surveys, yielding a 75% response rate. The students were invited to write comments after each of the following five Likert-scale items:

  1. I am concerned about climate change and the environment.
  2. The environmental concerns and interests of today’s youth are being adequately
    addressed by policymakers.
  3. The interests of future generations should be taken into account when environmental policies are made.
  4. Preparing a political speech increased my understanding of how to persuade others
    through rhetoric.
  5. By designing and selling mugs for Earth Day, our class raised awareness of environmental issues in the community.

The following open-ended, sixth and seventh items on the survey were designed to promote reflection on the service-learning aspect of the environmental mug project. The eighth item invited comments.

  1. This year, you and your classmates designed Earth Day mugs to raise money for fruit trees and flowers. You also wrote political speeches. What are other ways you could
    raise awareness of environmental issues and/or live sustainably?
  2. What did you learn about the human impact on the environment?

The students’ responses on the surveys were entered into a cloud-based tool, SurveyMonkey, for data analysis. The congresswoman’s letter, in response to the students’ speeches, arrived after the surveys had been distributed. For this reason, the students were asked to share their thoughts in a discussion of her letter, and field notes were taken. In addition to an analysis of the students’ designs and speeches, the conclusions in this study were supported by the field notes and observations.


The findings of this action-research study indicate that high school students are concerned about the environment. They believe that the interests of
young and future generations should matter, and they find value and relevance in art-based, service learning and political speechwriting. With the statement, I am concerned about climate change and the environment, 85.71% of the respondents
strongly agreed (76.19%) or agreed (9.52%). About 14% were neutral. In their comments, multiple students wrote about the urgency of the climate change crisis. One student stated, “The earth is getting worse each day, and we can change that.”
Another wrote, “Fixing [climate change] as soon as possible should be a top priority.”

The students’ responses to the item, The environmental concerns and interests of today’s youth are being adequately addressed by policymakers, were mixed. Granted, these survey responses were collected before the congresswoman’s letter arrived. Over 47% of the students indicated that they were neutral. About a third of the students either disagreed (23.81%) or strongly disagreed (9.52%). About 19% agreed. A student wrote, “I believe that some lawmakers consider the youth in their decisions. Not everyone.” Another commented on the importance of youth activism in politics: “If more youth take action, the concerns and interests will be addressed.”

Most students thought that the interests of future generations should be taken into account when environmental policies are made—over 76% either strongly agreed (57.14%) or agreed (19.05%). About 19% were neutral, and one student disagreed
(4.76%). A student wrote, “We should leave a good, healthy plant for our children.” Another stated, “These decisions determine our kids’ future.”

Preparing speeches honed the students’ communication skills. With the statement,
Preparing a political speech increased my understanding of how to persuade others through rhetoric, 85.72% of the students either strongly agreed (42.86%) or agreed (42.86%). Two students (9.52%) were neutral, and one disagreed (4.76%). One student wrote, “Preparing a political speech helped me improve my writing.”

In their speeches, the students wrote about climate change, air and water quality, and the threat of plastic pollution to wildlife. To gain the audience’s attention, some students told stories. In a speech on plastic pollution, a small group of students began by integrating a story that they had read in the news: “Recently a whale washed up on a beach. The whale died due to the 48 pounds of plastic found in its stomach in Sicily.” Adhering to Monroe’s (1935/1943) Motivated Sequence, they offered evidence of the scale of plastic pollution. In their clincher, they respectfully dared their
classmates, “We challenge you guys to recycle each piece of plastic you use and see.”

In another speech, a student wrote and spoke skillfully about air pollution and global warming. He recommended the adoption of solar, wind, and geothermal power. His introduction and clincher conveyed urgency:

Air Pollution and Global Warming

Air pollution is destroying our planet faster
than we know it.
There are different kinds of air pollution.
Some come from natural resources, but most of it comes from humans.
When we release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, they raise the earth’s temperature.

We release them by burning fossil fuels.
Gasses cause the climate to change.
If the air pollution continues to get worse, we will have more smog.
Smog reduces visibility and has serious health effects.
Smog is a type of severe air pollution.
It can be very dangerous to breathe in too much smog.

According to NASA, the planet’s temperature has risen about 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1 degree Celsius) since the late 19th century.

The most basic way to reduce air pollution is to move away from fossil fuels and use
more alternative energies like solar, wind, and geothermal.
It is impossible to explain all the actual damage caused by all forms of air pollution.
It’s up to us to protect this planet because it’s burning down quicker than we think.

The students were delighted and surprised to receive a response to their speeches from their congresswoman. No student had ever received correspondence from an elected official. With its official heading and words of encouragement, the letter made the students realize that their ideas and concerns mattered. Because the letter arrived after the administration of the surveys, the students were verbally asked what they thought about the letter. They shared comments such as, “I am honored,”
“I’m shocked,” and “It’s awesome.” One student stated, “She is from here, so she understands.”

On the survey, 95.24% of the students strongly agreed (47.62%) or agreed (47.62%) that their class had raised awareness of environmental issues in the community by designing and selling mugs for Earth Day. One student (4.76%) was neutral. This finding should be understood in light of the students’ awareness of the promotion of the fundraiser and its purpose by the café, the school, university faculty, and the Sierra Club. The students knew that images of their environmental mugs were circulating on social media, and the mugs were prominently displayed in the café. They noted that people had purchased the mugs because of their messages, which were primarily about climate change, pollution, and water quality (Figures 5 and 6)

The students shared useful ideas about other ways to raise awareness of environmental issues and/or live sustainably. They recommended using social media, YouTube, the radio, and television. “We could start trends that take care of our environment. Ex. #Cleanup. #Stop the pollution,” suggested a student. Others wrote about recycling, reducing consumption, and picking up trash. They
suggested holding additional fundraisers. One student proposed establishing a charity whose mission would be to educate and to manage environmental projects.

When asked what they had learned about the human impact on the environment, the students responded that their awareness of how human affect the environment had increased. They commented on the potential to make positive changes. One student wrote, “I learned (about) our effect on this planet, and it opened my eyes.”
Another commented, “The human impact on life tells me that people should do better.”

Discussion and Implications

Making art is a way to respond to and participate in events (Kerson, 2009). In democratic societies, through designs in public spaces, artists express diverse social and political perspectives (Triantafillou, 2009; Freedman, 2003). When it has a persuasive purpose, art can powerfully influence thoughts and behaviors (Welch, 2013). Handmade, accessible designs appeal to viewers (MacPhee, 2010). The creation and sale of environmental mugs afforded students the opportunity to
communicate through design and to take informed action.

Two students created designs to raise awareness of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan; many pipes in the city have not been replaced yet Next to his drawing of the Flint water tower, one young man wrote, “Pay attention to warning signs, even when they don’t seem important.” The students have been directly affected by issues of water quality. Due to high levels of lead and other toxins, the water fountains in most schools in Detroit have been shut off (Nir, 2018). Water, in five-gallon jugs, is delivered and dispensed at stations in the schools. Additionally, air pollution
has been linked to poor lung function among asthmatic children, the majority of whom are African American (Lewis, Robins, Dvonch, Keeler, Yip, Menzt…Hill, 2005).

In discussions, the students related international issues of environmental degradation to their firsthand experiences. “…citizenship education should not
only focus on young people as isolated individuals but on young people-in-relationship and on the social, economic, cultural and political conditions of their lives,”
wrote Gert J.J. Biesta (2011, p. 15).

Meaning, ownership, and creativity are important elements of democratic education
(Laguardia & Pearl, 2005). The young men, who were involved in the design of environmental mugs, took an entrepreneurial, product-oriented approach to the greening of their school (Zhao, 2015) (Figures 7 and 8). Service-learning increases
students’ sense of agency and responsibility (Butin, 2010; Cipolle, 2010; Furco, 2002; Webster, 2007). Through this experiential form of civic education, students apply classroom learning to the real world (Carter, 1997).

The art of persuasion, rhetoric is a practical skill in a democracy. Monroe’s (1935/1943) Motivated Sequence has been successfully used by professional speechwriters in United States politics (Lehrman, 2010). The format is suitable for
classroom use because it engages students in the process of inquiry. Students learn content as they utilize complex, presentational language (Zwiers, 2014). The classroom becomes a forum for the exchange of ideas in light of the common good
(Beyer, 1996). The students, in this project, considered how rhetoric is used to influence and to achieve goals. At a time when public argument is often vituperative, their speeches were evidence based, rational, and civil (Duffy, 2019). In a speech on climate change, students drew attention to the extent to which individuals and industries pollute. They described the effects of global warming:

Climate Change

Good afternoon, our names are Dorean, Marcel, and Donivan, and we attend
(school’s name). The problem with the planet earth is global warming and the
deterioration of the ozone layer.

People today pollute the environment like it’s a new trend; everybody does it. Not too
many people think about the consequences of their actions.

According to Sea Stewards, there are about 14 billion pounds of waste that get dumped into the oceans annually. Americans generate 10.5 million tons of plastic waste a year, but only recycle 1-2% of it. That shows how much people care about the

Car exhaust, factories, and production plants all have one thing in common: They
each release harmful gasses that erode our atmosphere. With our atmosphere’s deterioration, the radiation from the sun is seeping onto our planet, causing global warming.

Global warming will likely increase the intensity of meteorological activity, such as
hurricanes, which cause flooding and storm damage, as well as other forms of extreme weather, such as severe, prolonged drought.

With those dangers lingering and waiting to happen, we need to cut back on pollution and gas-powered machinery.
Marcell, Donivan, and Dorean

While writing their speeches, the students considered how adhering to ethical standards in rhetoric promotes inclusivity and dialogue (Duffy, 2019). Studying issues such as climate change fostered a global perspective. Focused on the
welfare of people and nature, the students weighed and communicated responsible actions (National Geographic Society, 2018). Problem-solving, on the basis of evidence and reason, is integral to democratic education (Pearl & Knight, 1999; Terry
& Gallavan, 2005). Knowledge of Monroe’s Motivated Sequence and rhetorical devices prepares students to write persuasively as well as to recognize how politicians and community leaders seek to influence the thoughts and behaviors of their audiences.

Shawn Ginwright (2009, p. 18) wrote, “Robust and healthy democratic life requires
debate, contestation, and participation, all of which signal social well-being.” In addition to engaging students in art-based service learning and political
speechwriting, social studies educators could facilitate student involvement in other forms of democratic action such as debates and simulations. Public deliberation of political issues by an informed citizenry is essential in a democracy (Hess & McAvoy, 2015). Constructive, experiential learning has the potential to foster civic-mindedness and political intentionality (Levine, 2012; Levinson, 2012a).

Democratic praxis could narrow the “civic empowerment gap” that affects political
participation by African American, Latinx, and lowincome youth in the United States (Levinson, 2012b, p. 32). In light of structural, socioeconomic inequalities, Kevin Clay and Beth Rubin (2019) advocate for critically relevant civics (CRC). In CRC, students examine and build upon their lived experiences in society, and they utilize community resources (Clay & Rubin, 2019). As they engage in informal learning outside the classroom, they reflect on social change (Clay & Rubin, 2019).


Visual art and rhetoric are powerful forms of communication that foster youth expression and agency. Innovative uses of these forms to advance civic engagement and global competence merit consideration by educators. Through creative design and speech, the students in this study engaged in the “practice of identification with
public issues” that is vital to citizenship (Biesta, 2011, p. 13). One young man wrote, “Humans have a huge impact on the environment. We harm the earth. We can really change that, if we come together.”


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