Published on 4/25/2016 6:00:00 AM
K. Leroy Irvis Fellow, Center for Urban Education Graduate Research and Teaching Associate
Philosophy of Education (PhD) in Social and Comparative Analysis in Education
Can you talk about your research?
My research focus is on youth sociopolitical development in outside-of-school time settings. What I’m really looking at are the experiences of youth, and how they develop this ability to critically analyze and move towards action to address some of the different social, political, educational, economic, and other types of justice issues that they experience both in their schools and their communities.
Can you give us some examples of some social-political justice movements specifically that you’re interested in exploring with these adolescents?
In my work, I’m particularly interested in issues of race and racism, economic justice, environmental justice, issues with people with disabilities, and also the ability of students to develop the efficacy to feel like they can actually go and act on these types of issues that they’re experiencing.
In a general sense, what grades and age range?
My primary age range for students is the middle school and high school years, which are pretty much the major adolescent developmental years. Particularly at a time where research has shown that students, in many cases, are able to start having more complex developmental processes going on. They’re able to link what’s going on in their environments with what’s going on in their personal lives and with what’s going on in their families and make those connections a little bit better. I’m also interested a little bit in young adults. That’s going all the way up through the age of about 24 or 25 because that’s traditionally how the youth development field in America defines youth.
How do you define “change agent?”
When I talk about change agents, I’m talking about the ability for youth to be actively involved in their communities but have a goal in mind in terms of what they want their community to look like. A lot of times we see youth experiencing things in their environment that aren’t what they would want them to be; it’s not optimal for them. When they grow and have the ability to not only identify what’s wrong but why it’s wrong, and then grow the competencies and abilities to try to address it and change it to make it look like what they want it to look like, that’s what we’re really trying to go for with development.
Are there specific experiences you’ve had that made you interested in this particular area, in your own life?
I grew up in a community that was primarily black but had a lot of different sociopolitical issues that we had to deal with, primarily with income, with opportunity, with the quality of education at some of the schools I was at, but also some criminal justice issues. A lot of my friends and family wound up in the criminal justice system, and it was something I was definitely more interested in experiencing. My professional background was in non-profit work in Jackson, Mississippi. I worked with a lot of groups who were trying to help youth develop this sociopolitical and critical lens to try to change their environments in more positive ways. I really got interested in just exploring this a little bit more. What aspects of these programs are most beneficial? What’s really drawing these youth to want to do this work? What are of the experiences of the adults who are doing this work with youth, and how can we use those experiences to inform other adults who might want to engage in this type of work.
What has been the most surprising or satisfying result you’ve learned while conducting research?
I would say the most satisfying thing about this research so far is just seeing how people really connect with each other on a very basic level. When people do this work, it really requires you to recognize the humanity in other people and identify that people, youth particularly, aren’t just objects to be developed. They’re people who have real feelings, real insights, and real emotions. The ability to connect those with their environments and their experiences in a way that lets youth see themselves in the work that they’re doing, but see the bigger picture and see themselves as being able to have a place in this world where they can impact others and create change for the better has been really satisfying for me.
Could you talk a little bit about how the faculty supports you in your research?
My faculty advisor and mentor is Dr. [Rich] Milner and also Dr. Lori Delale O’Connor, Dr. Erica Gold Kestenberg, Dr. Gretchen Generett, and then all of the other post-docs and graduate students at the Center for Urban Education. It’s been a really great environment to do this type of work because you get to work with a really diverse group of people who really understand the type of work you’re trying to do. Everyone is really on the same page about wanting to address these different issues but also grow leaders in youth and help them to be able to see where they can be a part of this. The support we get in writing, in research, and just exposing us to different scholars in the field who can help us with our work, different pieces of literature that we can build on, most importantly just being an ear that we can bounce ideas off of and get advice from has been tremendously helpful.
Why did you choose Pitt to pursue your doctoral studies?
One, I had worked with Dr. Rich Milner when I was getting my master’s degree, and we had just created a very strong relationship in doing that work. I knew at some point in time I wanted to work with him again because we were so connected with this work. With him coming to the University of Pittsburgh, it gave me a really great opportunity to work with him again and really try to do some magical things here in Pittsburgh. The other thing was just being in Pittsburgh, which is a great urban community with a lot of rich history and a lot of rich culture. It also has issues that are very characteristic of many urban areas. I thought I could really come here and get a chance to have a footprint in this city, help advance some of the work that was already going on, and maybe help with some of the work that’s to come.
Can you talk about your recent award and publication? In doing that, connect it to how being a student here has supported you to get to that point.
Recently I received a graduate student award from the Center for Race and Social Problems for a paper I wrote about the school-to-prison pipeline in my qualitative research course with Dr. Amber Pabon. Dr. Pabon was actually the person who really pushed me to revise the paper and submit it for this contest because she thought there was a lot of potential in the work. To me, that just shows how supportive the faculty is. Even other faculty members like Dr. [Ashley] Woodson, Dr. [Michael] Gunzenhauser, the admissions office, and the Dean’s office, everyone is kind of pushing you to do more to really explore the depths and the possibilities that you have with your work.
Is there anything else you think would be good for perspective students to know?
I definitely think that, for students that are interested in coming to the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education, there’s a lot of supportive faculty here. Not just the faculty in the Center for Urban Education, but faculty all over this school have opened up their doors to me and been very interested in the work that I’ve been doing. Everyone has been able to offer something to help me out with the work. Even if my area of expertise is not theirs, there’s something that they can give whether it’s assistance with conceptualizing or just connecting you with other people. It’s been very welcoming. I’d definitely advise anyone who’s interested to reach out to the people here because it’s been a great experience.