Jenn Brown

Youth voice, dissent, marginalisation: reflections for our AARE community

Like many AARE members, in late 2023 we were in Naarm attending the AARE conference ‘Voice, Truth, Place: critical junctures for educational research’. As researchers whose work centres on engaging with the voices of young people, the conference theme presented an important opportunity to think about the place of voice in education research – but also to dialogue about the processes and outcome of the national referendum on The Voice to parliament, in a professional community that has long foregrounded considerations of voice and power in education and research.

At this AARE 2023 conference, we (the authors) all experienced a particular moment that caused us to reflect on whose voices can be missing in conference spaces, whose voices are heard, and whose voices are romanticised, absent, marginalised, minimised and/or silenced.

There are barriers and blockages to ‘voice’, even before a conference begins. The costs and structures of conferences can be prohibitive for students and precariously employed academics, including youth co-researchers such as those that some of us collaborate with. This means many voices may be missing from conference discussions – voices that have the potential to trouble, stretch and enrich the assumptions and practices of educational researchers.

What we witnessed in one of the keynote lectures was a protest by a young person – not an official attendee of the conference – that was shut down, the young person pushed out, and their political views and actions vocally belittled. 

While the protest was unsettling for the audience, we consider that this is the purpose of protest: to unsettle, to raise awareness, to speak up. In this piece, we take this disruption as an opportunity for reflection and to raise provocations for our community to wrestle with collectively.  This piece is not intended to in any way be a criticism of any individual, but a prompt for collective reflection. We deliberately do not aim to prescribe solutions. We hope that our provocations (expressed as questions below) prompt further conversation about the place for young people’s voices in educational research spaces, particularly when they dissent from the status quo, and how we support and nurture a diverse community of education researchers.

How do we take young people’s voices seriously?

As members of an organisation dedicated to education, we believe that the voices and views of young people should be at the forefront of our work. While not all education research is focused on schools or youth issues, how young people think about and interact with the world should matter to all educational researchers. In recent years young people have led social movements on issues such as climate justice, Black Lives Matter and Indigenous education. Most recently school and university students have stood up against the Israeli occupation and bombardment of Palestine and Gaza. We believe young people engaging in these issues are informed by history, science and a social conscience that impels them to act for a better world.

What do these recent protests and campaigns, led by young people, have to do with educational conference gatherings? To return to the act of protest during one of the keynotes at AARE 2023, we wonder if there could have been further conversation about the differing individual, collective and organisational responses to this act of protest. How were these individual and collective responses differentially experienced by those in the lecture theatre? What do our individual and collective responses to this protest say about how we, individually and collectively, view young people and their political concerns?

Did some of these responses to a young person’s protest suggest a view of young people as ill-informed, obstructive, difficult and in need of schooling and controlling? What if the former approach were shifted to perceiving young people as informed, engaged, concerned and valuable? Could a shift in perceptions have changed the manner in which these young people and their (perhaps uncomfortable or unsettling) views at the conference were met?

These are issues for all of us as education researchers to reflect on. As noted in one pre-conference blog post, we can all ask ourselves the questions: Whose voices are important in your research? Who is silenced? How can we amplify their voices? We think these questions are important to ask of our conference gathering too.

How can space be made for dissenting voices?

AARE as a research organisation is not homogenous, just as society is not homogenous; thus many, sometimes clashing, views and positions may be present at one time in one space. The challenges of how to manage contestation and dissensus in debates has intensified in the current, often polarising, social media-fuelled world. However, we believe that facing the challenge of dissenting voices and robust debate within this scholarly community is something to be taken particularly seriously. Given the complexity and instability of our current world, this is something that we (the educational research community) must get better at doing well.

Issues of power need to be in the foreground when weighing the dissonances between differing views. When dissenting voices cause disruption, it frequently indicates that these voices or views may not have much space to be heard. It is also possible that the listener might have the individual experience of wanting to push away or silence views that one finds confronting, controversial, unpopular, unsettling or that they don’t understand.

Voices and views tend to be suppressed when they are challenging or unsettling to the status quo. We witnessed suppression of teacher and student voices expressing Palestine solidarity in Victoria at the same time that the conference was happening. This is very concerning, and as a scholarly community we should be demonstrating the possibilities of different approaches to dissensus. 

What would it look like to make space for dissensus and debate on the issue of Israel-Palestine in a spirit of ‘agonistic pluralism’ (as was argued for by Professor Deborah Youdell in her paper at the AARE conference ‘Revisiting agonism pluralism, dissensus and dialogue in education’ drawing on the work of Laclau and Mouffe)? What could it look like to make space for genuine, perhaps difficult, dialogue, where issues were wrestled with collectively and carefully? What could it look like to try to hold the tensions of different positions together, rather than stronger, more powerful positions cancelling out others? 

How can the AARE community not demonise those who might be already marginalised?

Caring for and within diverse communities means considering how we hold each other accountable, how we examine the ways that power operates in our community and how we commit to generosity and understanding in the presence of difference. AARE as a research organisation (like many of our universities) is characterised by white, settler, patriarchal hegemonies. Within these spaces, collective care requires us to be cognisant of how those who are made marginal by such hegemonies experience a rupture like the one that occurred at the AARE conference. As some of our colleagues write in this piece, a flippant comment like ‘I hate rap’, followed by applause, can send a message of denigration to an artform grounded in struggles for racial justice. 

A scenario such as this, unfortunately, often has the effect of keeping white dominance safe. Similar to the ejection of dissent and the belittling of youth voice and protest, the support of this statement from those of us in the audience shows a lack of knowledge, of understanding of history and of tolerance for difference in expression and opinion. How might we have instead paused in that moment and considered how colleagues from minoritised groups might have been feeling? How might we have resisted playing off one or other minoritised group against another and instead tried to understand what was being reckoned with, in and beyond one act of protest?

We offer these thoughts in the hope that we might all reflect on how we can continue to work on creating and maintaining scholarly and community spaces that are welcoming of marginalised voices, histories and perspectives.

From left to right: Melanie Baak (she/her) is a senior lecturer in UniSA Education Futures and co-convenor of the Migration and Refugee Research Network (MARRNet). Her research and teaching are underpinned by understandings of how systems and structures work to marginalise sections of the population, particularly culturally, racially and linguistically diverse groups. She has an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award 2023-2025 investigating how schools can enhance belonging for African diaspora youth and was a chief investigator on an ARC Linkage project exploring how schools foster refugee student resilience. @Melanie_Baak. Sophie Rudolph (she/her) is a senior research fellow at the Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne. Her research and teaching involves sociological and historical analyses and is informed by critical theories. She is currently working on a DECRA project investigating the history and politics of racialised school discipline and exclusion in Victoria. Eve Mayes (she/her) is a senior research fellow at Research for Educational Impact (REDI) within the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University, Australia. Her work is centrally concerned with young people’s differential experiences of attempting to affect political change in colonial institutions in and beyond schooling. She is currently working on the ARC DECRA project Striking Voices: Australian school-aged climate students’ justice activisms (2022-2025). Jenn Brown (she/they) is a doctoral candidate in UniSA Education Futures and a lived experience advocate in the areas of sexual violence, fat liberation and complex mental illness. Jenn’s work primarily aims to trouble settler-colonial logics and interrogate institutional structures that perpetuate dehumanising violence and harm about and upon marginalised communities. LinkedIn.