Creating Spaces for Youth through Student Voice and Critical Pedagogy: The Case of RunDSM

Creating Spaces for Youth through Student Voice and Critical Pedagogy: The Case of RunDSM

Jason Salisbury PhD – University of Illinois at Chicago

Kristopher Rollins – Des Moines Public Schools

Emily Lang – Des Moines Public Schools

Daniel D. Spikes PhD – University of South Carolina

Key Words: Student Voice, Social Justice, High School, Program Development


This descriptive case study highlights the development of a district-wide student voice program, RunDSM, in Des Moines, Iowa. RunDSM draws on student voice and critical pedagogy to create spaces for marginalized youth to collectively learn about social injustices and develop common, and individual, voices to disrupt these injustices. Attention is paid to how RunDSM merges ideas from student voice and critical pedagogy into a cohesive program grounded in transformative change. This article relies on the narrative of the two teachers responsible for developing and implementing RunDSM as the primary data source. As such, parts of this article are written from their perspective.


While a great deal of research highlights the benefits of student voice, ranging from ideas for teacher and administrator improvement to heightened trust and improved school climate (Cook-Sather, 2006; Ginwright & Cammarota, 2002; Mansfield; 2014; Mansfield, Welton, & Halx, 2012, Rudduck, 2006), findings also suggest input from marginalized populations are frequently overlooked, and that intentionality and purpose when including student voice is often lacking (Bertrand, 2014; Mitra, Serriere, & Stoicovy, 2012). Additionally, research highlights how purposeful educational experiences can support youth of color in further developing their critical consciousness and commitments toward transformative school and community change (Ginwright & Cammarota, 2002; Lac & Mansfield, 2018). Finally, recent scholarship indicates that if students are provided practical means to create safe and brave spaces they are more likely to explore and express their personal viewpoints on social issues by jointly developing a genuine student-centered environment (Mansfield, 2015; Phillips, 2011). This article highlights the work of a program in Des Moines, Iowa, intended to nurture the critical consciousness and transformative leadership commitments of a group of students of color.

In the sections that follow, we highlight the development of a student voice initiative, RunDSM. RunDSM is the overarching name for a constellation of classes and programs offered in Des Moines Public Schools, intended to support traditionally marginalized youth in enacting transformative school and community change. More detail is provided about RunDSM and its programming throughout this article, with specific attention to how the initiative was developed in alignment with notions of critical pedagogy (Freire, 2000). In the sections that follow, we discuss current literature related to student voice and critical pedagogy, explain our research methods, share the process of creating RunDSM, and place the creation and goals of RunDSM in conversation with existing literature on critical pedagogy and student voice. It is important to note that throughout the rest of the paper, the terms I, we, our, or my are used to reference the second and third author of this article, as they were the architects and teachers of RunDSM programming.

Student Voice

Dynamics of power and hierarchy regarding the respect of student voice show themselves frequently in the confines of public education, especially when considering demographic divides, teacher authority, and student compliance. Research strongly indicates the limitations of dialogue and discussion across various differences, but most importantly cultural differences, within educational contexts as well as the problems that exist when those in positions of authority speak to, about, or for others (Cook-Sather, 2002; Fielding, 2004; Jones, 1999; Mitra, 2004; Taylor & Robinson, 2009). One major critique concerning student voice is that often it is not taken seriously, or properly respected. Thus, it fails to truly develop collaboration, shared inquiry, and understanding among students and teachers (Cook-Sather, 2014; Hutchings, Huber, & Ciccone, 2011; Rudduck & Flutter, 2004; Rudduck & McIntyre, 2007). For example, Mitra and Serriere (2012) indicate that schools traditionally do a good job of getting youth involved in community service projects but truly fall short when providing youth space to be a part of decision-making or reform processes.

In addition, there is limited research addressing student voice initiatives, including collaboration between youth and adults with the direct goal of addressing problems, or providing youth extensive leadership roles (Mitra & Serriere, 2012). Importantly, Ginwright and Cammarota (2002) add that there is widespread belief that young people of color are frequently viewed as delinquents, criminals, and menaces to society in need of being controlled and contained, rather than being provided enriched educational opportunities. Neighborhood issues such as gun violence, police abuse, poor health care, and discriminatory school practices tend to be addressed in policies that blame youth and write them off as the causes of societal problems (Ginwright & James, 2002). Therefore, many student voice scholars continue to point out the necessity of looking at whose voices are actually being heard; who is speaking; and perhaps most importantly, who is being asked (Bertrand, 2014; Gulla, 2009; Kozol, 1991; Mitra & Serriere, 2012; Mitra at al., 2012; Phillips, 2011).

Students have the most at stake, and are experts, when it comes to teaching and learning in schools (Dillon, 2010). For student voice to successfully function and shape school reform, it must be treated with similar respect and accorded the same level of influence as formal leadership (Beaudoin, 2005; Bragg, 2001; Holcomb, 1997; Jones & Yonezawa, 2002; Lac & Mansfield, 2018). Student voice intentionally pushes against notions of traditional power structures in schools and recognizes that traditionally marginalized youth are in ideal positions to push for equitable change in schools (Chambers, 2004; Gendron, 2006; Warren & Mapp, 2011). Furthermore, the inclusion of student voice in leadership endeavors provides new angles of vision into causes of persistent issues facing schools and increased solution pathways to address these persistent problems (Irizarry & Welton, 2014; Kirshner & Pozzoboni, 2011). As a result, historically marginalized students are ideally situated, yet often ignored, in pushing schools toward equitable practices and ends.

More specifically, research focusing on the value and importance of student voice in transformative school change further points to the need to include the voices of students of color. Specifically, this research highlights that students of color have unique and specific understandings of racism in schools and how racism and other systems of oppression impact student experiences (Bertrand, 2014; Irizarry & Welton, 2014; Kirshner & Pozzoboni, 2011; Morrell, 2006; Serriere & Mitra, 2012; Yonezawa & Jones, 2009). Unfortunately, research also demonstrates that school leaders often dismiss the potential of students of color’s voices in enacting school improvement (Bertrand, 2014; Cammarota & Romero, 2011; Kohli & Solorzano, 2012). In other words, the voices of students are broadly ignored and dismissed in school improvement efforts, and students of color’s voices are particularly ignored in the process. Omitting these important stakeholders is particularly dangerous in light of scholarship highlighting the potential of students of color to be agents of transformative change in schools (Bertrand, 2014; Irizarry & Welton, 2014; Lac & Mansfield, 2018). Furthermore, there is a need for research that investigates how schools have been successful at implementing student voice initiatives focused on students of color and transformative school improvement.

Critical Pedagogy

Recognizing the need for schools to improve in their ability to include the voices of students of color in leadership (Irizarry & Welton, 2014; Kirshner & Pozzoboni, 2011) and the need for schools to support students in nurturing their social justice identities (Ginwright & Cammarota, 2002), critical pedagogy offers a meaningful pathway to support student voice initiatives (Cook-Sather, 2002; Lac & Mansfield, 2018). Considering student voice work in education, it is necessary to acknowledge the inclusive shift of a more critical pedagogy that passionately embraces empowering students (Feire, 2006). Critical pedagogy is founded upon the need for critique and hope through the use of human agency and resistance, with the goal to create less oppressive social arrangements (Feire, 2006; Giroux, 1997; Leonardo, 2004). Mayes (2010) acknowledges that in many cases, such work transforms traditional distributions of power and dynamics around how knowledge is acquired and who holds it, breaking long-standing assumptions about the learning process. Often as a result, teachers feel unequipped and ill-prepared, and they lack understanding of management connected to teacher-student power dynamics when engaging in these critical practices (Currie & Knights, 2003; Mayes, 2010; Smith, 2011).

Particularly related to student voice, critical pedagogy requires a thoughtful approach to shared power. In addition, the use of voice by all participants must exist, or traditional routines will easily fall back into place (Islam & Zyphus, 2005). Critical pedagogy also centers the need for students to liberate themselves from oppression through the development and engagement of their critical consciousness (Freire, 2000). From a Freirean perspective, critical consciousness can be seen as marginalized individuals’ engaging in both a critique of existing social practices and power relations and engaging in political action intended to disrupt those power relations. Important for understanding critical consciousness and Freire’s (2000) notions of critical pedagogy is the centrality of literacy. Literacy is seen as a tool to support oppressed individuals in developing their critical consciousness and eventual praxis. Marginalized individuals are able to refine and hone their transformative actions through this praxis. Freire (2000) describes praxis as the back-and-forth relationship between reflection and action where individuals are constantly reflecting and acting in tandem to disrupt power structures and shift societal structures. In understanding critical consciousness and praxis, it becomes clear how critical pedagogy could be a valuable tool in developing student voice and leadership potential. The section that follows describes the method used to chronicle the efforts of two teachers in Des Moines Public Schools to apply a critical pedagogical approach to develop and center student voice.


This qualitative case study (Stake, 1995) draws on ideas from narrative inquiry (Clandinin, 2006) to understand the development of a student voice initiative in one urban community and school district. The research question guiding this study was:

How was a team of educators able to develop a district-wide student voice initiative that drew on an understanding of student voice and critical pedagogy?

The primary source of data was a narrative written by the lead teachers and architects of RunDSM, and the analysis was grounded in understandings of student voice scholarship and critical pedagogy.

Sources of Data and Participants

As previously noted, this research relies on narrative written by the second and third authors (Kristopher and Emily, respectively) related to their work in developing, implementing, refining, and growing RunDSM. The first author (Jason) provided them with an initial prompt, which asked them to describe their work in establishing RunDSM. To answer the prompt, Kristopher and Emily read through historical documents related to RunDSM, including initial emails they sent and received; student recruitment materials; grant applications; reports sent to district personnel and funding agencies; and related documents in printed and digital form. Based on their initial written narrative, Jason encouraged Kristopher and Emily to include greater detail or dig deeper in their analysis. The narrative was then further revised through the revision process with this journal.

RunDSM was purposefully selected as a research topic of this study because the program is regionally recognized for engaging in student voice and is rooted in notions of social justice and transformative education. Additionally, RunDSM was selected because the initial architects of the program were still involved, so they were able to trace the historical development of its programming. At the time of this research, RunDSM had been in existence for six years, so its programming was beyond infancy but still present in the active memory of the two teacher leaders responsible for its design. While a specific history and description of RunDSM is included below, it is important to broadly describe RunDSM and Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS).

DMPS has approximately 34,000 students who attend 64 schools across the district, including five high schools where most RunDSM students were enrolled. The student demographics of DMPS are: 39% White, 26% Latinx, 19% Black, 8% Asian, 7% multiracial, and less than 1% Native American. Additionally, 73% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In addition, 21% and 15% of DMPS students receive English language learner (ELL) and special education services, respectively.

RunDSM has five unique programs that span across DMPS and work to support historically marginalized students in sharpening their critical consciousness and transformative voices. The sections below describe these programs in greater detail. It is important to note that all RunDSM programs begin from the principle of students engaging their personal voices and experiences in ways that (a) shift community perspectives of historically marginalized youth and communities; (b) enable students, school leaders, and community members to see potential actions grounded in transformative change; and (c) support continued growth and reflection from youth related to societal power structures and personal critical consciousness.

Data Analysis

While this descriptive research lies on the border between a traditional empirical study and a historic overview of the development of RunDSM, it is still important to describe the analytical procedures used to generate our discussion section, below. Upon Kristopher and Emily’s completion of their narrative of how they developed RunDSM, Jason engaged in a qualitative analysis of the narrative, relying on scholarship related to student voice and critical pedagogy to place the narrative in conversation with these bodies of literature. This process allowed us to explicitly connect Emily and Kristopher’s work to both critical pedagogy and student voice and, most importantly, to recognize the ways they were able to bring these two action-oriented concepts together to form unique and transformative learning experiences for historically marginalized youth.

Tiny as a Mustard Seed but Mighty as an Oak: Growing RunDSM

This section represents Kristopher and Emily’s narrative of their development, implementation, refinement, and growth of RunDSM. Throughout this narrative, I or we is used to represent Emily and Kristopher. This decision was made by the team of authors to maintain authenticity to the work and fidelity to notions of narrative inquiry.

Tilling the Ground and Planting Seeds

In the fall of 2010, a group of educators was hired to fill teaching positions at a middle school on the north side of Des Moines, Iowa. This school was under reconstitution due to the consistent labels of “persistently low achieving” and “school in need of assistance” being placed on the school. Shortly after the school year began, it became apparent to a handful of the newly hired teachers how deeply ingrained the impact these labels had on the school culture and climate. We have always considered school to be a sacred place for exploration, learning, and growth. However, it seemed many students saw school as another obstacle hindering them from reaching their full potential. Even greater were the negative messages we received from adults in the community and school. We were especially disheartened by the callous notion that the young people attending our school were apathetic, disobedient, violent, and illiterate. Further, assumptions were made about students by those who had never stepped foot in the building. Thus, we were compelled to help dismantle the stigmas and stereotypes associated with the youth attending our school and the neighborhood in which it resides. Although many students were not achieving proficiency in literacy on standardized exams, they were showcasing their literacy in ways that were not traditionally recognized within the confines of the public education system, and we sought to highlight and celebrate the creativity being fostered by and within the young adult students. We felt it was important to bring the youth and community together, but we needed a platform to do so.


RunDSM was born on a small stage at a local coffee shop in the spring of 2011. While brainstorming ways to raise money for a local, feminist non-profit organization, Geez Louise!, we proposed doing a benefit show as a way to merge passion for both the young people I (Emily) was serving and the organization I was helping grow. Uplifted by a standing-room-only audience, 15 students read poems, mostly by authors other than themselves, breaking countless stereotypes placed on them regarding their literacy abilities. The event was coined “Share the Mic: Community Voices Creating Change.” Students raised $415 for Geez Louise! that night, proving the power they possessed simply by using their voices. Although we never dreamed that a single show would be the catapult for an entire organization, this night was the beginning of a long journey toward creating systems that legitimized the worth of marginalized youth and urban art forms.

The vision of RunDSM is to shift the perception of youth by fighting illiteracy, discrimination, and silence, allowing them a greater part in the conversation for change. Through the collective power of the RunDSM Youth Board, student to teacher feedback, and the strategic presence of youth culture, all aspects of the organization are guided by the youth. By relinquishing power and control, as well as actively using our privilege as White, middle-class educators to provide opportunities often excluded from them, our youth can truly assume leadership roles. RunDSM seeks to provide platforms for youth to shape their personal narratives, as well as opportunities to be socially active within their neighborhoods and greater community. In doing so, we strive to provide safe and brave spaces within classroom settings that allow our youth to see themselves reflected within the system, and this can only be done by presenting them honest accounts of history, as well as statistical analyses of institutional discrimination within our systems.


The first program of RunDSM, after the foundational Share the Mic performance in 2011, was a two-week summer program for students of color called “Minorities on the Move.” Through hip-hop and popular culture, Minorities on the Move examined and deconstructed racial stereotypes as well as the struggles and triumphs minoritized people continue to face. Thereafter, students were energized, traveling to various locations around the Des Moines area, holding adjoining classes at Drake University to share the productive nature of their experiences. The program evolved over the course of four summers, expanding from the pilot cohort of 20 Harding Middle School students to five separate cohorts of students entering their high school career in Des Moines Public Schools. Facilitating discussions around the students’ history, with a desire to challenge traditional systems meant to further marginalize people of color, required an energizing component. We found critical pedagogy to be foundational in helping students think critically about their identities. In 2014, the last summer the program existed, each cohort was taught by two to three students who were alumni of this and other RunDSM programs. It was a full-circle moment to see the young people who sat in our classrooms assume our roles, providing future leaders a mirror image of themselves and reinforcing the importance of giving youth power and control. It was a perfect example of stored energy: the power possessed by a group as a result of its positionality or circumstance, rather than physical or material changes.

Less than one month after Minorities on the Move concluded, we packed our bags and hopped on a plane to San Francisco, California, for the 14th Annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival. Immersing ourselves in a culture we had only witnessed through various forms of media, we experienced something that would transform us as individuals, educators, and activists. From the opening ceremony, featuring Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale; to intense writing workshops with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Michelle “Mush” Lee, and Jeff Kass; to sitting in countless black box theaters watching young people lift us out of our seats in joy and anger and human connection, we were awakened to a redefinition of art and literacy. Young people were provided unfiltered, unadulterated spaces where they were empowered to shape their own narratives through language, pushing the boundaries of traditional forms of expression. They were no longer tokenized or generalized by statistics regarding their race, class, or gender, but rather shared space to discuss their experiences and collectively create solutions by and for their people. The culture of the festival was determined by the young people, and we developed a deep desire for the young people we served back home to experience such a transformative space.

Bearing Fruit

The following school year, we piloted a literacy elective, “Hip-Hop: Rhetoric and Rhyme,” with the goal of building students’ fluency and comprehension skills. Through connections between hip-hop, literacy, and the social sciences, students explored the temporal trajectory of human experience, learning how the past and present directly affect each other. Additionally, through the deconstruction of social myths and stereotypes, students extended their ability to think critically outside the classroom by reflecting not only on the impact these myths have had on their communities, but also on strategies to organize true change. Young people, many of whom had inherent leadership qualities, were immersed in music that was born out of their own culture and were empowered to gain literacy skills that would help them perform at a higher level on state standardized exams. We sought to legitimize forms of literacy and artists of color that had been shunned within the confines of a traditional classroom or reserved only for tokenized months of the school year. For example, we provided students time and space to grapple with their personal truth and express it via hip-hop art forms and less accessible forms of expression.

The same year Hip-Hop: Rhetoric and Rhyme came to fruition, we began building what is now our most well-known program, “Movement 515.” We recognized the need for unfiltered, unadulterated spaces within our community, allowing youth to shape their own narrative, while also legitimizing forms of literacy such as spoken word poetry, emceeing, and rapping. Although the first workshop drew only one young person, over the course of the next month, we slowly built momentum with one or two more youths making their way to us each week. We eventually realized we needed to break down additional barriers so that students desiring such forms of expression would have access. We slowly built a team of mentors, including teachers and local artists, who were committed to providing more safe spaces founded in critical pedagogy. Eventually, we watched a consistent group of 10 young people gain confidence in their poetry by sharing their truth to audiences across the Des Moines area, forming a community around them that relied on energetic reciprocity and unconditional love. Today, there are spoken word poetry and performance workshops offered once a week in each Des Moines high school, as well as an all-district writing and performance community held at the Des Moines Social Club. Additionally, students now have the opportunity to express themselves via breakdancing and graffiti writing workshops. For example, local and national artists such as ASan and Asphate teach students the history of the art forms, as well as provide a space to practice and improve upon their fundamental skills. Providing students access to hip-hop art forms, within the confines of the public-school system, expands traditional notions of what “counts” as “real” art by the dominant culture. Movement 515 continues to address social issues head on, challenging oppressive systems and uplifting marginalized voices through various forms of artistic expression.


After several years of Hip-Hop: Rhetoric and Rhyme’s having a positive impact on the culture and climate of Harding Middle School, district officials challenged us to create an extension course at Central Campus, a hub for special programs serving students across the Des Moines metro area. Committed to empowering students on their journey to becoming community-based activists, the goal of “Urban Leadership,” a two-year program, is to immerse students in an in-depth study of social movements shaping U.S. history and urban settings across the United States as well as provide them real-world opportunities to practice their leadership skills. Through the use of various mediums such as the written and spoken word, urban art forms, and youth and community summits, students in year one of Urban Leadership have daily face-to-face conversations about content related to immigrant rights, Black liberation movements, feminism, and the like. They grapple with a variety of non-fiction texts, oral histories, and forms of historical media and popular culture, examining their complex identities and positioning within the world. Students who elect to take year two participate in internships in both elementary schools and non-profit organizations, gaining valuable experiences in the fields of education and human services, and furthering their knowledge in how to use their voices to challenge systems perpetuating the oppression and marginalization of vulnerable populations. The culminating project, created by students who complete both years of Urban Leadership, is a proposal for a new non-profit organization with the goal of directly addressing an underserved need or population of people within our community. Students present their models to a team of executive directors of non-profit organizations in our city, with one team taking the grand prize, based on the panel’s votes for the most research-based, viable organization.

In both Urban Leadership 101 and 102, the traditional classroom is redefined by recognizing students as experts, using their lives and experiences as the primary texts of study. By shifting the power from teacher to student and creating classroom communities that are defined by youth culture, students feel a stronger connectedness within a system that has traditionally silenced and excluded them, making the field of education a more desirable option for future study. The redefinition of spaces is not only beneficial to their success, but crucial in addressing the lack of teachers of color in both Des Moines Public Schools and across the nation.

The major event planned, produced, and executed by all students enrolled in Urban Leadership each year is “Teen Summit,” a two-day festival that brings together 250 young people from all five of Des Moines Public Schools’ comprehensive high schools. The goal of Teen Summit is to provide safe and brave spaces for teens to discuss issues facing their communities, brainstorm possible solutions, and become ambassadors for change. For example, over the course of two days, youth engage in student-led town hall meetings, artistic workshops led by local and national artists, and a public showcase highlighting their work. The students of Urban Leadership successfully execute the event through their individual roles on committees such as research and facilitation, artistic visibility, and marketing, gaining valuable skills in community organizing, leadership, and event planning.


The newest program offered under the umbrella of RunDSM is “Half-Pints Poetry,” a spoken word poetry and performance workshop held twice weekly at 16 elementary schools in Des Moines Public Schools. Piloted at King Elementary in the 2014-2015 school year by local artist Words Taylor, the program is now a partnership with 21st Century Community Learning Centers, an initiative providing academic programming, recreational enrichment, and family literacy to students and families. The goal of Half-Pints Poetry is to build elementary school students’ skills in writing, fluency, and performance, while simultaneously providing them mentorship from senior members of Movement 515, further legitimizing them as artists and providing them paid positions to build skills in teaching their craft. Additionally, because the program provides the senior members of Movement 515 a year-long experience in teaching, mentors are afforded a “bigger picture” look at an education career. The hope is that by exposing students early on, they may be more inclined to choose education as their college major, potentially alleviating the deficit of teachers of color in the public education system. Half-Pints Poetry encourages adults to relinquish power and fade into the background, allowing the young people attending our programs to truly become the leaders of the next generation.

Reaping and Sowing

As the growth of RunDSM continues, our sense of urgency to give collective ownership of the organization to the youth increases. For the second year in a row, we have worked closely with a group of 10 young people who comprise the RunDSM Youth Board. Meeting bi-monthly, the board assists in program recruitment, workshop lesson planning, event production, marketing, and community building. The board receives transparent information on the annual budget and is given collective power and ownership over expenditures and how the money can be best put to use to grow and sustain the movement. RunDSM Youth Board members bring the leadership skills they have acquired back to their home high schools. For example, they serve as senior mentors for their peers, with the goal of leaving their squads stronger than when they joined them.

RunDSM’s mission is to provide spaces for youth to have their voices heard as a part of larger conversations that directly impact their present and future. Each program aims to uplift and validate students’ personal experiences and testimonies in order to directly address the issue of students of color often being viewed through deficit lenses. It is important for RunDSM programming to provide youth with genuine community experiences where they are extensively involved in decision making and planning as leaders, collaborating with adults on equitable terms, rather than through surface community service projects that fail to provide them space to be heard and have their ideas validated (Beaudoin, 2005; Holcomb, 1997; Jones & Yonezawa, 2002; Mitra & Serriere, 2012). Furthermore, RunDSM operates under the framework of critical pedagogy which seeks to empower youth to question traditional distributions of power regarding who holds and determines valuable knowledge (Freire, 2000). Therefore, youth participating in RunDSM programs are themselves considered valuable resources with the ability to create and sustain safe and brave spaces, challenging traditional ideas of acceptable forms of expression (Jenson, Alter, Nicotera, Anthony, & Forrest-Bank, 2013; Moje, 2000).


Through the development, implementation, refinement, and growth of RunDSM, Emily and Kristopher grounded their decisions and practices in both critical pedagogy and student voice frameworks. Through our discussion of their work, we highlight how they centered both critical pedagogy and student voice in their work and then demonstrate how their work merged these two fields to create a transformative learning experience for historically marginalized students. We do not offer this discussion or research to state that RunDSM is the only program merging notions of critical pedagogy and student voice—as much practice and research related to student voice draws explicitly from critical pedagogy—but to share a description of how one program was able to successfully infuse both critical pedagogy and student voice into their work with students.

Groundings in Critical Pedagogy

Critical pedagogy is grounded in notions of disrupting oppressive conditions by developing oppressed groups’ critical consciousness, literacy, and praxis (Freire, 2000). Throughout the development of RunDSM, these ideas were central and drove the design of educational experiences for students. Beginning with the understandings of the power of literacy, all learning experiences were designed to support students in increasing their literacy skills. And, in maintaining fidelity to critical pedagogy, literacy was not thought of as a mechanism to score well on standardized tests. Instead, Kristopher and Emily developed RunDSM to support historically oppressed students in developing literacy skills that nurtured deeper understandings of society and power relationships within society. This priority can be seen through RunDSM’s focus on transformative spoken word presentations, the analyses completed through Minorities on the Move, the skills developed through Urban Leadership, and the research necessary to develop and implement Teen Summit. Overall, RunDSM was designed to see literacy as a liberatory practice as opposed to an employment skill.

Throughout all the learning experiences that Emily and Kristopher embedded in RunDSM, the development of students’ critical consciousness is omnipresent. Whether in Urban Leadership or any of the other programs, learning experiences were designed that required students to develop historical, contemporary, and localized knowledge of social power relations and how people of color, and other oppressed individuals, were marginalized, excluded, and oppressed. RunDSM was designed to move beyond supporting students in developing their critical consciousness and created experiences for students to develop their praxis and engage in resistant activity. Teen Summit and Movement 515, two of RunDSM’s flagship programs, demonstrate the intentional design of opportunities that nurture praxis. Both events are designed for students to enter into public spaces and actively push for community change through reflections of their personal experiences and understandings of issues of power and privilege in their community. It is important to note that both experiences were designed in ways that required students to leverage their literacy skills to engage in their resistant actions.

Across the development, implementation, refinement, and growth of RunDSM programming, Emily and Kristopher maintained a focus on critical pedagogy as a mechanism to support student learning and resistance. Fundamental to this, and captured in their narrative, was that they approached the design of their work with the perspective that marginalized students were knowledgeable and capable learners, but that school was designed in ways that ignored these facts. As a result, their design process began with questions such as, “How do we redesign our learning space to support students in further developing themselves as knowers and actors?” as opposed to “How do we design learning spaces that will fix and catch students up?”

Student Voice

RunDSM was intentionally designed to provide students with opportunities to develop, exercise, and share their voices on a regular basis. In its broadest form, student voice can be seen as students’ having opportunities to bring their voices and knowledge to the improvement of schools (Mitra, 2004). Going deeper, student voice scholarship recognizes the ability of historically marginalized youth to bring a unique lens to problems facing schools and communities and the ability for this process to push schools toward more equitable practices (Ginwright & Cammarota, 2002; Mansfield; 2014; Mansfield at al., 2012). Yet schools often fail to center the voices of marginalized students in improvement efforts (Bertrand, 2014; Mitra et al., 2012). As the architects of RunDSM, Kristopher and Emily focused on bringing the voices of historically marginalized youth to the center of discussions of school and community improvement. Teen Summit was the primary avenue through which RunDSM worked to bring student voice to school improvement. By reaching out to over 250 students across DMPS, and introducing those students to concepts of social justice, Teen Summit was able to shift conversations of student and school practices across DMPS.

Beyond bringing voices to school change, RunDSM also focused on creating spaces for youth to bring their voices to community change. Movement 515 and Share the Mic were both designed to bring the voices of students to the community and shape conversations of what socially just improvement meant within the larger Des Moines community. Lastly, through Urban Leadership, students were supported in creating their own not-for-profits that would impact change in the Des Moines community.

In addition, youth participants had opportunities to meet with DMPS district leadership, urging the district to move toward more equitable practices. All RunDSM programming was intentionally designed to support student voice and infused that student voice at different institutional levels. By taking a more grassroots approach (Movement 515), by focusing on increasing broad student awareness (Teen Summit), and by working with district and community leaders (Urban Leadership), Emily and Kristopher worked to design experiences that would infuse student voice throughout DMPS and Des Moines.

It is important to note that Emily and Kristopher continued to refine RunDSM to become more student-voice driven. As programming evolved, they recognized the need to create the RunDSM Youth Board to further develop and strengthen their espoused goal of student voice. Through this action, Kristopher and Emily were able to put students and their voices in control of the direction of RunDSM. This was a major design decision that immediately shifted the power dynamics of the program and centered historically marginalized students as the decision-makers for the program and the district. Not only does the Youth Board make decisions for RunDSM, they also hold leadership positions in their respective DMPS high schools, so they are shaping practices throughout the school district. Through their development of RunDSM, Emily and Kristopher have consistently kept sight of student voice and have focused on ways to refine programming to further highlight and center the voices of youth.

Merging Student Voice and Critical Pedagogy

In developing RunDSM, Emily and Kristopher were able to merge notions of student voice and critical pedagogy together to create learning experiences that were transformative for youth, DMPS, and the greater Des Moines community. This was accomplished by recognizing and embracing the action-oriented nature of both student voice and critical pedagogy. Each program and related learning experience that is included in RunDSM always merges these two concepts. For example, the Urban Leadership program requires students to learn about student selected issues of oppression and components of school and community leadership; then requires students to take that learning and transition into action through the Teen Summit, the development of a not-for-profit, and through advising district leadership. In other words, the learning experiences and programs are developed to simultaneously ask students to learn about topics grounded in social justice and then take that learning and put it into action to support themselves, their schools, and their community.


The goal of this research was to highlight the development of a program grounded in understandings of student voice and critical pedagogy, and to demonstrate the complexity and ongoing nature of this work. The creation of RunDSM helps to illuminate how practitioners can go about creating a program that supports youth in engaging their critical consciousness and praxis to support transformative school and community change. Most importantly, Emily and Kristopher’s narrative calls attention to the ongoing nature of this work—it is never finished. Six years later, they continue to tinker and redesign to improve RunDSM and ensure that it meets the needs of historically marginalized youth in Des Moines Public Schools.


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Jason Salisbury is an assistant professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His scholarship investigates school leadership practices that support increased learning opportunities for students of color and other historically marginalized youth. Please direct all communication to Jason at

Kristopher Rollins and Emily Lang are the founders and directors of RunDSM in Des Moines, Iowa. Their work with students is grounded in growing students’ critical consciousness and literacy so they are able to engage in transformative community and school improvement.

Daniel Spikes is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of South Carolina. His research focuses on how district level leaders support schools in engaging in equitable culturally relevant practices.