Building a Youth-Led Oral History Project on Socio-Emotional Well-Being

A group of middle school students in Washington Heights, NYC, have designed an oral history project of their peers as a strategy to build toward cultural well-being in their school. The students focused on assessing the socio-emotional transformations of youth growing up in working-class and immigrant households in times of pandemic and racial uprisings. This project aims to center the expertise of the students who found relief in discovering their anxieties as widespread and emphasize the importance of influencing their educational institutions. 

Why are we doing this project?

S2 has taken SEL as an opportunity to build, through youth-led inquiry, a culture of vulnerability and courage; where individual concerns can be spoken, and then recognized as collective issues. At S2, SEL has invited students to explore their “personal” concerns as structural and shared. As youth researchers they feel empowered as they develop communication, analytic, leadership, and inquiry skills, enlightening their teachers and elders of their reality in ways only they can. Through this work, they are able to speak aloud their anxieties and concerns, and they are relieved to hear these are shared by others. They now have desires – and sometimes demands – of their school and recognize how by being open, reflective, and vulnerable, they can give their voice power. 

  1. This work proved a relief to the youth researcher who learned they were not alone in their anxieties. Illuminating the commonality of social, academic, and familial worries has the potential to alter school culture and the perceptions of young people. While protecting the anonymity of the interviewee, the publicizing of shared anxieties can enhance a sense of community in educational institutions for adolescents. With this information, young people feel less alone in their personal struggles and discover the creative coping strategies of their peers.
  2. Students value a forum to critique and influence their educational structures and, we would argue, that dignity and freedom strengthen the school culture. School policies and practices should be responsively redesigned with input from young people. Youth want to be treated as interested stakeholders in the structures of their schools, which we believe will improve outcomes. 
  3. A participatory ethos guiding this project is essential to its success in evaluating and improving SEL growth. Young people forged for each other a safe space, which only their shared experiences – living through pandemic and protests as elementary and middle school students in and around Washington Heights – could create. 
  4. The praxis of Oral History–collecting, analyzing, and publishing—has altered how many young people come to understand their intellectual capacities as they gather, honor, and then become responsible for the testimonies of peers. We aim for ownership of the project by these youth who want to ensure their stories, and those of their peers, are justly represented.