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“I Hate It Here”: How Minoritized Youth Perceive School and Social Belonging in Contested Racial Climates of Public Schools

Dr. Sophia Rodriguez

For the last decade, I have worked with youth across the country in classrooms as a teacher, coach, and then ethnographer and education policy researcher to try to understand their experiences of belonging. I have sought to understand factors that impact their sense of belonging. In this blog post series, I will explore, through my research in multiple community and district contexts, how youth report their experiences, and center their voices as an opportunity to create structural change. I primarily focus on youth of color and their lived realities in the contexts of anti-black racism and racial injustice, and later blogs will also shed light on the experiences of Latinx immigrant youth and families’ experiences of racial discrimination and legal vulnerability given the ever shifting and problematic immigration systems in the U.S.

In my work as a sociologist of education and educational policy, I have learned about the differential access to educational and social resources for many children, youth, and families. Often youth from minoritized backgrounds also experience lower belonging because of their racial/ethnic group and class backgrounds. Belonging to school has long been associated with acting according to white, dominant norms in schools without questioning the power and racial dynamics that govern schooling. Meanwhile, I have found that outside of school and community spaces often provide supportive and nurturing environments for minoritized youth. While this is not new information, the pandemic exacerbated many existing racial and social inequalities. Indeed, youth of color and their families were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. I investigated whether youth of color differed from their white peers in their sense of belonging in a recent piece in Educational Researcher

In my research, I define a sense of belonging as feeling included, respected, and supported, rather than feeling isolated or excluded. Past research explains that a sense of belonging matters for students’ well-being and academic success. I expanded past research by also examining social belonging—relationships that are trusting and supportive for youth to feel connected to school and social groups—and community belonging, or how youth felt a sense of connectedness and safety out of school. I found a need to examine social belonging as well as other aspects of belonging that had been under researched. In addition to school belonging, I developed three additional dimensions of social belonging, where sense of shared connections and inclusion might occur: community belonging (referring to feeling discriminated against or unsafe in the community), out-of-school belonging (referring to experiences with extracurricular/after-school activities), and identity (whether students’ racial/ethnic identities are affirmed or rejected by adults and peers in school and outside of school). In these categories of belonging, I have, to date, surveyed over 3500 youth across two public school districts to uncover their sense of school and social belonging. In doing so, my recent work shows that contextual and individual factors shape their sense of belonging and specifically vary by race, ethnicity, and gender. This matters for educators and schools because youths’ perceptions of belonging not only exploits critical incidents in schools, it provides an opportunity to listen to youth and create change. If we do not, we potentially reproduce inequalities in schools and limit educational futures for these young people. In other words, youth experiences can shape educational policy and initiatives to prioritize support for minoritized youth who are experiencing lower belonging and connectedness.

In my ongoing study I have examined thus far differences across middle and high school youth, and differences between white and nonwhite youth experiences of belonging. I have found that Black and multiracial high school students were less likely than others to feel a strong sense of belonging in their schools. Black high school students also were more likely than other students to feel discriminated against or unsafe in their communities. Latinx and multiracial high school students reported lower out-of-school belonging, or a lack of connection to social activities and relationships outside of school. I have also found that high school students who spoke English as a second language struggled to belong in the after-school setting. Similarly, middle schoolers are feeling a lack of belonging. Black middle schoolers reported both struggles to belong within the school setting and in the out-of-school setting. In addition, Black, Hispanic, and Asian middle schoolers were less likely than other students to feel a lack of belonging in their communities. Middle school students who spoke English as a second language were also less likely than other students to report a lack of belonging in both the community and out-of-school contexts. 

Furthermore, minoritized students in the sample reported lower belonging in multiple educational and community contexts compared to their white peers. In addition to the survey data, my team has analyzed over 600 open-ended response items in the survey in one district thus far. We found that youths’ lack of belonging often stemmed from negative experiences at school, limited trusting relationships with adults, and a lack of affirmation from adults in school about youths’ identities, cultures, racial/ethnic groups, and language backgrounds. Indeed, educator perceptions and attitudes of minoritized youth shape belonging. 

Moreover, youth most frequently cited school climate as a major factor impacting belonging. Youth also explained how various forms of bullying occurred, and noted how racial incidents, gender-specific bullying, and an overall lack of care from educators to address these issues contributed to their lack of belonging. One youth explained: 

We have encountered multiple racist situations either in front of teachers or we have been in a situation and went to a teacher for help. We have not gotten the help we needed.”

The voices of youth have implications for educational policies. If Black and Latinx students, students of immigrant backgrounds, and nonnative English speakers report a lower sense of belonging than their white peers, schools must be intentional to affirm student identities, backgrounds, and cultures. As many school districts face challenges related to racial inequity, anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy, and anti-Black racism, systems and structures must transform to support marginalized youth. In fact, in the open-ended responses youth reported their desires for change, which included: 

We need to learn about black culture, and other cultures and races and identities generally. It would help to have a more welcoming school environment.”

Youth recommended opportunities for race-conscious discussions among peers and educators as a way to build trust and more supportive environments. They also suggested learning “more about black culture,” as well as other cultures generally to avoid assumptions and anti-Blackness, anti-immigrant, and antisemitism in their schools. 

As I continue to highlight youth experiences and the factors that do and do not contribute to their belonging, my hope is that districts will incorporate youth voice into their equity planning. Ideally, developing programs, policies, and plans that are race-conscious and equity-centered will build blocks toward structural change in schools. Belonging is essential for youths’ well-being and their educational and social mobility. Schools are often one of the only institutions that youth encounter and ought to mitigate inequality and provide safe and supportive spaces.

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Sophia Rodriguez, Ph.D., is an associate professor of urban education in the University of Maryland, College Park. She is incoming (Fall 2024) associate professor of educational policy studies at New York University. With generous funding from the WIlliam T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, her research investigates how community-school partnerships and educators promote equity for immigrant youth; her research appears in AERA Open, Sociology of Race & Ethnicity, Teachers College Record, Urban Education, and the Washington Post.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank my research assistants and lab members from ImmigranEdNext, Lisa Lopez-Escobar, Katya Murillo, Staci PIppin-Kottkamp, Gisell Ramirez and Gabrielle Wy for assistance during the research. I would also express my gratitude to the W.T. Grant Foundation for funding this research.