Author ORCID Identifier

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Kurt Stemhagen, PhD


Broader social issues that affect students’ lives manifest in the classroom and the current neo-liberal reform structures in education (e.g., the accountability movement combined with punitive discipline measures and structural classism/racism) fail to acknowledge the impact of these issues on student identity within school and community. While this era of standardized testing has brought about anti-democratic realities in schools of all sorts, it is also the case that schools that pass tests often enjoy a more liberatory climate while schools struggling to meet testing requirements are more likely to possess oppressive qualities. Not coincidentally, the more oppressive schools are often populated by poor kids, kids of color, and very often in urban schools, poor kids of color. Deficit thinking runs rampant in urban schools and marginalized communities – student experiences perpetuate oppressive social hierarchies and students are pushed to think that they can’t, won’t, and aren’t capable. Critical service learning, and more specifically photovoice as a form of critical service learning, has promise to provide a different kind of educational experience.

This project is an exploratory qualitative study using photovoice, photo elicitation, and critical thematic analysis to determine what narratives students construct while participating in photovoice as a form of critical service learning. This study posits a way to move from deficits to possibilities by providing a space for traditionally marginalized youth to legitimize their sense of place, identity, and connection to their community while empowering them to be advocates for social change. Students served as action researchers, constructing counter narratives through an adaptation of photovoice documentation, addressing social inequities by highlighting strengths and assets in their own schools and community. In addition to using photovoice as a methodology, this study also addressed how photovoice as critical service learning pedagogy can serve to create discursive spaces for those counter-narratives to circulate and to be heard. This project addressed the need for a critical service learning approach in education that empowers students to become agents of change, using their own stories and cultural/social capital to disrupt deficit perspectives while promoting possibility perspectives – moving us closer to a more democratic public education.


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