Q&A: How Developing Moral Reasoning in Youth Helps Create a Better Democracy

Leslie M. Booren

As we approach the Youth-Nex 7th Conference, co-chair Johari Harris shares more about her work on equity, civil engagement and social justice.

Active engagement within the social and political processes is vital to the heath of any democracy. Voting in elections is often seen as the marker of citizenship within American society. Though, within America, voting is restricted to individuals 18 years or older, we realize citizenry comprises far more than just participating in elections: It is taking action and making your voice count with the intention of leaving society better than it was before.

One need not be an adult to do this work. Youth of all ages, throughout history, have expressed their views and created change on the local, state, and national levels. To continue supporting youth and engaging with issues of justice and equity, we must consider their developmental capabilities during this process.

Youth-Nex, the University of Virginia Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, will host its 7th conference on the topic, “Dialoging for Democracy: Youth Moral Reasoning and Social Justice” in mid-November.

Johari Harris, a post-doctoral research associate at the Curry School of Education and Human Development, is co-chair of the conference. She also serves as a faculty affiliate in the Curry School’s Center for Race and Public Education in the South (CRPES). We sat down with Harris to talk about her work and the conference.

Q. The name of the conference is “Dialoging for Democracy.” Why is dialogue so vital to conversations about democracy?

A. Within a true democracy, each person’s voice matters. While this seems simple in theory, practice has shown us few have lived up to this ideal. While there are many factors, such as racism, discrimination, and injustice that have complicated the practice of democracy within America, I believe that our country still has the potential to become a better democracy.

Rigorous dialogue, I believe, is important in promoting democracy. Engaging in meaningful dialogue about the moral issues that impede our efforts to create a more just society helps us to work collaboratively to solve them. One way to do that is through peer-to-peer dialogue.

Research in developmental science suggests that peer-to-peer dialogue can deepen children’s and youth’s understanding of issues of fairness and justice. If we want to create an active, effective citizenry, it is important we start creating spaces for youth to engage in dialogue sooner rather than later.

I also think, within these conversations, there must be an understanding of historical processes that have brought us to the moment we are in today. We can’t move forward if we don’t fully understand the past and its relationship to the present.

Q. What motivates the work you are doing?

A. I think that schooling should be much more than just meeting academic standards—we should also concern ourselves with nurturing students to become critical, compassionate thinkers for the betterment of our society. 

When I was a teacher, I was really concerned with how my students treated each other, how they engaged with the world around them. I was equally interested in how cultural factors may influence these behaviors. Social-emotional learning or SEL was not talked about much when I was a teacher and I was really excited once it started gaining prominence in K-12 spaces.

Some research has taken note of how many SEL initiatives do not do a good job of attending to the cultural background of students and how societal processes such as systematic racism and discrimination effects SEL outcomes, such as empathy, perspective taking, emotional management.

My work aims to fill that gap in the research leadership by understanding the relationship between society and the individual, and insight into how factors such as racialized gender identities of Black youth is related to SEL outcomes.

Q. How does the development of moral reasoning in young people impact their ability to engage in social justice topics?

A. Research on moral reasoning suggests that the way people think about issues of fairness, human welfare, and social convention becomes more sophisticated over time. Adolescents can attend to the dynamic interplay between self and society, and apply this to issues of justice and social norms, unsurprisingly, much better than children.

We often see middle and high schoolers becoming highly invested and committed to what is fair in their personal and social lives. I think we should build off of this commitment when engaging them on current events. Equally important is providing them with the historical content to support them in taking well-informed positions.

I think it is unfair to youth to implore them to take moral stances on certain issues when they may not know what factors led to the current situation. When trying to develop students’ historical knowledge in schools, some teachers struggle with how to discuss unflattering historical truths. This is a disservice to the larger aim of developing well-informed justice-oriented youth.

Ultimately, I think moral reasoning and critical historical perspectives really complement each other when we think about how youth moral reasoning becomes more complex. 

Q. How does social justice inform civic engagement for youth?

A. To me, social justice is and should be civic engagement and vice versa. These concepts are dependent on each other. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said so eloquently, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Ultimately, in all of our actions, we are either contributing to or threatening our goal for a truly equitable society.

This is particularly true in K-12 spaces—we must give all students the tools to grapple with and effectively address the acts of injustice that threaten us all. This does not need to be as explicit as holding daily protests. For example, I would argue providing Black and Brown children with a quality education is an act of social justice. My work of merging critical histories with moral reasoning, as well as centering Black youth’s cultural background and related experiences in how we think about social-emotional learning is framed by the desire for a more just society.

Ultimately, we all need to remember that, within true democracy and a healthy society every person is equal and every person matters. And within America, we have a lot of work to do to reach that reality. 

Harris has worked and taught in schools in Harlem, New Orleans, Atlanta and South Africa. She received her Ph.D in 2018 from George State University prior to coming to the University of Virginia.

Youth-Nex was founded in 2009 to expand and apply the science of positive youth development to address fundamental challenges facing societies around the world. Through science and community partnerships, Youth-Nex enhances the strengths of children and adolescents and prevents developmental risk. Our vision is that our nation’s youth - a rich, often untapped resource - may flourish.

The Center for Race and Public Education in the South (CRPES) conducts and supports empirical research on a variety of issues that lie at the intersection of race, education, and schooling in the southern United States. CRPES advances research that illuminates the causes, consequences, and potential means of ameliorating disparities in African American youth's educational experiences and achievement. This interdisciplinary center will bring together education scholars from history, psychology, philosophy, and sociology to investigate the many facets of these disparities.