Conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe Class of 1992.
Hosted by Will Bachman.

Episode: 80

Rachel Burg Belin, Supporting Young People to Do Democracy

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Show notes

Rachel Berg Belin shares the journey of her career which has been inspired by the recognition that young people are underestimated in the value they can offer to communities and politics. Rachel has focused on creating spaces for young people to play a more meaningful role in schools and public life. Rachel’s journey with youth and politics began with her involvement with the radio at the Institute of Politics and Phillips Brooks House, and producing a radio show called Kid Company. She has also worked with youth journalism venture Cultural Express in Massachusetts. She trained young people in the Boston area to be reporters on serious issues, interviewing people from all walks of life, including Supreme Court justices, the President of the U.S., local activists, and marginalized individuals. Rachel also moved around and led a media literacy nonprofit called Youth Voice Collaborative. 

She moved to Rochester, New York, where she got her master’s in teaching and curriculum. She was teaching high school but felt frustrated in the classroom which felt mostly like an autocracy and wanted to do something outside of the classroom that was more in the vein of guerilla social studies. She worked with a program called Prichard Committee, which aimed to mobilize citizens to improve public education. She believed young people were a missing piece of this puzzle. Rachel’s journey has been a rebellion against underestimation of the capacity of young people to contribute to our communities and affirmation of what is possible when we support young people to co-design our communities and do democracy with us. She believes that young people can be empowered and have a voice in democratic life when supported by adults and young people and established The Student Voice Team in Kentucky where young people are involved in shaping and forming education in schools, creating  more just and democratic schools. 


Youth Leading and Designing Education Research

The Student Voice Team has conducted over 16 original education studies over the last 11 years. They have conducted qualitative and quantitative studies of the extent to which their schools are safe, inclusive, and engaging, with the support of students, teachers, and families. The team has surveyed and interviewed thousands of students in diverse schools across the state, using data to write opinion pieces and columns that lift student voice on issues such as student mental health, safety, and policy. Two statewide studies have been conducted, each generating over 11,000 student responses from nearly every Kentucky County. These studies have had a significant impact on raising student voice on serious issues, such as the impacts of COVID on learning from home and the ineffectiveness of online learning for the vast majority of students. Another study focused on classroom conversations about race and racism in Kentucky during the height of the Critical Race Theory (CRT) debates. Over 11,000 students responded from nearly every Kentucky County, and the majority of students felt that their schools were not doing nearly enough to confront racism. The team presented their findings and recommendations to the State Board of Education and held a pop-up press conference on the Capitol steps to share their data and serve as a counter narrative to what older people were saying they needed in their schools. In conclusion, the Student Voice Team’s strategies for creating more justice in democratic Kentucky schools involve young people leading and designing education research, policy, and storytelling.


Navigating Intergenerational Dynamics

The research is a youth-led, intergenerationally sustained organization that focuses on navigating intergenerational dynamics and creating space for young people to participate in decision-making processes. The organization is a reflection organization, allowing young people to contribute to the research process and guiding them in the analysis of data and messaging to the public. Adult partners, such as University of Kentucky researchers, are also involved in the research process. The organization’s mission is to target an intergenerational audience and ensure equity in its ranks. They conduct research, influence policy, inform decision-makers, and develop storytelling skills. Students participate in media events, press conferences, testifying before legislatures, and writing their own pieces. They also train students in journalism to cover Kentucky Education news and provide commentary, and they have an independent news platform, The New Edu where students report on Kentucky education news, provide commentary, and produce. 


Funding of the Organization 

The organization has raised funding from various sources, including the Walton Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg and Bezos Foundation, and smaller funders in Kentucky. This has allowed the organization to pay young people fairly for their work and support those with greater economic needs. The fundraising and development process is unique because there is no gatekeeper for the work, and young people are often involved in developing proposals, and building relationships with funders, and reporting on successes and identifying metrics used to measure successes. The organization has a team of about 25 students from all over the state participating in their journalism training track. A young author and journalist, Rainsford Stouffer, leads some of the training and teaching of storytelling and journalism foundations. The goal is to fill the vacuum in Kentucky’s education journalism by supporting young people to analyze and follow education news and report it to an intergenerational audience. 


Youth Empowerment and Agency

Rachel discusses her recent learnings and thoughts on young people’s empowerment and agency. She believes that democracy is more than ever a faith, and as an older person, she has to model faith rather than cynicism in democracy. She believes that young people have tools and self-awareness that we need to value as a broader intergenerational community. Rachel also mentions the Future Coalition, which is a group of young people leading the way around education justice. 


Influential Harvard Professors and Courses

Rachel shares her experiences at Harvard, particularly the core classes and professors who had a significant impact on her career. She loved the core courses like Justice, Evolutionary Biology, and 17th-century Dutch art experience. She mentions professors Michael Sandel, Simon Schama, and Stephen Jay Gould. In conclusion, Rachel emphasizes the importance of empowering young people and fostering a broader intergenerational community. She encourages listeners to connect with other students and organizations interested in this work.



05:55 Education reform and student voice in Kentucky

12:37 Student-led research on mental health, race, and education in Kentucky

20:20 Youth involvement in nonprofit organization’s fundraising and decision-making

25:02 Empowering young people in journalism and civic engagement

31:44 Education justice, Harvard experiences, and thesis on Massachusetts liberals during the bus crisis. 



Kentucky Student Voice Team website:

KSVT’s Independent Education Journalism Platform:

KSVT’s Youth-Led Education Research:

Rachel Belin on LinkedIn:

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Will Bachman, Rachel Burg Belin


Will Bachman  00:01

Hello, and welcome to the 90 day report conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1992. I’m your host will Bachman. If you visit 92 You can sign up for a newsletter that I’ll send you as well as find the transcript and the show notes for every episode. Now, I’m happy to introduce Rachel Berg Belin, who you may have known in college as Rachel Berg. Rachel, welcome to the show.


Rachel Burg Belin  00:31

Thank you. Well, it’s so fun to be on your podcast.


Will Bachman  00:35

So Rachel, tell me about your journey since graduating from Harvard.


Rachel Burg Belin  00:39

So this is the fabulous Rorschach question. And I think I would start by saying rather than like, giving you a list of what I’ve done, I can pull out a theme, which unites all the things that I’ve been doing since college. I love it. Yes. And that is my whole journey, really starting before college, through college and after college, has been about trying to figure out ways to replicate some of the experiences I had, as an adolescent, which were really unusual, and allowed me to have a voice in a place in public life. What I mean by that is, I, like Rebecca Walker, with you also interviewed for the podcast had a really unusual experience with a youth journalism and venture, a cultural Express. She was in New York, I was in Massachusetts at the time. And we were supported to be to write and publish stories about social justice issues, from age 12 and beyond and publish for the UPI syndicated news service. So we felt seen and heard. And as though we had a lot of agency, as young people, and I felt so lucky to have that experience as part of the first bureau in Massachusetts, that was really middle and high school that I have spent the rest of my life trying to replicate that for other young people in some way. So going even deeper than that. I’ll say that, if I had to distill it all I’m just I’m constantly looking for a way to create spaces for young people to play a more meaningful role in not only schools in education, but in public life in general. And if I had to analyze it, I would say it’s kind of a rebellion against what I always felt was an underestimation of the capacity of young people to contribute to our communities. It’s about an affirmation of what’s possible when we support young people to co design our communities and do democracy with us. So little things that happened during college and after. While I was in college, I was doing some extracurriculars that a lot of others were doing, I was involved with the radio at the Institute of Politics. And, and Phillips Brooks House, but I was also had sort of a secret double life in that I was producing a radio show at WBEZ radio, which was housed right behind Soldier Field road, and I would every weekend, I would leave my dorm and because I could walk there, it was so close to campus, climb around the fence of the football stadium and I would go to work as a newscaster at WBEZ radio, afford a show called Kid company and I would train young people in the Boston area. To be the reporters I’d be the sort of on air equivalent of an anchor. This is a commercial radio station that we were treating very much like Public Radio. And students from all over Greater Boston would be reporting on the show because on some very serious issues, we would have live segments where we’d be interviewing other young people and adults around the world. The students would also be interviewing everyone from Supreme Court justice’s president of the United States and local activist to other young people from the margins.


Will Bachman  04:50

They scored an interview with the President of the United States. Yes,


Rachel Burg Belin  04:54

more than once more than once and what Yes, I mean, there were some really wild things that came out of this work, but I was just creating that, that space for young people to do what they were capable of doing. And, and this was what I was exposed to as, as a child and children’s Express we were when we were doing reporting, we were going to demonstrate the Democratic and Republican conventions as reporters on the scene. And, and we were, we were interviewing people from all walks of life, adults in power, but also young people with little to no power at all. And writing about it and processing it and reflecting on it, I knew the power of that work. And the experience with the radio in college allowed me to, to see that it really, it’s replicable stuff. We just have to support young people to have some agency and to treat them as partners, they can be in democratic life. So anyway, fast forward. After that, I moved around a lot. I did more work in Boston for a while. Let a media literacy nonprofit called Youth Voice collaborative, which was a collaboration between a bunch of youth serving agencies in Boston and, and then moved to Rochester, New York, when I was dating my soon to be husband, who was in residency at strong Hospital in Rochester, and I got my master’s in teaching and curriculum because I knew we keep moving around a lot. Then we went to Florida, where he did his fellowship, and I was teaching high school. But I felt very frustrated in the classroom, even though I’d been trained to be there, because I was a social studies teacher who felt like it was hypocrisy to teach about democracy and what felt like for teachers and students in a TA cracy, at worst, and maybe a bureaucracy at best. So I knew I needed to do what I wanted to do outside of the classroom. So again, I just kept trying to iterate on what that could look like. How do you do? How do you do essentially guerrilla Social Studies beyond the classroom. And my husband is from Kentucky Bruce. And he was he joined a practice in Lexington, Kentucky, where he grew up and where we still live now. And, and it was very fortunate that an organization called the pitcher committee for academic excellence also happened to be based in Lexington, Kentucky. And they were responsible for some incredible education innovations in the late 80s, and early 90s, which led which support Kentucky’s Education Reform Act. But at that time, I knew I wanted to do something aligned with bringing young people into that work, to mobilize citizens to improve public education, young people, students themselves as the primary stakeholders of our schools. Were the missing piece I felt. So I did. I incubated over many years with high school students. We launched a program of the portrait Committee, which we call the portrait committee, student voice team. That has since evolved into the Kentucky student voice team, which is which is what I serve as the managing partner for right now. It’s an independent youth led intergenerationally sustained nonprofit headquartered in Lexington, but truly statewide, that supports young people as education research, policy and storytelling partners in the work to co design more just in democratic Kentucky schools and communities. That’s a mouthful, but it was workshop.


Will Bachman  09:31

That sounds that sounds like a lot of packed into that. Yeah, unpack that. Mission Statement slogan for us. There’s a lot of carefully crafted language there. Tell us tell us what that means in practice.


Rachel Burg Belin  09:44

Sure. Okay. So and this has evolved over time. But we focus our strategies for CO creating more just in democratic Kentucky schools are involved strategies of young people leading, and CO designing education research, policy and storytelling, the research looks like this. Over the last 11 years of the student voice team’s existence, our team has conducted over 16 original education studies, including a number of statewide ones that have contributed to the discourse and the narrative in Kentucky about that shapes and informs education decision making gear and that lifts student voice and perspective. For those, those with decision making power. What I mean specifically is at the school level, young people are leading school climate audits where they are conducting qualitative and quantitative studies of the extent to which their schools are safe, inclusive and engaging, and with our support, sharing back what they find with their broader school communities with students, teachers and families. We’ve done this repeatedly and iterated. Over many years, we have this down to somewhat of a science and have have have surveyed and interviewed 1000s and 1000s of students in geographically very diverse schools in the state and use that data to, to write opinion pieces and columns that lift, student voice on issues from, you know, student mental health to, to safety issues, and much, much more on the policy. Sorry, that’s just one study. But the most recent ones, we’ve done the highest profile, since we’ve gone independent. We’ve done two statewide studies, each one generating over 11,000 student responses from nearly every single Kentucky County. So kind of a shocking number of responses and an indicator that young people really want to be heard on serious issues. And we have a first one was on the impacts of COVID. On learning from home, and that one, we’ve since presented in Kentucky and around the country over 50 times the results have been published by students and in peer reviewed journals, it’s really had an impact. And it was it was IRB approved. So pretty academically rigorous stuff led by 26 high school students from all over the state. The second one was


Will Bachman  12:48

from the COVID study, we’re yet we’re sharing one or two counterintuitive or non obvious findings from that, things that surprised you.


Rachel Burg Belin  12:59

So there are a couple of things or like six key findings that they pulled out from from all of this data that the students pulled out in their analysis. One of them was so we were really the first in Kentucky to sound the alarm about about the mental health needs of students, but and also their lack of access during the pandemic, to to support services. So that was like that was the headline finding. But there were some other things that were really interesting to the team found that, for example, that that it wasn’t that communication between school administrators and families wasn’t happening, it was that the type of communication was totally ineffective, it was very one sided. And it was very focused on academics versus well being in students from all over the state cited that as a as a big deficit, in in their sense of support from their school communities. They felt like they there was no real human connection happening. It was very, it was very one sided and robotic. And there was also I mean, this is not such a shock. Now we know so much more. But we did this, in the very first few weeks of the pandemic was only when we created and conducted the study. So there was the finding that was glaringly obvious that students felt that online learning was pretty much completely ineffective for the vast majority of students. So that goes for a couple of those key findings that came out of that research study. The next one that we did was more public facing a little less academic and it was during the height of the CRT critical race theory to dates and they did It’s about centering classroom conversations about about race and racism in Kentucky, Kentucky, as you know, is pretty red state. And so the and we have a Republican supermajority in power right now. And so these were, these were legislative policies that were being discussed two legislative sessions ago. And students were pretty frustrated that all these conversations are happening about them without them. And so they decided to conduct a study of student perceptions on how they were experiencing race and conversations about race, at school currently, and what they wanted to see more of and get more out of their schools. So again, over 11,000 students responded from nearly every Kentucky County, we surveyed middle and high school students. And we found that the vast majority of students felt that their schools were not doing nearly enough to confront racism. That was the headline finding, there were lots of sub findings from that, Billy use that data. So stories and statistics, because there was that, to shape a counter narrative, we were only hearing from people with a certain opinion and people who were removed from schools in Kentucky on these issues. And in there was no one else that journalists were even going to, to, to represent another opinion, which was what the vast majority of students we surveyed, expressed. So we our team presented their results, their findings and recommendations to the State Board of Education. They also did what we call the pop up press conference, on the steps of the Capitol, to share their their data and and it had wide widespread news media coverage. So it really did serve as a counter narrative to what older people were saying that they needed in their schools, and that they should what they should be discussing, it did slow down, we’d like to think it watered down two of the most extreme bills that would truly stop conversations from happening about race and racism and Kentucky classrooms. Tell me so that’s the that’s the research


Will Bachman  18:14

of making this research happen. What’s the role of the students in deciding the topics writing the questions like programming the survey, you know, sending out the survey to classmates analyzing the results writing the report? Like what what part of that do the kind of adult overhead supervisors you know, play? And what parts of that you know, are? Are the students taking part in?


Rachel Burg Belin  18:41

Yeah, that’s a fabulous question. Because it’s something you know, it’s an art, not a science, how we do, how we how we navigate intergenerational dynamics and all of this work. This is, as I said, a youth lead intergenerationally sustained organization. So what that means, you know, at the granular level, is that we’re constantly calibrating how to circulate power and how, how, as adults, and there’s not that many of us were way, way, way outnumbered by the young people leading this work, you know, how we can create space and support young people without overpowering them in any element of decision making. And so in terms of this, the research itself, typically young people this issues will emerge pretty organically are very reflective organization. We create a lot of space for that all the time. And we’re having conversations about, about what’s going on politically and socially, economically in our state all the time and reflecting on that. So, issues do tend to emerge pretty naturally. Among the team, we do bring in adult We’ll partners all the time with some, some expert knowledge in addition to lived experience. And, you know, they’re there to support young people and, and guide them in the research process, we’ve had a lot of support from the University of Kentucky researchers, for example. But we, we really try to default and defer to young people at every turn. For the issues, we select the analysis of the data and the messaging of the data, they help identify, you know, talking points, they will stage, you know, how we present this to the world. And, you know, they’re involved with everything. At the same time, you know, we’re very careful not to put student voice in young people in general on a pedestal. This has to be an intergenerational venture, because we’re targeting an intergenerational audience. We’ve never said we’re by and for students only, are more like with students, for everyone. And I think that’s one of the secrets to the success of their impact. In this work, you can see to how, you know, when I explained, you know, how they do the research and what they’ve done with some of the research recently, you can see how that interacts with influencing policy, informing decision makers and also, and storytelling, we do a lot of work around messaging to the public. You know, students on our team, or our staging, media events, press conferences, they’re testifying before the legislature, but they’re also writing their own pieces. We have an intern, an independent education news platform called the new edu at the new And we trains students in basic journalism to cover Kentucky Education, news and provide commentary. And we actually pay students well, to produce too. And that’s, we’ve been able to do that since spinning off into independence. We’re able to compensate young people, and that’s a strategy. Young people themselves, have have pushed for to ensure equity in our ranks.


Will Bachman  22:24

Talk to me about how you’ve raised funding for this organization.


Rachel Burg Belin  22:27

Another another great question. So we, young people, and they say they’re involved in high school students are involved with every element of this work. Most all of our board comprises young people under the age of 20. And they, they’re also so they make all the budgeting decisions, big budgeting decisions, and then they also help with our fundraising and development. Young people are writing grant proposals with me, they’re pitching them, they are building relationships with funders, they’re helping to report on our successes, and identify the metrics we use to measure our successes, we’re, it’s like, it’s like a shark tank for for a nonprofit, in some ways, I think. students really enjoy this piece of fundraising and development. They are not, you know, they’re not conducting carwashes and selling chocolate. They’re, they’re operating in the big leagues. And as a result, we’ve we’ve got a lot of, you know, what you probably know very well or, as venture philanthropy. dollars, we have support from especially since we’ve spun off as an independent organization, we’ve been able to generate support from, from some of the big funders from from, from the Walton Foundation, and from Chan Zuckerberg and Bezos Foundation, as well as smaller funders and local funders in Kentucky, but that has really sustained it. That’s what’s allowed us to pay pay young people for, for their work in an equitable way. We also have a line item in our budget, that students have advocated for that it’s just like an equity line item that allows us to support young people who, who might have greater economic needs to participate in our work. And so you know, we’re figuring this out as we go still, but the the fundraising and development is, is really interesting, because there’s no gatekeeper for this work. When I talk to heads of foundations. You know, I very rarely am having a conversation without a high school student or maybe an undergrad with me at the time. And it’s not performative. And it’s not just for optics, it’s because they’re really doing the work right along beside me.


Will Bachman  25:02

Amazing. Tell me a bit about the storytelling aspect and how you teach that how students develop that skill.


Rachel Burg Belin  25:12

Yeah, so we have, we have a team of about 25 students from all over the state who are participating right now in our journalism training track. And we have a young adult Rainsford Stouffer, who’s also a Kentucky, a journalist and book author, who is leading some of the some of the training for this team and in teaching some of the foundations of journalism. And we are supporting young people to fill a huge vacuum and Kentucky which I know exists in all all other 49 states in the country, which is we have very little independent journalism that exists anymore, and especially very little independent education journalism. In Kentucky, as I’m sure in other states, too, we’ve seen the total disintegration on newsrooms in general, but of high school newsrooms in particular. There’s there’s no independence, there’s a handful of, of Kentucky student newspapers that that have, you know, have outreach that reaches beyond their own school. And so we’re trying to fill that vacuum, we’re trying to support students to provide a critical eye and ear to, to, to be able to analyze and follow education news, and report that to an intergenerational audience. So we have our own, as I said, we have our own platform, the new edu students published there, but we have a lot of relationships too, with our local, external mass media outlets who the Lexington Herald Leader in the Louisville courier journal, have been partners of ours for a long time, and they very frequently will cross publish work with us. But we also have relationships with with some national news outlets who do the same. I think everybody’s looking for good content. That’s, that’s well written, but also well researched. And we’re trying to support students to develop the tools and capacities to deliver that.


Will Bachman  27:37

It sounds like you’ve been doing this kind of work for a while. I’m curious. Over the last three or four years or since you started this organization. What have you learned recently over the last three or four years, or how is your thinking shifted about young people and empowering them and making you know, giving them agency?


Rachel Burg Belin  28:02

Yeah, so Well, one I know for sure, I don’t give them agency, I like to use the word Unleashed. Because I feel like it’s there. It’s like you don’t give someone a voice either. Right. But yeah, but I do think I do think especially now, as you know, our country is so polarized politically as democracy really feels fragile. In this moment, maybe particularly this week with our drama. Over the speakership. I’m, I’m feeling that democracy more than ever feels like a faith to me. And I feel like as an older person, in this context, I really have to model like, faith rather than cynicism. In democracy. It’s hard sometimes. I mean, the last few years in particular has been really, really hard. We got a lot of scary threats. But I’m very, still very hopeful that I’m not going to say that young people are or are idealists, and they’re going to save us from ourselves in the sense of civic life and democracy, but I do feel like young people really have some some tools and some self awareness now that that we need and we have to value as a, as a broader intergenerational community. We can’t afford to wait until people turn 18 and are able to vote. There are so many other ways young people can contribute and are contributing to civic life that we really have to lift up and celebrate in this work. I think we just have to values students as citizens of our broader communities, school communities to but also our broader communities. And I think we need to be thinking more about as a global society about ways to bring young people in To positions where they can be, be partners with us in governance at a much earlier age well before 18, we can’t afford to wait that long. I also think that, you know, we need to support students themselves just adults, Phyllis, but students themselves to overcome some learned helplessness.


Will Bachman  31:30

For listeners outside of Kentucky, what are some other organizations people might want to be aware of for that they might pass along to a young person who’s interested in in this kind of work?


Rachel Burg Belin  31:44

The future coalition is another really great group to connect with. There’s, there are a lot of young people leading the way around education justice. And we’re also happy to connect people with with all of our friends in other states, too.


Will Bachman  33:18

Let’s turn back to Harvard, you already talked about some of your experiences there that have been so important in your career. Were there any courses or professors that you had that continue to resonate with you?


Rachel Burg Belin  33:31

It’s so funny, I would the whole Harvard experience always continues to resonate with me now that I have a college student of my own, to have them in there. They’re not at Harvard, but I think about this all the time. And I tell them, like how precious that time is as an undergrad. I mean, I remember like telling myself, I just don’t want this to end. It’s no great the whole time I was there. But in terms of professors that had an impact on me, I mean, I’m I’m pretty basic in that I I loved, loved, loved the core classes the most. And I know most people wouldn’t say that they they might say that the higher level classes that they took in their concentration were the greatest bit I loved MICHAEL SANDEL and justice. I love Stephen Jay Gould, and evolutionary biology, which I think we called rocks for jocks. I love Simon Schama in in the 17th century Dutch art experience. These were these were such formative experiences for me cup just coming from a public school in Massachusetts. Every one of these classes was a Mind Blow. It helped me refine gave me language to process what I was experiencing. It gave me a framework. I remember specifically and these professors were dazzling. MICHAEL SANDEL was like Phil Donahue, me Do we have like 900 people in his class? Did you take that will do.


Will Bachman  35:04

I did not take that course. Oh my gosh. I sat in on, I don’t know, four or five of the of the lectures though.



Will Bachman  36:41

What was your key argument? And your thesis about the Liberals during the



Will Bachman  38:35

Rachel, for listeners that want to find out more about your organization, share any links that we can put in the show notes.


Rachel Burg Belin  38:43

all you need to do is go to K svt. That’s Kentucky student voice team, KS V. And we are very proud of our website. So it really does have all the everything you need to know about this work. I’m always happy to talk with anyone from our class on LinkedIn. And I’m, I’m so appreciative that you’re doing these podcasts will because I, I want to connect with everybody in the class too. And I feel like four years is just not enough time. So we need another 50 After graduation, to learn about each other. And you’re really helping to contribute to that. So thank you,


Will Bachman  39:27

very kind of you to say. And so we will include those links in the show notes. Rachel, thank you so much for joining today. This is a great discussion.


Rachel Burg Belin  39:36

Total pleasure. Thank you