For Asante our “battle is intense, the struggle we wage for status power is serious and we cannot communicate as equals when our economic position is that of servants” (2008, p. 49), words that resonated with the author throughout her research with Sudanese Australian young women about their educational experiences, as captured in co-created short films. While the work moved between social science and arts-based research the author questioned the basis of her relationship with the co-participants, and the possibility of fluid status positions within educational contexts. This paper interrogates the impossibility within neoliberal secondary school contexts for activist educational research (Giroux, 2005) to be the kind of the ‘interchange’ of which Asante speaks, a source of creative understanding for researchers and co-participants, if it cannot address co-participants’ (and teacher/student) unequal material conditions. In the case presented in this article, materially-influenced communication challenges reflect current curricular and pedagogical tensions, especially for refugee-background students. Where racial, cultural and socio-economic marginalities intersect, pedagogical and curricular possibilities are sometimes foreclosed before students even enter ‘neoliberal’ classrooms.