Milestone Moments: Holistic Indicators of Youth (Our first YPAR Project with MDE)
YPAR stands for “Youth Participatory Action Research,” an approach and epistemology that involves the people most affected by a particular issue in conducting research and analysis in order to develop solutions to bring about social, cultural, and/or political transformation.
Back in 2013, Youthprise’s research team was the first youth-led research team in the state of Minnesota to complete a project with the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). The results were a 10-page report, Holistic Indicators of Youth Development, a video and more than a few bumps and bruises. Read on below to find out more about how five twenty-somethings came together, asked questions, and spoke to nearly 100 young folks in the metro area about their experiences.
- Identify the Issue: At the nonprofit and foundation level, it’s business as usual to use the money and resources at your disposal to solve issues. We know, however, that throwing stacks of hundreds at people while imploring them to do better is not a great strategy. It’s supremely important to do in-person investigation to assess whether what you want to research is a relevant question and whether or not resources can be better used elsewhere. This is true for the folks living in the communities they want to impact as well. For our example, the Youthprise Research Team had all experienced varying levels of discomfort with the education system. Having a peer team with different experiences allowed us to examine the issue from different angles and develop questions that touched on those experiences. In this case, the initial research issue was identified by MDE, but by having young folks in control of the question and design of the research project, we defined the scope and nature of the issue as we came into contact with it. As you start to identify and talk about the issue you want to investigate, emphasize diversity of experience with the issue in the people you talk to and pull into the process.
- Recruit: Finding a group of committed individuals is difficult in any walk of life. As any manager will tell you: hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. That being said, it requires a lot of instinct and conversation to know when you’re approaching the right person to join a research team. Motivation, when it spills over into fanaticism, is not a useful trait to have when attempting to provide a diversity of perspectives. Additionally, you want to find a mix of people with the ability to ask tough questions, the technical ability to do the work and finally, the time. Time is such a vital resource when planning a research project. Make sure that the people you recruit for your team are people you would want to work with yet also meet these criteria.
- Build Trust and Values Together: Our youth team members had a variety of traumatic experiences with different institutions (including the school system) that they were sensitive about. We had the privilege of working together full-time coupled with the freedom to conduct off-site meetups and gatherings, which helped to build comfort and trust. One of the first things we did was make a team value statement and logic model that exemplified our strategy. That logic model went a long way toward making us all feel active and represented in the work we did. Thus, even though we had more than a few verbal disagreements, we always understood where the other was coming from and that went a long way towards building trust. When working with your team, develop a community value statement that exemplifies your team’s reasoning and inspiration for being there.
Unfortunately, youth voices are often left out of or exploited by the research process, but through Youthprise’s YPAR program young people are invited to safely and confidently ask the questions that adults cannot or will not ask. By including young people’s experiences and perspectives, we are able to collect data that would otherwise be neglected in research design and implementation. We use grassroots research to support action that challenges dominant narratives and exposes social injustice to make the case for change.
It’s been roughly 8 years since Holistic Indicators of Youth Development, and while the look and feel of our YPAR process may have evolved over the years, the core principles are still the same. Supporting this youth-led community engagement approach toward research is critical to developing leadership and technical skills as well as building the capacity of young people to be change-makers.