Research Justice, YPAR & Implications for the Field

Published on April 4, 2014 | Written by

by Jorge Rivas, Youth Rearch Associate at Youthprise

This past February, Youthprise co-sponsored the Hennepin County Afterschool Summit in order to share, explore and increase the afterschool opportunities for youth in the county. With an audience composed of policy makers, colleagues and community stakeholders, the Youthprise Research Team identified an opportunity to advocate for the value of Youth Participatory Action Research, or YPAR, and its future implications for the entire field. In collaboration with the Brooklyns Youth Council, our team facilitated a workshop session that doubled as a research opportunity. What we found was that there was no shortage of data gathering happening in the youth engagement field.

To put it simply, people are gathering a lot of information right now on schools, afterschool programs and young people as a population. Session participants listed several different forms and applications of surveys and evaluation processes that painted a picture of the wide-ranging and interconnected data networks that support citywide afterschool programs. What is not immediately clear is whether young people have a role in large-scale research efforts. But that’s not to say that people aren’t thinking about them.

The second half of participant responses was centered on how to incorporate young people in their own research. Again, the data harvest was robust and offered a look into a potentially promising future. Suggestions such as adding youth to project planning and leadership teams, student-developed surveys and focused engagement with policy makers were some highlights that seemed realistic and attainable. By all intents and purposes young people and the programs that serve them are being heavily scrutinized, but it is crucial that the field as a collective takes time to reexamine the nature of the work.

The term research carries academic and governmental connotations that aren’t entirely off base. Career academics are directed to gather information on domestic and indigenous populations, aggregate the data and form conclusions. At first glance the practice appears to be rigorous and valid but a thoroughly critical analysis reveals that the ability to conduct research is steeped in institutional exclusivity. This exclusivity is revealed when we look at the student demographics for the most prestigious universities our country has to offer.  These mostly white universities supply researchers for the mostly white think tanks that inform the mostly white national leadership.  When seen for the wide-scale, insider’s only club that it is we can see the value that diversity carries, and in contrast, the damage that tokenism can cause in research. This revelation is remarkably relevant when we examine the current landscape of youth development research.

Research Justice is a conceptual framework that subverts the institutional exclusivity of data gathering in order to place knowledge making in the hands of the collective. When the knowledge has been gathered these people are expected to circulate this information and develop ways of impacting and providing solutions to the issue. This concept is cemented through the critical research methodology of Participatory Action Research, or, PAR. Participatory Action Research is a method in which individuals directly affected by an issue come together to question, examine and report on those issues. In the past, areas such as workers’ compensation, racial justice and immigrant rights have been critically examined using PAR.

However, to see PAR as a data gathering tool would be an overly simplistic explanation of its utility. When you examine the skills and techniques needed to conduct research, you can see that by going through this process people are doing much more than gathering information. The tools needed to question widely held opinions, deconstruct traditional modes of thinking and critically examine situations are also the tools critical to innovation and progress as a society. More specifically, when we examine the important cognitive skills for young people to learn and develop, we see that YPAR is, again, much more than a tool for gathering data, it is a tool for youth development.

In our mission to ensure that Minnesota’s youth are thriving, we are seeing more and more that the ability to think critically and question the status quo is necessary to create change. This goal, along with our models for Youth Engagement and Youth Adult Partnerships, ultimately come together to form our philosophy on youth development. When you teach a young person in culturally relevant ways, encourage that person to question and validate their own ideas and then place them in working relationships with adults who value those ideas, the result is a person who is mentally equipped to handle any situation they may come across. That is how you ensure that all of Minnesota’s youth thrive: one mind at a time.

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