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Volume 52 Number 1 Winter 2019
Edited by Erin Godly-Reynolds, University of North Carolina Charlotte
Written by Lindsey Roberts, Bowling Green State University
Researchers have long recognized the importance of environments in shaping youth development. Neighborhoods shape the daily experiences of residents, and in turn, neighborhood environments are shaped by residents. Most often, researchers focus on how economically-disadvantaged neighborhoods expose children to risk factors that, when compared to their peers in more affluent neighborhoods, place them at a higher risk for poor outcomes. Despite the evidence that neighborhoods influence residents of all ages, youth perspectives are often not valued, and youth input is largely excluded from intervention planning and decision-making processes (Frank, 2006; Santo, Ferguson, & Trippel, 2010).
Youth likely have different experiences, needs, and preferences than adults, but even among methodologies that are founded on community inclusion, such as community-based participatory research (CBPR), youth are less likely than adults to be included throughout the research process (Jacquez, Vaughn, & Wagner, 2013). Researchers have identified diverse barriers to including youth, including structural barriers, competing interests of researchers, and the belief that youth are developmentally incapable of making research decisions (Frank, 2006). However, the benefits of including youth as partners in the process are also compelling. For instance, participating in research allows youth to have more of a voice in public affairs, feel more connected to their community, and to develop individual cognitive and social skills (Frank, 2006). The current study used Photovoice (Wang & Burris, 1997) to engage adolescent residents of an urban neighborhood in Toledo, Ohio in the research process, and to share their perspectives on their neighborhood’s assets and needs. The overarching goals were to teach youth about the research process and to empower youth to enact change in their community.
Nine teenagers who were enrolled in the Youth Opportunities Program (YOP) through the YMCA of Greater Toledo participated in the project. Participants were 16 to 20 years old, and all but one participant identified as a racial minority. Four participants were currently in high school, four had graduated high school, and one stopped attending school in the 11th grade. The YOP aims to improve educational attainment, to prepare youth for employment, and to promote civic engagement. To enroll in the YOP, youth must meet income guidelines; therefore, the program comprises low-income youth. Participants were included in collecting data, analyzing data, and disseminating findings to the larger community and to key stakeholders. Participants attended a total of six sessions (one per week) and a public display of photos held at a local YMCA. SCRA Student Research Award funds were used for professional printing and purchasing supplies. To evaluate the impact of participating in the project, youth participated in individual interviews to assess their views of the program. Interviews covered topics such as perceived individual changes, communal changes, challenges, and suggestions.
Figure 1. Title: Community
To analyze the photographic data, both the participants and researcher took part in a participatory visual analysis (Wang & Burris, 1997) during each of the Photovoice sessions. Additionally, content analysis was used to identify patterns and themes across group discussions. Ten total themes were generated from participants’ photos, descriptions, and group discussions. These themes largely reflect three primary aspects of participants’ experiences: adolescence, their environment, and their social roles. Youth described typical developmental processes, including an emerging sense of identity and self-expression, developing goals of autonomy and independence, a desire for positive adult mentors and role mentors, and a drive to create positive change through their lives. Youth also described aspects of their setting, including important places where they may feel an emotional connection, quality of and access to community resources, and safety. Lastly, youth also described the social aspects of their lives, including their relationships with children, their experiences with ageism, racism, and classism, and the different people who comprise their social communities.
Highlights from the photovoice sessions include:
“Community is very important to me. I constantly hear people talking negatively about Toledo. I have started to appreciate my city, which is the place I have started to set my roots down. I believe if people work together we could change the community to an even better place. Toledo is my home and has a special place in my heart.”
Youth described that they encountered structural barriers–such as racism, classism, and ageism–but that these experiences motivated them to create positive societal change. Youth were optimistic that their generation could enact such change. One young woman said, “We can feel sorry, but we don’t have to be that way. We’ve got to make a change.”
When discussing the project during individual interviews, youth shared how they made time to take photos and attend group discussions, and their willingness to engage in a new and unfamiliar experience. Youth also noted that they enjoyed sharing their own experiences and listening to their peers, and that as a result they felt more connected. Lastly, participants noted a sense of accomplishment, and increased self-efficacy, and an affinity for photography.
“This photo is important to me because it inspires me to do better and be better. My sister’s art work in my room makes me follow my dreams. When I look at those pictures it reminds me of all the things she accomplished and makes me know I can do anything I put my mind to.”
Figure 2. Title: Sister
Highlights from individual interviews include:
Despite challenges, participants overall felt that the project helped both them and their neighborhood. As one participant summarized,
You’re giving your neighborhood a voice…. I’m 19 years old. Who’s going to listen to me? I’m still just a kid basically, So, things like this, and then having the Blade [newspaper] and everybody there taking pictures and taking statements, it was really nice. It was kind of like just giving ourselves a voice for our neighborhood.
This project was only successful thanks to the contributions of many generous people throughout the process. I am so grateful to the community partners, LaDonna Knabbs and Crystal Harris Darnell, who graciously donated their time, space, and expertise throughout this project. I am also grateful to the participants, all of whom were open, trusting, accommodating, and honest. I am similarly appreciative of my co-chairs, Dr. Carolyn Tompsett and Dr. Catherine Stein, who trusted and supported me in so many ways. Lastly, the support of the SCRA Dissertation Award allowed this project to include more youth, to offer youth compensation (gift cards) for their time and efforts, and to share their stories with their family, neighbors, and communities.
Frank, K. (2006). The Potential of Youth Participation in Planning. CPL Bibliography, 20, 351–371.
Jacquez, F., Vaughn, L., & Wagner, E. (2013). Youth as partners, participants or passive recipients: A review of children and adolescents in community-based participatory research (cbpr). American Journal of Community Psychology, 51, 176–189.
Leventhal, T., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2000). The neighborhoods they live in: The effects of neighborhood residence on child and adolescent outcomes. Psych Bulletin, 126, 309–337.
Santo, C., Ferguson, N., & Trippel, A. (2010). Engaging urban youth through technology: The Youth Neighborhood Mapping Initiative. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 30, 52–65.
Wang, C., & Burris, M. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, Methodology, and Use for Participatory Needs Assessment. Health Education & Behavior, 24, 369–387.