Youth-Led Community Organizing: Theory and Action
Hope is an important thing that humans possess in order to live happily. Similarly, the roses in this picture are facing obstacles that prevent them from surviving. Although the plants are being neglected, the roses continue to bloom beautifully and live on. While this image can be seen as a beautiful illustration of youth resilience, it may also help perpetuate negative images of the community where they belong.
This negative image is present in several narratives of youth and other residents from Jane-Finch.
Two youths, for example, shared the following thoughts in short interviews:. In Jane-Finch you get robbed out here, you get killed out here.
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A lot of bad things can happen to you out here. The photographer said:. What this symbolizes is the positives and negatives in life. Narratives of trust, community, family, diversity and care can be found in several accounts by the Jane-Finch youth, providing a counter-narrative to the negative images that dominate public perception of the neighborhood.theranchhands.com/images/worlds/gates-of-eden.php
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This counter-narrative is illustrated in an excerpt from a short interview:. I really love the Jane-Finch community. I think there are a lot of really good benefits to living here. I love the diversity and all the different cultures, and that sort of thing. I just feel lucky to be part of the community.
International Perspectives on Youth Leadership Development Through Community Organizing
A picture showing a community barbecue at a public park conveys the notion of the Jane-Finch community protecting their children. The youth who took this picture explains:. The picture shows what my community does for the kids, making the kids safe in the community […] it is showing kids enjoying themselves and eating good food. Most interviewees are aware of the ways in which larger socio-economic structures constrain opportunities for youth.
They point to the poor maintenance of public housing buildings and the insufficiency of education, employment, and recreation opportunities as conditions that create stress and lead to domestic and street violence. The following account speaks to the lack of sufficient and adequate spaces for recreation and its effects on the youth:. The words from one youth nicely capture the need to create and expand spaces for recreation and opportunities for education, employment and youth engagement in Jane-Finch:.
We need more resources, we need to stop shutting our programs down. Our programs, our music programs for youth all over the city, community kitchens, food, banks, we need more access […] What we need is proper allocation of the money. People need to come out into the communities and give, give back to the communities, give us more time to demonstrate our creativity, give us access, give us resources, give venues, give us locations, give us funding, give us grants, let us know about our education rights. Using the metaphor of roses growing in concrete to make reference to urban youth thriving against the odds DUNCAN-ANDRADE, 8 , this project pointed out to the limitations of dominant narratives that idealize individual roses while stigmatizing the environment where they grow and neglecting the larger socio-economic structures that constrain youth opportunities seeing communities, and not the larger socio-economic constraints such as the concrete.
The accounts from the youth and other residents from Jane-Finch offer a counter-narrative that highlights the important role that families and communities play in ensuring youth development and well-being seeing communities as the roots that allow roses to grow in concrete , and point out the need to address the structural constraints that limit opportunities for urban youth softening the concrete and, maybe more audaciously, doing the work to turn Jane-Finch into a rose garden.
EGCC promoted the development of girls as future leaders and encouraged young women to deconstruct and re-conceptualize leadership in their own terms. With elements of traditional action research, the Community Dialogue Approach conceptualizes community engagement as a methodological practice and research as a community dialogue that must fully engage community stakeholders. Community partners are extensively involved in defining the focus and implementation of research. The Community Dialogue Approach emphasizes the use of multi-methods and encourages applied research that is meaningful to the community and yet maintains scientific merit.
Methodologically similar to Act for Youth, the Engaging Girls, Changing Communities EGCC project followed the typical research protocol in which university investigators request and receive ethics clearance from the related research ethics boards. Thereafter, EGCC embarked on activities that could be catalogued into three stages. First, was a community forum that engaged the community partners and youth representatives. At this forum, the project was introduced, investigative questions and proposed methods were discussed and, where necessary, modified, and methods for various ways of participating were presented.
Second, was the employment and hiring of youth researchers to conduct interviews with other youth. A faculty researcher conducted this training with a seasoned doctoral student who was also a researcher in the project. Following the training, youth researchers conducted and transcribed interviews.
These interviews were followed by an end-of-year celebration forum that, similarly to the first forum, brought together community-university partners to discuss the next steps of the projects as well as to have the youth researchers share their interviewing experiences. The third stage of EGCC involved facilitating youth-led community initiatives, which had the overarching objective of introducing novel avenues of engaging young women and girls in leadership and community activities.
Furthermore, the partnerships with community organizations purposed the harmonization of the actual leadership aspirations of young women and girls with existing leadership programs that community organizations offer. Overall then, EGCC was designed to counteract gender imbalance in both Canadian community and political life. Furthermore, the EGCC project played an instrumental role in facilitating knowledge mobilization on leadership and civic engagement.
These female youth researchers included five African Canadians, two Caribbean Canadians and one Turkish Canadian; altogether they conducted 51 interviews from other youth who were also of similar ages and the majority 39 of whom were ethnic minorities. Additionally, EGCC funded 12 youth-led community initiatives; the first of these was proposed and piloted by the YR discussed in the following pages. In all stages, youth researchers YR were encouraged to keep journals to use for reflecting on each activity. The first activity that the YR engaged in was learning to interview.
At this stage, the YR worked with a faculty member over a period of 15 hours to learn about conducting qualitative research. The training required that the YR do preliminary readings and arrive prepared to discuss questions and otherwise inform the training session. This training included discussions regarding research ethics, interviewing strategies, how to generate probing questions, and how to transcribe audio recorded interviews. The YR also participated in mock interviews with each other, and then completed a reflection sheet regarding their training experiences.
For the second part of their training, the YR were instructed to conduct a minute interview with a young woman who may have something interesting to say about girls and leadership. The transcripts and reflection sheets from these interviews were used to provide feedback to the YR in order to improve their skills. Reflection sheets indicate that on the one hand the YR benefited from the training because it developed ethical lenses, taught them critical skills that they would use to look at their environment and the context of their interviewing, as well as empowered them to work with their peers.
On the other hand, however, the YR expressed frustration with the training materials stating that it was difficult to comprehend and that it took a long time to go through. At the same time, the YR felt that researchers were not ready to help them to break down the material or to even acknowledge its level of difficulty. Interviews began shortly after the training and, for each interview, YR were required to immediately reflect on it through journaling.
Journal data indicate that youth researchers reported nervousness, or little confidence pertaining their interviewing skills at the initial stage of the process. As one youth wrote:. Journal data following the first interviews indicate more gains than challenges on the part of the YR. As one YR explained:.
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Out of all my interviewees thus far she is the closest to my values and views. All of the answers she gave I agreed a hundred percent with all of them. Moreover, this connection to participants often presented a challenge in that the YR expressed hardship holding their opinions in order to not influence the responses. The following two quotes are illustrative, respectively:.
The most documented gain by the YR during interviewing was learning, which included learning about the subject of investigation, that is, leadership and community participation as well as learning how to conduct research and about themselves. Commenting about having learnt how to articulate long held thoughts, one YR remarked:. I kind of had the feeling but I never actually took that in. I particularly enjoyed her thoughts on some of the major barriers women face. Her critique on the portrayal of women in the media and how it affects women in a holistic manner self-esteem, self-image, relationship between man and women, and between women and women was very insightful.
Following the interviewing stage, the YR were given the opportunity to work with the researchers to share their interviewing experiences, analyze the data through reading and creating themes of the transcribed scripts and share emerging findings at a forum that involved the community and other related stakeholders. Subsequently to the forum, the YR were given a chance to identify a pressing issue within their community and design a corresponding intervention initiative. Informed by their personal observations and experiences, as well as the report from Public Health Canada on health issues among Canadian youth, the YR devised a day retreat comprising of healthy living workshops and iterative physical activities, which attracted a total of 20 girls between the ages of years from Toronto.
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At the end of the retreat, participants completed a survey in which they responded to the questions: How has the retreat affected your views or perceptions of physical activity and healthy eating? In what way has your attitude towards taking action in promoting healthy living changed? How has the experience broadened, changed or deepened your understanding of negative influences on body image?
To disseminate the project results and maintain the relationship with the girls who attended the retreat, a blog was created. Essentially, the blog served as a platform for the youth researchers, the youth attendees and the other girls from the broader community to share their experiences, lessons and ideas on healthy living and physical activity in the urban environment.
Based on the feedback received during the debriefing sessions, the YR viewed the community intervention activity as an invaluable component of the research process especially because they were able to construct a project that directly corresponded with their interest and offered them the chance to engage in community development as the primary interventionists. This conception of research coincides with the Community Dialogue Approach ideological framework, in which research is understood as an academic and community-focused endeavour with significant practice and policy implications.
Aside from the benefit of contributing to community development, the participation in the community intervention activity also created further employment and skills development opportunities for the YR. The YR expressed their satisfaction with the level of autonomy and the sense of agency that they were endowed with during the community intervention activity. Key challenges enunciated included the amount of resources provided and the longevity of the initiated project.
For instance, some of the YR became disengaged shortly after the day of the retreat and did not participate in the blogging element of the community intervention activity while others maintained their involvement and connection with EGCC. Additionally, ideas and suggestions relating to the expansion of the Naturality initiative by the YR and youth participants could not be realized as the allocated resources only allowed for a small-scale initiative.
Nevertheless, the Naturality initiative proved successful as a pilot project and was expedient in mapping the approach, process and methods for the subsequent nine youth-led community initiatives that were undertaken by a group of selected female youth leaders and their team members. All in all, the community intervention demonstrated that if adequately equipped with resources, girls are able to assume leadership roles, participate in community life and function as agents of social change in their communities.
Inspiring youth voices and active participation in youth-based research is strongly advocated in the literature; equally, EGCC is in line with this literature.
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In addition, EGCC contributes with important information about the processes of youth engagement in research and the complexities that are part of this commitment. First, EGCC is in line with literature advocating research as a learning tool for young people. Thus, the challenge for future research initiatives such as ours is to consider alternative ways of teaching and learning that would be more appealing to the youth.
Naturality succeeded in enhancing the knowledge and awareness about healthy living and physical activity of girls living in Toronto. Also, because of the technology savviness of the YR, the creation of a Facebook page and other communication channels meant that the girls were able to create and sustain a network that, although limited, has gone beyond the designed activity.