Engaging Youth as Researchers to Improve Systems

Guest post by Jorge Rivas. This is the third post in a series on the Every Hour Counts System-Building Institute.

So, you’re the expert. Tell us, what does “youth” mean? Is it someone younger than 18? Younger than 30? Is youth just a state of mind? How about “success”? What do the experts have to say about that? What has helped you to build success in your life?

These tasks—of defining terms and acknowledging people’s expertise—are at the heart of Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR). And in the approach of YPAR, it is young people who are the experts; they are the ones defining the terms, directing the research and making the recommendations for action—side-by-side with adults.

At the Every Hour Counts System-Building Institute in Oakland, California this March, the Youthprise Research & Design team shared our approach to YPAR with an audience of education and expanded learning leaders.

Youthprise uses YPAR to build capacity and agency among communities of young people. YPAR is an innovative approach to research in which young people take the lead as researchers in a project that leads to action. Unlike traditional research, YPAR is done with youth, not on youth, and the research results in much more than just a report—it leads to action. Young people who do YPAR are people affected by an issue (economic, social, etc.); they gather data to support action. By combining critical research methods with community organizing, the YPAR approach gives young people the tools and experience to become change makers in their local areas.

The purpose of all this? Building an effective system requires working with the people most impacted. If you’re not engaging youth in building your expanded learning system, you’re selling yourself—and the youth of your community—short. In our workshop, we encouraged participants to ask each other what types of barriers they encountered in engaging youth as researchers in their system. One of the biggest barriers they identified was the tendency of some adults to act in a patronizing way toward youth. Through the use of skits based on techniques from Theater of the Oppressed, we were able to use humor to point out the flaws of that approach. By helping adults gain this new perspective, we hope we can change behavior for the better.

The YPAR approach takes effort and at times it’s going to be uncomfortable. But it’s inclusive and as a result we’re more likely to reveal important issues. And once that happens, we can more directly address the issues to improve our systems. Ask young people in your community what they think about your work. Ask them to define common buzzwords in your work areas (youth, system, etc.) and see if they align with your definitions. If you treat youth like experts, and value their observations and opinions, you might just learn a thing or two.

Are you interested in doing YPAR in your community? Read Youthprise’s guide to resources to engage in YPAR.

Jorge Rivas is a Research Associate at Youthprise. 


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