Raising the Voices: Starting with youth to create long-term social and systematic change

Homewood Community Engagement Center (CEC) Mosaic by Daviea Davis with the East End Art Team, (Photo credit: https://cec.pitt.edu/homewood/spaces/)

A lot of what I hope to learn through my research partnership this summer is how I can effectively promote development socially and academically for youth in Homewood and ultimately how I can be a part of youth engagement to develop their voice to enact change in their own communities and lives. This passion to work with youth to develop their own voice and promote their own development started when I was in high school and is the reason, I wanted to be a mentor for the Justice Scholars Program and ultimately why I choose to pursue the Community Research Fellowship. I want to listen to youth that are often overlooked and I want to be a part of standing with them in their engagement and development at this complex and critical time of their lives.

As a high school student, I began a mentoring program at my middle school. The program strived to provide students with what they felt would help them succeed, academically and personally. Although simple in nature, the administrator of the program, mentors and I made it a point to ask students at nearly every session for their insight and recommendations for additional resources, education, and activities that they felt would be productive and contribute to their development. Additionally, in high school I became a part of a university lead research project conducting community-based-participatory research collecting qualitative data in the form of youth focus groups. I believe bridging the gap between the voices of those most intimately impacted and key stakeholders is a tipping point in the creation of meaningful and long-lasting change.

Perhaps the most important thing I have discovered in college is that learning is not purely taking in information. Learning is not linear, and it involves countless hours of questioning, debating, challenging, scaring, conversating, and engaging with your own ideas and thoughts as well as others. This is one of the many reasons why engaging in my research this summer has selfishly been more beneficial to me than to anyone else. From my research with the Justice Scholars Program at the Homewood Community Engagement Center I have continued to learn more about not only the community of Homewood, the history, the youth, the program, but developed a deeper understanding about other’s lives and unintentionally myself. I hope to continue to learn specifically the assets that make up the community of Homewood. I remember walking through the halls of the community engagement center my first year at the University of Pittsburgh. The halls are lined with artworks from local artists with rich cultural meaning. This showcased to me the rich history that comes with any community and the crucial importance of learning its background.

Through this research, I think that learning, listening and understanding the youth in Homewood will help me be a more effective, informed and compassionate mentor to students in the coming years. What I think I will learn may not align with what I actually will learn from listening to students in the Justice Scholars Program. What I learn, I believe will come from things I never thought I could know, what systematic and social factors are unjustly placed on the youth in the Justice Scholars Program and how they deal with these on a day to day basis. 

I want to learn how the Justice Scholars Program effectively helps develop youth academically and socially. More specifically, I want to learn the specifics of why a social justice curriculum, youth participatory action research, and youth adult partnerships for marginalised youth are extremely valuable for youth success. Moreover, why giving youth a voice in their community can help with their development but create long-lasting change for others in their family, community and ultimately our country. Learning from a population you are working with is crucial.  The article “Pedagogy of the Culturally Invaded” discusses this idea of the efforts to hear the voices of the oppressed that can easily be destroyed by “distortions of reality (Hernandez, 2018).” What struck me from the article was a question essentially saying who is better than the oppressed to understand the oppressive society. A simple statement that has stuck with me throughout my experience working with marginalised youth in my home and in other spaces throughout being a mentor with the Justice Scholars Program and researcher this summer. The article goes on to say and yet the world we live in can be dominated by eurocentric views and then continues to dive deeper into the origins of why this is in the context of service learning can be detrimental. This way of thinking in terms of doing service work somewhere without living and experiencing the way the population lives can overlook the crucial importance of understanding a community you are working with. This article reminds me of the ultimate goal of my research this summer and also why I think it is crucial to listen to the voices of the students in the Justice Scholars Program through the evaluation of the interviews. This is for the purpose of not only learning but discovering the meaning of the research they essentially drive. The Justice Scholars Program is devoted to engaging students to promote the development of skills and tools they can use to enact change in their own community and lives. I believe these students who are encouraged through the program to debate, conversate, and question social and systematic inequalities in their own lives and in our nation are the future of long-lasting change. I always think back to the article in how often we try to fix, help, change with good intentions but the issue is we are not fully aware of the experiences of the oppressed and therefore are ill-equipped despite any education to enact long-term improvement in someone’s life. Giving students who in twenty years will be the leaders, workers, voters, and voices of our nation that have experienced the injustice in their lives first-hand is the backbone for creating long-lasting societal changes and a more equitable society.

Through the Justice Scholars Program, I want to listen and learn the experiences of these students in hopes of more effectively contributing to their engagement and development of themselves and their community. That is why evaluation of program improvement is crucial to the continued enhancement of the Justice Scholars Program and continued development of youth in Homewood for the ultimate purpose of giving students a voice in their community and further. This is why the methodology of the research has been designed in a specific way by the Justice Scholars Research Team. Questions from program evaluation interviews with students that completed the program are directed to investigate thetools students have utilized as a result of the program in their college experience, community, and personal development.The program evaluation questions are key to answering the research question that drives the continued development and improvement of the program. How can the Justice Scholars research successfully prepare students in an underserved, urban high school to successfully transition to post-secondary education opportunities? Beyond this how can the Justice Scholars Program provide students the necessary tools to take active roles in their community and in their world. Additionally, the theme that facilitating social and systematic changes in society by engaging marginalized youth is a catalyst for improving and changing our current world is presented throughout the literature surrounding out of school time program outcomes. How can we invest in youth that have unique experiences and understanding of everyday oppression so that they can become agents of change in their own world based on their experiences. Support for the Justice Scholars Program and programs built on youth adult partnership are fueled by the research question everyone wants to know, what are the outcomes. More specifically, what are the outcomes of out of school programs that are focused on social justice and Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) that effectively promote academic and social development to support marginalized youth? This is something explored in program evaluation for countless programs like the Justice Scholars. The article “YPAR and Critical Epistemologies: Rethinking Education Research” demonstrates and outlines the origins of YPAR and support its role in education research (Caraballo, Lozenski, Lysicott, Morrell, 2017). In particular to populations that have been historically marginalized and who’s experiences, identities and literacies are commonly overlooked in educational environments YPAR is especially significant. Benefits of YPAR that have been highlighted include new creations that continue to promote the curiosity, hope and potential of young people to enact long-lasting change in their communities. 

This is why the research I am involved in with the Justice Scholars Research Team and why the Justice Scholars Program is in itself can be valuable to the youth of Homewood. From countless program evaluation efforts of researchers in the field of out of school time academic programming I have found a common theme that I have discussed throughout. By ultimately giving youth a voice and allowing youth to enact change in their community it enables youth to see themselves as assets as well as agents of change in their own environments, beyond just developing a tolerance to the injustices they face. This idea I believe explains why allowing everyone a seat at the table is crucial to accomplishing anything as a community, nation, and world as a whole.

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