We often struggle in education and in youth programming with the “relevance” of our efforts in the lives of young people. What is more relevant to a young person than his/her own life? Youth-led participatory research is a tool and a process that connects young people more deeply to their own experiences while also expanding awareness, developing skills, and building a sense of power and personal efficacy. Here are 5 critical components to effective youth-led research:
Tell Your Story, Speak Your Truth
The process of storytelling provides us with the opportunity and the challenge to put into words many experiences and relationships that we only know from an emotional perspective. When we tell our stories, we have to decide what parts we want to share and what parts we need to hold onto in order to share perhaps at a later time. In order for this to be a healthy and supportive process, when we tell our stories, when we speak our truth, we need those around us to support and encourage and validate our experience even if they disagree or have differing experiences.
Build Your Context
We all grow up in a culture, in a family, in a socio-economic class, in a geographic location, and at a time in history that we did not choose or define. Many young people internalize the values and norms and oppressions related to these circumstances and begin to understand them as their identity. When we research from a basis of our own stories, our own lived experiences, we have the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the systems in which we live and which impact us every day. When we can name those systems, we can also externalize many of the negative impacts that they have on us. For example, we can objectify causes of poverty at a systemic level rather than purely identifying ourselves by it symptoms.
Explode the Issue
With a deepened understanding of familial, social, cultural and historical systems and their impacts on our lives, we can begin a process of identifying specific issues that are important to us. We can focus our efforts on the causes and root causes underlying our issues rather than the symptoms of them. For example, instead of lashing out at a guidance counselor individually for not helping us get to college, we can understand and focus our energy on addressing a broken guidance counselor system that has our counselor so overworked that she does not have time to support us. On a personal level, exploding the issue can help deepen our understanding of our relationships and the causes and root causes of those that are working for us and those that are not.
Organize Your Thoughts and Your Plan
During the participatory research process, we gain incredible insight into our own lives, into our own identities, and into the systems and issues that affect us in our daily routines. In order to take the next step in the journey, we need to organize all of this knowledge and develop a clear plan for what we want to change for ourselves personally, in our families, in our schools or in the broader systems that affect us. Without this clarity, we will be frustrated by our inability to address issues despite our deep understanding of them.
Whether it is addressing a struggling relationship in our family or a broken education system, the purpose of deepening our knowledge and skills through participatory research is to take action. If we have not found a way in this process to begin making change then we run the risk of further frustrating young people and instilling a sense of powerlessness. Taking action can mean working on ourselves, having a conversation we have avoided with a family member, or even advocating for change at City Hall.