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Creating Change From The Inside: Youth Development Within A Youth Community Organizing Program

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This study presents the results of a collaborative community-based research project evaluating Youth Force, a youth community organizing program. Participants included urban youth in middle school and high school from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds. Employing a mixed methods research design, the study investigated the impacts of the program on youth participants, as well as the processes through which program experiences influenced youth outcomes. Results indicated that youth community organizing programs influence a range of youth development outcomes, including the development of skills, knowledge, civic engagement, empowerment, and positive changes in self-concept. C 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
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ARTICLE
CREATING CHANGE FROM THE
INSIDE: YOUTH DEVELOPMENT
WITHIN A YOUTH COMMUNITY
ORGANIZING PROGRAM
Sarah Schwartz and Karen Suyemoto
University of Massachusetts Boston
This study presents the results of a collaborative community-based research
project evaluating Youth Force, a youth community organizing program.
Participants included urban youth in middle school and high school from
minority racial and ethnic backgrounds. Employing a mixed methods
research design, the study investigated the impacts of the program on youth
participants, as well as the processes through which program experiences
influenced youth outcomes. Results indicated that youth community
organizing programs influence a range of youth development outcomes,
including the development of skills, knowledge, civic engagement,
empowerment, and positive changes in self-concept. C2012 Wiley
Periodicals, Inc.
INTRODUCTION
Substantial numbers of youth in the United States are growing up in marginalized com-
munities with limited access to resources and opportunities, reflecting the context of a
growing economic gap and sustained racial and economic residential segregation. Such
communities tend to have lower quality schools and higher levels of community stress and
environmental hazards (Gee & Payne-Sturges, 2004; Williams & Collins, 2001), and less
access to health services (Thomas, Temple, Perez, & Rupp, 2011) or quality after-school
programs (Duffett & Johnson, 2004). The effects of such discrepancies are evident; re-
search documents pervasive racial and economic disparities across multiple indicators,
including physical health, mental health, and educational achievement (Burchinal et al.,
Please address correspondence to: Sarah Schwartz, University of Massachusetts Boston, Psychology,100 Morrissey
Blvd. Boston, Massachusetts, 02125. E-mail: Sarah.Schwartz001@umb.edu
JOURNAL OF COMMUNITY PSYCHOLOGY, Vol. 00, No. 00, 1–18 (2012)
Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/jcop).
C
2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. DOI: 10.1002/jcop.21541
2rJournal of Community Psychology, xxxx 2012
2011; Fiscella & Kitzman, 2009), demonstrating the failure of existing structures to effec-
tively address these inequalities.
In the face of such challenges, many marginalized communities are drawing on in-
ternal social capital to build systems of support and create change. Research suggests
that resources such as relationships between residents, social cohesion, and commu-
nity empowerment can buffer against community stressors (Gee & Payne-Sturges, 2004;
Delgado & Staples, 2008). Community organizing may be particularly well-suited to build-
ing such resources, because the mission includes community participation as both a means
to pursue goals and an end in itself, serving to build community relationships, skills, and
knowledge (Makuwira, 2007). Although such organizations are typically led by adults,
there is increasing recognition of the role youth can play in organizing efforts (Delgado
& Staples, 2008). Under this model, youth are viewed, not as problems, but as assets
and sources of social capital that can strengthen communities and address the effects of
marginalization (Delgado & Staples, 2008; Ginwright & James, 2002).
The number of youth community organizing programs has therefore grown rapidly
(Ginwright, 2010). These programs provide adolescents with training in community or-
ganizing and leadership, with the goal of creating positive community change. Within
such programs, youth identify community needs and develop and implement campaigns
to address those needs. Because youth organizing programs are still a relatively new phe-
nomenon, however, there is limited research on their effects. Moreover, much of the
existing research on youth organizing programs has focused on the community and po-
litical outcomes rather than on processes of change and effects for the youth participants
(Shah, 2011). Nevertheless, there is a growing appreciation of the ways in which youth or-
ganizing programs may influence youth development outcomes (e.g., Delgado & Staples,
2008; Ginwright, 2010; Kirshner, 2007; Shah, 2011).
Youth organizing programs may be especially beneficial to urban youth of color. Struc-
tural inequalities based on race and class can lead youth to believe there is little use in
trying to make change. Youth living in stressful, poor, and often violent communities fre-
quently lack a sense of security or optimism (Balsano, 2005). Ogbu (1990) described a lack
of “effort optimism,” that is, the belief that society will reward efforts and achievements,
among racially oppressed minorities. Moreover, research indicates significant disparities
in opportunities for civic engagement among adolescents based on social class and race
(Flanagan & Levine, 2010). Taken together, this research suggests the importance of
identifying strategies that provide opportunities for civic engagement and empowerment
in low-income communities of color.
While experiences of oppression and injustice can discourage motivation to make
change, they also can inspire a desire to make change and be the first step on the road to
empowerment. In fact, research suggests that experiences of racial discrimination and in-
justice can serve to motivate youth of color to engage in civic and political action to address
such issues (e.g., Flanagan, Syversten, Gill, Gallay, & Cumsille, 2009; Ginwright, 2010).
With their emphasis on community action, youth community organizing programs may
be uniquely suited to fostering civic engagement and related positive youth development
outcomes in low-income youth and youth of color. In fact, youth organizing programs
incorporate the foundational principle of positive youth development (PYD), a view of
youth as positive resources to be developed as opposed to problems to be contained (Roth
& Brooks-Gunn, 2003). More specifically, they build upon the five Cs: Competence, Con-
fidence, Connection, Character, and Caring, which are considered necessary elements of
PYD (e.g., Lerner, Almerigi, Theokas, & Lerner, 2005).
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Youth Community Organizing r3
In spite of growing recognition of the positive potential of youth organizing pro-
grams, there remains a relative dearth of empirical evidence for the individual impacts of
youth organizing programs or the processes through which these impacts emerge. Two
recent mixed methods studies of youth community organizing programs primarily serv-
ing youth of color suggest that participation in youth community organizing programs is
associated with higher levels of civic and political engagement, a greater sense of agency
and identity development, an increased capacity for critical social analysis, and greater
educational motivation and aspirations (Gambone, Yu, Lewis-Charp, Sipe, & Lacow, 2006;
Shah, 2011). Both studies are limited, however, by the use of cross-sectional data, which
make it difficult to evaluate the effect of programming versus the effect of self-selection.
However, qualitative data from these two studies and an exclusively qualitative study of
a youth organizing program (Larson & Woods, 2006) are also encouraging, suggesting
that participation in such programs can influence youth outcomes including action skills,
agency, empowerment, and identity. In their consideration of youth impacts, these three
studies are the exception to youth organizing literature, as shown by an annotated bib-
liography (published in 2003) of literature on youth organizing (Yu & Lacoe, 2003).
Among the 14 reports and articles identified, the majority of them were solely descriptive
of programming. Even since then, a preponderance of the scholarship on youth orga-
nizing programs remains primarily descriptive in nature, with limited data on participant
impacts or processes contributing to change (Shah, 2011).
The current collaborative, community-based study addresses gaps in past research
through a mixed methods evaluation of the impacts of a youth organizing program on
participants and the processes through which experiences influenced outcomes.
METHOD
Description of Program
Youth Force (YF) is the youth component of a community organization created to address
problems of economic disinvestment, unemployment, crime, community tensions, and
the shortage of affordable housing in an urban, predominantly minority, economically
impoverished neighborhood in Boston, Massachusetts. YF is a youth-led, adult-supported
community-organizing program designed to “train local teens to be community leaders
and community organizers, who in turn train other local teens to be leaders and organiz-
ers in their own neighborhoods” (Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation,
2012).
Programming focuses on the development of community organizing skills, such as
meeting facilitation, campaign work, and power analysis. Youth choose issues relevant
to their lives and engage in specific campaigns to make change around those issues.
In the year during which the study took place, YF participants were engaged in a cam-
paign focused on youth employment, and particularly advocating for increased fund-
ing for youth jobs. YF comprises the Youth Leadership Institute and the Core Member
program.
Youth Leadership Institute (YLI)
YLI is a series of eight 2-hour trainings focusing on the development of youth leadership
and organizing skills. Trainings are led by Core Members (CMs) and comprise lessons
Journal of Community Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jcop
4rJournal of Community Psychology, xxxx 2012
around specific community organizing knowledge and skills as well as community-building
and skill-building activities. YLI participants are also expected to participate in at least
two actions (e.g., rallies, community forums) organized by CMs related to current cam-
paigns. The level of involvement in the program varies across YLI participants, with
some attending all eight trainings (or even additional trainings in subsequent YLI cy-
cles) and engaging in multiple actions, and others attending only one or two train-
ings and never participating in actions. YLI graduates (as defined by attending at least
six of the eight trainings and participating in at least two actions) are awarded a $50
stipend for completing the program. Between 10 and 20 youth participate in each of
the three YLI series typically conducted each year. Many YLI graduates continue work-
ing with YF after YLI graduation, either informally as part of campaigns or formally as
CMs.
CM Program
CMs are a group of eight graduates of YLI who receive additional leadership training and
work as part time community organizers, attending YF 4 days per week for 4 hours per day.
Youth must apply to the CM program and are paid hourly for their work. The majority
of CMs reported that payment was a major incentive for joining YF. In the context of
ongoing support and training from the program director, CMs’ primary responsibilities
are (a) developing and implementing campaigns, including meeting with politicians and
community members and organizing and speaking at related community events, and (b)
running YLI, including recruiting participants and designing and leading the trainings.
For more information about the YF mission and programming, please refer to YF’s website:
http://www.dbedc.org/youth.html.
Philosophy of Science and Research Design
This study utilized a concurrent nested mixed methods design with the priority on the
qualitative component (Hanson, Creswell, Clark, Petska, & Creswell, 2005). Inductive
thematic analysis of the qualitative data was used to identify impacts of the program
for youth and the processes that lead to such impacts. Analysis of the quantitative data
was conducted independently and findings were used to corroborate qualitative results
and consider differences between youth who had experienced the more intensive CM
programming (the majority of the interview participants) versus youth who experienced
only the less intensive YLI intervention (the survey participants). The study aimed to
explore the processes and impacts of YF (including YLI and CM experiences) among
CM participants and to investigate whether YLI had an impact even among participants
who did not go on to join the CM program. To untangle processes that occurred during
YLI versus those that occurred during CM programming, we also sought to interview YLI
participants, but surveys were the primary data source for YLI.
Procedure
YF initiated this study to evaluate impacts and the contributing processes to improve
programming. The primary investigator (PI, first author) met repeatedly with the program
director to collaboratively design the study. As part of internal program evaluation, YF
administers surveys at the start and the end of each YLI series. The PI consulted on the
version of the survey used here, meeting twice with the program director and the CMs
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Youth Community Organizing r5
running YLI to identify measures to best evaluate the program’s stated goals. Surveys from
four YLI cycles were used for the quantitative component.
For the qualitative component, the PI and program director collaboratively devel-
oped areas of inquiry. The PI attended a CM meeting and described the research project,
inviting all CMs to participate in interviews and giving youth assent forms and parental
consent forms to take home to their parents/guardians. YLI participants from two of
the four YLI cycles were also invited to participate in interviews. Youth were encour-
aged to ask questions or discuss any potential concerns about the research with the
PI or the program director. In addition, the PI attended and observed YLI and CM
programming.
Participants
Seventy-nine YLI participants completed pre-test surveys. Of these, 43 completed post-
tests as well, which were given to youth on the last training of each cycle. Because of
the nature of YLI, some youth attended isolated trainings, but did not complete the full
cycle. Participants who completed both pre-tests and post-tests included 17 (40%) males
and 26 (60%) females; seven (16%) in middle school (Grades 7–8), 16 (37%) in early
high school (Grades 9–10), 19 (44%) in late high school (Grades 11–12), and one teen
graduate; 28 (65%) identified racially as Black, three (7%) as Latino, two (5%) as Native
American, five (12%) as multiracial, and five (12%) as other. Participants who completed
only pretests included 31 (39%) males and 48 (61%) females; nine (11%) middle school,
37 (47%) early high school, 31 (39%) late high school, and two teen graduates; 42 (54%)
identified racially as Black, 11 (14%) as Latino, two (3%) as Native American, 16 (21%)
as multiracial, seven (9%) as other, and one had missing data. Comparison between
completers and noncompleters for demographic characteristics and pretest scores for all
measures included in the analyses indicated no significant differences.
Because of the difficulty obtaining consent forms, lack of compensation, and the
need for YLI participants to come to YF on a day that YLI did not meet to be interviewed,
only Kayla1(female) and James (male) participated in YLI interviews. They were aged
13 to 14 years, in the 8th or 9th grades, identified racially as Black or multiracial, and
represented African American and African American/Native American ethnicities. The
program director’s report and researcher observation suggested that Kayla and James
were more involved than most YLI members.
All CMs (eight) in the data collection year participated in interviews: Bianca, Bran-
don, Giselle, Jessica, Jillian, Phyllis, Selena, and William. CMs included six females and
twomales,aged15to17years,inthe10
th to 12th grades, identified racially as Black (n=
6) or multiracial (n=2), and represented African American, West Indian, African Amer-
ican/European, and Mexican/West Indian ethnicities. Of the CMs, five had participated
in the program for at least 1 year at the time of the first interview, and three had joined
in the past 2 months. All CMs were YLI graduates, with the exception of one who joined
YF prior to YLI’s existence. The program director, a White European American man in
his late 20s, was also interviewed for the study.
1Pseudonyms are provided to enable tracking of participant quotes and distinction between quotes from CM or
YLI interviewees. Demographic data is presented in aggregate to protect participants’ confidentiality.
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DATA SOURCES
Quantitative Measures
Participatory Citizen (Flanagan, Syvertsen, & Stout, 2007) is a six-item, 5-point Likert-type
scaled self-report measure assessing feelings towards civic engagement, including sense
of civic responsibility and the likelihood of being civically engaged after high school.
The scale showed good internal reliability, test-retest reliability, and measurement validity
among a large sample of adolescents, aged 12–18 years (n=1,924; Flanagan et al., 2007),
in the Northeastern United States. In this study, reliability was adequate to good at both
time points (α1=.78, α2=.81).
Competence for Civic Action (Flanagan et al., 2007) is a nine-item, 5-point Likert-
type scaled measure of participants’ self-perceived ability to address problems in their
community by rating their competence to engage in a range of civic actions. The scale
showed good internal reliability, test-retest reliability, and measurement validity among a
large sample of adolescents, aged 12–18 years (n=1,924; Flanagan et al., 2007), in the
Northeastern United States. In this study, reliability was good at both time points (α1=
.85, α2=.88).
Empowerment (Reininger et al., 2003) is a five-item, 5-point Likert-type scaled self-
report measure assessing youth’s belief in their ability to make change in their communi-
ties. This scale demonstrated adequate validity and internal reliability among high school
students (Reininger et al., 2003). In this study, reliability was adequate at both time points
(α1=.77, α2=.74).
Self-Efficacy (Schwarzer & Jerusalem, 2000) is a 10-item, 4-point Likert-type scaled self-
report measure assessing overall belief in one’s ability to handle stressful situations. This
scale demonstrated high internal reliability, stability, and construct validity among adults
and adolescents of diverse ethnic backgrounds (Scholz, Do˜
na, Sud, & Schwarzer, 2002).
In this study, reliability was adequate to good at both time points (α1=.77, α2=.87).
In addition to the measures above, the survey included measures of Connections
with Adults, and Hope. Connections with Adults was created for the program and ad-
ministered, but it lacked any information on validity, and the measure of Hope had low
internal reliability (less than .6, as measured by Cronbach’s alpha). Analyses reported here
therefore focus solely on the civic engagement and self-efficacy measures. All measures
were calculated as means of individual items, with higher scores indicating greater civic
engagement or self-efficacy.
Qualitative Data Sources
Individual youth interviews with CMs. Semistructured interviews lasting 30–60 minutes were
conducted by the PI during the first two months of programming. Open-ended questions
explored youth’s motivations and expectations, experiences so far within the program
(including prior YLI training and current CM experiences), and impressions of how pro-
gram experiences affected their views of themselves and their role in their communities.
Participants were invited to share stories and specific incidents, and follow-up questions
were asked to elicit further depth.
Post-program interviews. The PI conducted a 1-hour, semi-structured group interview with
seven of the eight CMs at the end of the program (one member was absent on this
program day). The interview focused on impacts of the program on participants and
Journal of Community Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jcop
Youth Community Organizing r7
program experiences that influenced these impacts. While individual interviews provide
a more detailed account of individual experiences, group interviews provide the possibility
for understandings and meaning to be collaboratively developed among group members
(Mason, 2002). The decision to conduct a group interview was based on several factors.
Observation of programming and relationships between youth indicated that CMs had
developed a shared, interactive understanding of their program experience, which could
be best accessed by a group interview format, although the possibility of individual follow-
up interviews was discussed if verbal or nonverbal indicators within the group interview
suggested that individual experiences differed from the group.
In addition, since the majority of CMs had already participated in YF for at least 1 year
at the time of the first interview, impressions of program impacts and experiences were
also captured in initial individual interviews. Finally, a single group interview reduced
the burden on the program, because individual interviews would require additional time
pulling participants from program activities. In the group interview, open-ended questions
were asked and all participants were given the opportunity to respond. Participants were
encouraged to respond to and follow up on each other’s responses. In addition, the
interviewer actively made space for all voices to be heard and explicitly asked for different
or negative experiences.
Individual interviews were also conducted with two current participants in YLI at the
end of the YLI cycle. These interviews were conducted at the program site separate from
YLI programming hours and had a similar focus as the CM post-program interview.
Program director interview. The program director was interviewed at the end of the year
about his perception of program goals, implementation, and impacts on youth partici-
pants.
Observations of youth programming. The PI observed CM programming five times over the
course of the year and YLI programming three times across two cycles, documenting
observations and reflections both during and after programming. When observing YLI,
the researcher attended to processes and impacts for both YLI participants and CMs
leading the YLI workshops. Observation data were used to provide a context for interview
data and were explicitly reviewed during data analysis for examples of negative cases
contrasting with interview data.
Researcher Reflexivity
Reflexivity is the researcher’s reflection on his or her interaction with the research process,
aimed at increasing validity and ensuring that results reflect the participant experiences,
rather than the researcher’s a priori or emerging assumptions (Finlay, 2002). To maintain
reflexivity, the PI kept a journal to record thought processes and “bracket” assumptions.
Authors also engaged in ongoing reflexive discussions about researcher experiences, with
a focus on privileging the emerging voices of youth rather than prior research findings,
the intentions of the program director, or the stated goals of the program. This was
particularly important in this mixed methods study, given we were utilizing a more post-
positivist approach in the quantitative component, but placing a relative emphasis on the
more inductively derived qualitative findings.
Verification. Member checks were conducted with the program director and with
youth at the conclusion of the study. Participant feedback indicated that the theory
and interpretations presented here are consistent with participant experiences. Internal
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Figure 1. Model of development among Youth Force participants.
auditing was conducted through conversations with the program director, and external
auditing with the second author.
RESULTS
Qualitative Data
Interviews were transcribed and analyzed using NVivo software. A primarily inductive
approach maintained openness and allowed for the emergence of themes (Patton, 1990).
Interviewdatawerefirstopen coded into initial categories representing units of meaning.
The data were then axial coded using refined categories that reflected emerging themes.
Finally, using selective coding, the categories and themes were organized into a coherent
model (Creswell, 1998). A constant comparative approach was used at all stages, with
attention to negative cases.
Figure 1 presents an overview of program impacts and processes through which
these impacts emerged. Upon joining the program, participants (both CMs and YLI
members) were exposed to a model of teens as agents of change. At the same time,
the program provided an existing structure for taking action, connecting participants to
structured opportunities to engage in community organizing. Participants also developed
specific knowledge and skills related to taking action through engaging in trainings. The
supportive peer community within YF enabled participants to explore these new skills
and knowledge. Youth were then able to participate in civic action, which created positive
changes not only for the community but also for the youth themselves. Youth began
to view themselves as agents of change and observed changes in how they were viewed
by others, describing increased respect from peers and adults. These positive impacts
encouraged youth to participate in further action, creating a positive feedback loop. This
ongoing cycle led to changes in youth’s self-concepts. Program impacts also extended to
other contexts, particularly in school where youth reported increased self-confidence and
participation.
While attending even a single training allowed participants to experience the first two
steps of the process (exposure to the model of teens as agents of change and opportunities
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Youth Community Organizing r9
for action, as well as developing skills, knowledge, and community), not all YLI partici-
pants completed the program or engaged in actions, represented by the off-path arrow
in the model. The lack of difference between YLI completers and noncompleters in base-
line measures suggests this was not related to differences in initial civic engagement or
empowerment attitudes.
Exposure to Model of Teens as Agents of Change
As soon as they began the program, youth were introduced to not only an abstract idea
of teens as agents of change but also an actual model of teens enacting change, as well
as an associated structure inviting them to participate in this action. Brandon described
his surprise at what youth were capable of doing: “The first time I came by [a YF block
party] . . . they had told me that they organized this whole thing and so it was like, ‘I
could really do this?’ . . . Like I wouldn’t think like, like normal kids like us could just
organize stuff like that.” Jessica described a similar reaction in her first YF experience at
a youth organized community forum, stating that “a lot of people would think that teens
couldn’t get things happening in the community, but clearly she [the YF organizer] did
make a difference because over 50 different organizations came.”
Structure for Action
YF also provided a structure for youth to see how they might engage in such action.
Participants entered the program with little knowledge of how to take action for change.
This attitude was exemplified in William’s initial perception of his capacity to make
change: “I’m like, ‘How am I, I’m one person, how am I going to make a change in the city
and state?’” YF builds on a community-organizing framework to teach participants specific
steps they can take to effect change. The program director noted the importance of
“scaffolding” and explicitly “breaking down the campaign in sort of chunks that connect,
but feel manageable in and of themselves.” Phyllis described how she had always “wanted
change in [her] community” but through participation in YF, “I just feel like I can do
more.” James noted that before participating in YLI, “I probably wouldn’t be able to
[address a community problem], but now I see how you can do it . . . when you stand
together with people you could accomplish a lot of things.”
Development of Skills and Knowledge Within a Supportive Peer Community
Through trainings, youth developed concrete skills and knowledge that enabled them to
take increasing responsibility for community organizing by making the action steps more
approachable. This development occurred among those who participated only in YLI as
well as among CMs, evident both from the significant effect revealed on the Competence
for Civic Action scale in the quantitative findings (below) and from interviews. Members
described gaining skills including: “speaking skills,” “facilitation skills,” “organizing our
ideas,” “making relationships,” and “how to be a team,” as well as increasing their knowl-
edge of “my community,” “youth jobs,” and “the city and the state budget.” The process
of developing these skills was evident during researcher observation of YLI trainings,
through activities that required everyone to participate and interact to develop shared
knowledge contributing to a belief in their own epistemological power, as well as explicit
trainings about how to speak and act in a way that adults would listen (e.g. making eye
contact, dressing in a certain way).
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Both CM and YLI interviewees mentioned developing concrete speaking skills and/or
facilitation skills through participation in the program. Bianca noted, “I feel I can do more
than what I used to, like I didn’t know how to speak publicly. Even in the small group I
couldn’t speak . . . Like I knew ideas but I didn’t want to say it so I just kept it to myself.
Now that I worked that out, I can tell them ideas I know and give ideas out to other
members and all that.” James also reported, “At the beginning I wasn’t really one of the
people that wanted to talk. And then we got – I got used to the people and stuff and
we started doing things, like you had to speak in front of people and now it just doesn’t
matter to me. Like, I could speak in front of anyone.”
CMs particularly emphasized increased knowledge related to awareness of community
needs and strengths. Jillian described the process of developing her awareness of such
issues:
I really didn’t pay attention to my community before Youth Force. I just basically
went home or if I was going to go chill with one of my friends, then I would go
and do that, but other than that I really didn’t take the time to, like, “Oh, what’s
going on with the lights and the pedestrian walks and all the street signs”....
When you first come to Youth Force, you go through a process. You have to learn
what the whole community is about. It’s not just about, you know, the guns and
the gangs that you see on the streets. That’s not what the community is about.
There’s more to it.
Selena described the interaction of increased knowledge with speaking skills, noting,
“When I’m in my school and hearing about youth jobs, and it’s like, since I’ve been
working here, I know a lot about youth jobs and the funding and if we get in arguments,
I can defend whatever I’m thinking because I know the information.” Other members
agreed, describing similar experiences of sharing their increased knowledge with other
youth in their schools and their neighborhoods.
CMs and YLI participants also emphasized the importance of a positive, supportive
peer community within YF that enabled and motivated their learning. Researcher obser-
vation and the interview with the program director indicated that explicit community-
building activities were deliberately integrated throughout programming, both for YLI
and CMs. Selena described the importance of the peer community in relation to the
impacts of YF: “Here, it’s like always it’s like a second family. It’s always welcoming and
you’re always learning and laughing and working of course.” Kayla also mentioned the
role of the peer community, noting “when you’re taking a step forward of helping yourself
up along with others, with other students or youth that can relate to you, it helps you
out because you feel like you’re not alone.” Results from interviews clearly indicated that
skills and knowledge were not enough; the sense of support and connection not only to
the broader community but also to the peer community within YF played an important
role in contributing to program effects.
Civic Action
A major component of YF was actually participating in actions (e.g., meeting with politi-
cians, organizing community events, running trainings). Actions put to use the skills
and knowledge developed through programming, while peer support and role models
contributed to youth’s willingness to move beyond their comfort zones to take action.
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Youth Community Organizing r11
Participation in actions further built skills and knowledge and strengthened participants’
sense of shared community.
In describing YF actions, Brandon stated, “I could say one word like ‘challenging,’
and then again I could say . . . it’s exciting, like, that you can really be doing this.” A
number of CMs described feeling challenged by actions, such as being nervous before
giving speeches at public events and “leading [trainings] in front of people you don’t
know.” The formal learning around relevant skills helped youth overcome this anxiety.
For example, William noted that he “had met with 7 out of the 13 city councilmen” and
described first feeling “kind of scared to ask the questions” but eventually learning to
“maintain the flow of the meeting.” He explained how he asks “relational questions and
general questions” describing his learning about how to speak to authority figures and
advocate for change: “Relational questions just basically . . . try to make a connection
with the person themselves, and general questions are things you want them to advocate
for you for.” CMs also described the importance of peer support in overcoming anxiety,
noting, “We’re all asked to do the same thing eventually. Like, we’ve all led a training. If
you haven’t done it, you’re going to do it. So you’re not by yourself cause everybody did
it before.”
YLI participants tended not to play as significant a role in leading actions, but a
number of them attended rallies, met with politicians, or led parts of trainings. James
described how he was part of “a big rally” that was “on the news.” Kayla participated in a
meeting with a representative. She described, “We went down to the State House to go
talk to the representatives and things like that and, it’s like, throughout the process it
helps me because as I learn how to do it, it’s helping me be better for myself.”
Youth Empowerment and Changes in Self-Concept
As Kayla related, participation in actions played a crucial role in developing youth’s sense
of themselves as agents of change and increasing feelings of empowerment. Participants
learned that they could apply their knowledge and skills to make change, and described
how participating in actions affected how they viewed themselves and how they related to
others.
Recognition of self as agent of change. A number of CMs described being surprised and
impressed by their ability to organize events that large numbers of people attended,
obtain substantial sums of money from businesses, and talk directly with key players in
policy. Jessica described securing $10,000 from a local bank for youth jobs and explained
how her experience challenged her own and others’ preconceptions of youth:
We felt that, oh, in the beginning, nobody was going to pay attention to us
because most people don’t feel that teens can handle their money, much less,
handle thousands of dollars from banks . . . . But we set our goal and we started
meeting with banks, talking to them, and we started giving them a lot of detail that
they didn’t think that we would know like, we’re like “We know you’re obligated
to give the community that money because of such and such a law.”
Phyllis described how the process of preparing for and giving a speech at a large
public event increased her confidence in her own abilities, noting that, “afterwards I
felt like if I can do that in front of all these people I can do so much more.” William,
who initially was skeptical of the idea that he could play a role in making change in his
Journal of Community Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jcop
12 rJournal of Community Psychology, xxxx 2012
community, observed, “But then, as time passed, I started to learn more about the field of
work and the youth job budget itself. I studied it more and then I just got more, like more
powerful, in the terms that I was able to speak to the people that actually directly affects
my community.” Selena explained, “I think I would say being here, it just shows you, you
have a voice. Cause, like I said before, like, before I wouldn’t really speak out on things
even if I did feel that it was a problem in my community, but yeah, being here it showed
me that I have a voice, like, what I feel is important to my community.”
Youth emphasized the importance of feeling empowered to help not only oneself
but also others. Giselle, who was one of the key players in conducting YLI, summarized
the feelings of empowerment and self-efficacy that arose in the context of engaging in
community actions that influence others, saying, “Like, when I’m here I feel like I have
power I guess. Like, I feel like I’m in charge in something and people are counting on me
and the work I’m doing is actually going somewhere and it’s something positive.” Kayla,
a YLI member, also noted, “It feels good to, like, help out other teens.”
Increased respect from others. Participants also described noticing a difference in how other
people viewed them based on their involvement in community organizing. William ob-
served that people in his community and teachers at school “respect me more as a person.
You know what I mean? That I’m actually trying to change the community.” Brandon also
noted, in a tone of slight incredulity: “When I mention that I’m a community organizer at
school or even around teens my age, they actually see me as a person that’s actually about
his business and, like, it actually makes me feel like a good thing about myself. Like, I’m
a community organizer, I’m seen as a positive role model.” All of the CMs in the group
interview strongly agreed with this statement. Giselle (a Black participant) described in-
teractions with peers at her primarily White school, contextualizing these interactions in
relation to challenging racialized stereotypes:
And when I tell them I’m working, they’re, like, “Oh, oh, you’re doing something
bad, like, bagging groceries and stuff?” It’s, like, “No, I’m a community organizer.”
When you say that, it’s like, “Whoa, that sounds kind of sophisticated. What do
you do there?” . . . It’s, like, [they’re thinking], “Oh, wait, maybe everything I’m
thinking is wrong.” Cause their view of Black people is what they see on television
or what they typically hear on the news.
As youth participants received positive feedback for participation in actions, including
internal feelings of empowerment and agency as well as increased respect from adults and
peers, their belief in themselves strengthened and they were inspired to engage in further
action, resulting in a positive feedback cycle. These developments, in turn, engendered
other positive outcomes, including broader changes in self-concept related to an increased
sense of connection and civic responsibility.
Changes in self-concept. CMs described developing a greater sense of responsibility for their
community and incorporating this responsibility into their overall self-concepts. Increased
knowledge and the belief that their actions could make a difference led them to believe
that they should take action. Giselle explained, “Like with my community, I would see
people around and say hi but I wasn’t really involved with them. But being here, it’s, like,
now I know more about the issues and I know what I can do to help. And if I have the
knowledge to help then I should help.” Similarly, Selena observed, “I learned a lot by
working here. Like, I did not care about who was running for governor . . . I was just
Journal of Community Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jcop
Youth Community Organizing r13
worried about me and my family and my friends. I wasn’t worried about my neighbors . . .
But if you come together, you get so much done.”
For the CMs, working at YF became not just a job, but a part of their self-concept.
For example, a number of CMs referenced themselves as “community organizers” with
a tone of pride. In the group interview, Jillian noted that though her job would be
formally ending at the end of the year, she planned to stay involved the campaign she
was working on, a statement with which other members agreed. Moreover, all of the
CMs described engaging in conversations about their work outside of work hours. For
example, all CMs reported talking about their campaign for youth jobs with youth in
their schools and neighborhoods, as well as recruiting peers to YLI. More broadly, Jessica
described: “When I see kids talk, [saying] all you can do is sell drugs and all that and not
have a positive influence, I let them know there is a better way out.” Selena emphasized
how being a community organizer is more than just a job, and becomes a defining
identity, demanding an internalized integrity of purpose, explaining, “I feel like if you’re
a community organizer and you only do good things because you work here and when
you’re out of your job you don’t do anything good, then that’s not being real.”
Generalized Impacts
All of the CMs reported that involvement in YF increased their self-confidence, not only in
relation community organizing skills and competencies but also more generally. This was
a theme in the group interview, in which all the youth agreed that after working for YF,
“you have way more confidence than you had before” and described YF as “a confidence
booster.” William stated of his job at YF, “I just feel like I’m on task. It makes me feel good
about myself.” Kayla, a YLI member, also reported that involvement in YF “makes me feel
good because it’s like something positive that I can do as a teen, and a lot of teens don’t
have positive things to do.”
Participants also described transferring the skills and confidence they developed in
YF to other contexts of their lives, a major area being school. Giselle noted how before
coming to YF, “Even in school I would not speak up—if I had an idea or something, I did
not talk about it. And being here really helped me to grow out of that.” Brandon explained,
“My interactions with teachers [are] better . . . if you don’t have any interaction, you’re
never going to ask for help.” He also reported that since his improved interactions with
teachers, he had started taking honors classes and joined Student Council. When asked
what he thought had brought about these changes, he responded, “I think it could’ve
been this [YF], really.” James also noted: “If we could do a big rallying downtown . . . then
it wouldn’t be that hard to just go to the school and settle some things with teachers and
stuff.” Both Jillian and William reported developing “accountability” including “being
on time” and “being held responsible for the things that you say and do,” which they
were able to translate to their school behavior, spending less time procrastinating on
homework and noting, “if I can show up to work on time then I should be able to show
up to school on time.” Jillian also described broad changes her behavior, reporting, “I’m
more accountable than I was before, and I push myself to do better. I volunteer a lot,
and I try to have a positive attitude and influence on peers—and not just people who are
working [at YF], but people in school or the community and my house.”
Quantitative Data
Paired t-tests utilizing pre-test and post-test scores revealed statistically significant improve-
ment among YLI participants on the Competence for Civic Action scale, t(2, 38) =2.72,
Journal of Community Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jcop
14 rJournal of Community Psychology, xxxx 2012
p=.01, and marginally significant improvement on the Empowerment scale, t(2, 42 =
1.67, p=.10). Effect sizes calculated using Cohen’s d, correcting for dependence between
means, indicated a medium effect for Competence for Civic Action (Cohen’s d=.46) and
a small effect for Empowerment (Cohen’s d=.26). No significant differences between
pre-test and post-test scores on measures of Participatory Citizenship or Self-Efficacy were
detected. The positive effects on Competence for Civic Action and Empowerment were
consistent with qualitative data indicating an increase in skills, knowledge, and belief in
one’s ability to effect change. In sum, significant quantitative findings supported qualita-
tive findings.
DISCUSSION
This study indicates that youth community organizing programs can influence a range
of youth development outcomes, including the development of skills, knowledge, civic
engagement, empowerment, and positive changes in self-concept. Moreover, youth re-
ported transferring the competencies they developed in YF into other areas of their lives,
particularly in school, attributing increased class participation, greater accountability, and
improved relationships with teachers to their experiences in YF.
Differential benefits occurred based on the level of involvement with the program.
Outcomes more closely related to programming, including civic competency (perception
of one’s ability to engage in specific civic actions) and empowerment (belief in one’s
ability to work with others to make change), were observed both among CMs and within
YLI, as indicated by qualitative and quantitative data. For broader psychosocial effects to
occur, however, it was necessary to be more intensively involved in the program. Quali-
tative descriptions of deeper changes in self-concept, self-esteem, and civic responsibility
were limited to CMs. Moreover, within the quantitative data collected from YLI partici-
pants, no significant changes were observed on the Participatory Citizen scale (including
civic responsibility and intention to continue involvement in community issues after high
school) or Self-Efficacy (overall confidence in one’s ability to handle stressful situations).
Qualitative interviews with CM, however, clearly described these effects. While the im-
pacts from participation in YLI were limited in scope, statistically significant effects on
Competence for Civic Action and Empowerment were observed. As this is the first study
to investigate the impacts of youth community organizing programs on youth who are
less intensively involved than the core membership of youth organizers (Shah, 2011), it is
promising to see that such an intervention comprising only six to eight sessions can have
effects on a broader base of youth.
The results from this study indicated that participant impacts can extend to behavior
in school. In fact, observations and interviews with YLI participants suggested that even
this limited intervention contributed to increased comfort sharing thoughts and opinions,
which can translate into increased participation in class. Some CMs also described more
expansive and specific changes in improving their ability to communicate with teach-
ers and becoming more accountable due to their involvement in YF. This finding has
important implications for youth after-school programming in general, indicating that
the benefits youth derive from after-school programming can extend beyond program-
specific competencies to behaviors and cognitions that can contribute to youths’ success
in other realms such as school.
This study also examined the processes underlying the impacts of the program. By
having CMs lead YLI trainings and connect YLI participants to current campaigns they
Journal of Community Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jcop
Youth Community Organizing r15
are organizing, all participants are exposed at the outset to a model of youth as agents of
change and a structure that allows them to engage in action. Findings are consistent with
previous research on sociopolitical development indicating the importance of providing
youth with the “opportunity for action” (Shah, 2011; Watts & Flanagan, 2007; Watts,
Williams, & Jagers, 2003). The process of engaging in action and witnessing concrete
changes result from those efforts appears to have played a significant role in contributing
to youth’s sense of themselves as agents of change. Discussing youth civic engagement,
Balsano (2005) observed, “It is important for youth, just as it is for adults, to know that their
opinions and actions have a potential significant effect on different processes associated
with resolving issues of communal interest” (p. 193). The majority of civic education
taught in schools focuses on discussing the importance of civic engagement and teaching
about the structures and processes involved, but rarely engages students in action.
This study suggests the benefit of viewing youth as positive community resources and
providing them with structures to engage in civic action (Ginwright & James, 2002; Lerner
et al., 2005; Watts & Flanagan, 2007). Participation in civic actions influenced both youth’s
sense of their own ability to effect change, as well as the way they were viewed by others,
based on their report. The positive effects that arise from participation in actions can be
reinforcing, resulting in a positive feedback loop and giving rise to broader psychosocial
benefits.
Youth emphasized the significance of feeling that peers and adults were treating
them with increased respect. This is consistent with research on adolescent identity de-
velopment. Cooley (1902) described the “looking-glass self,” in which significant others
in youth’s lives become mirrors by which youth see themselves. Similarly, Mead (1934)
described the process of incorporating the “reflected appraisal” of others’ view of oneself
into one’s own self-image. Others’ appraisal is particularly significant during adolescence
when self-consciousness increases (Harter, 2006; Rosenberg, 1979) and youth are trying
on different identities (Erikson, 1968). Being viewed as positive and contributing mem-
bers of society may be particularly salient for minority adolescents and adolescents from
low-income neighborhoods. Because of negative stereotypes about people of color, people
who are poor, and adolescents in general, such youth may become accustomed to being
viewed negatively (e.g., Gross & Hardin, 2010; Seaton, Caldwell, Sellers, & Jackson, 2008;
Reutter et al., 2009). Being treated with respect and viewed as role models by peers and
adults, especially adults with power and status such as politicians and community leaders,
may have a particularly strong influence on how youth view themselves.
Data also indicated that though many youth reported initially joining YF for the
purpose of obtaining a paid job, over time they developed intrinsic motivation, including
a sense of civic responsibility and a commitment to their role as community organizers.
This is consistent with other research on processes of motivation in youth (Dawes &
Larson, 2011) and suggests that paying youth for their participation does not reduce the
benefits they gain or their commitment to civic engagement and may in fact serve as a
gateway to intrinsic motivation. Moreover, in low-income communities where there may
be more pressure on youth to get jobs and earn money, this may be a strategy to allow
youth to benefit from enriching after-school experiences.
This study has a number of methodological strengths, including a mixed methods
design and data from participants with varying levels of program involvement. An ad-
ditional strength is the collaborative approach: the method was constructed so findings
would contribute both to knowledge in the field and to specific program evaluation needs.
This also brings methodological limitations, however. YF espouses a particular model of
community organizing and may be especially intensive, limiting the generalizability of
Journal of Community Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jcop
16 rJournal of Community Psychology, xxxx 2012
results. Youth who participated in interviews included CMs (who had applied to and been
chosen for the job) and two YLI members who were more involved with the program.
As a result, findings from interview data were influenced by self-selection and may be
applicable primarily to youth who are more extensively involved in programming. Future
research should explore processes occurring in the context of more limited YLI program-
ming. In addition, it is possible that conducting a group post-program interview may have
contributed to more positive responses about program experiences. Nevertheless, this
decision to conduct a single group interview rather than a series of individual interviews
is not uncharacteristic of community-based research, which must weigh research needs
against the burden placed on the program. Despite limitations, the results of this study
demonstrate how a community’s youth represent a valuable source of social capital, and
how providing structures for youth to engage in community change efforts can bring
about positive change at both the community and the individual level through its effect
on youth development.
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... Scholars (Brewer, 2003;Houston, 2005; Y. Lee, 2012; Y. Lee & Wilkins, 2011;Piatak, 2015;Rodell, 2013) note that volunteerism, in general, represents a prosocial behavior that can be attributed, in part, to a motivation to serve others in the community. Volunteering can be driven by an individual's desire to make a difference (Christensen & Wright, 2011;Houston, 2005;Perry, Mesch, & Paarlberg, 2006) by the need to establish connections (Schwartz & Suyemoto, 2013;Townsend et al., 2012), or by the expectations of good outcomes that are valued (Chen & Bozeman, 2013;Wilson, 2000). Yet, individuals are motivated to volunteer for other reasons that are less altruistic in nature and geared more toward personal gains or benefits (Prouteau & Wolff, 2008;Rotolo & Wilson, 2006). ...
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... | Vol. 14 Issue 1 DOI 10.5195/jyd.2019.699 Improving Self-Efficacy Via Community Programs 166 outside of schools needs to be available that targets factors that can reduce risk, promote resilience, and facilitate educational achievement in youth (Berg, Coman, & Schensul, 2009;Schwartz & Suyemoto, 2013). One such factor is self-efficacy, which is correlated with numerous positive academic outcomes in students (Britner & Pajares, 2006;Robbins et al., 2004). ...
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