Psychological empowerment is an essential feature of authentic and sustained civic engagement and can also promote adaptive functioning in other life domains. Feeling empowered to express one’s views, critically analyze issues, and address community problems may be assets for urban ethnic minority youth, whose voices are often marginalized and who disproportionately face community problems. Theory posits cognitive, emotional, and relational forms of empowerment that motivate civic action and social change (Christens 2012; Zimmerman, 1995). Using this model as a lens, our study aimed to explore experiences of empowerment among urban ethnic minority youth to better understand the motivations of this population for being civically engaged.
We interviewed 90 youth (Mage = 15, range = 13-19) from five recreation centers in the urban center of a mid-sized city in the Northeastern U.S., where the violent crime rate is 4 times the national average, the high school graduation rate is 43%, and 35% of families fall below the federal poverty line. The sample was 60% male and predominantly Black (89% Black, 8% Latinx, 3% Other or Unreported). One-on-one semi-structured interviews lasted 35-60 minutes. Interview questions pertained to youth’s experiences in and views of their communities, community problems and potential solutions, and police-community relations. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and coded thematically using DeDoose qualitative software. Coding for empowerment was primarily deductive, using empowerment theory as a guide; yet coders remained open to additional themes.
Of the three forms of empowerment (Christens 2012) the most commonly experienced by participants was emotional empowerment, evidenced by the descriptions of personal agency and motivation to make a difference in one’s community. Some youth felt that they possessed a voice to speak up or stand up for others in daily contexts, and provided examples of this type of agency by describing specific activities they could participate in such as mentoring younger children or advocating for sexual assault prevention. Cognitive empowerment manifested when youth displayed deeper analysis of factors that underlie community problems. For example, although most youth cited violence as the most pervasive community problem, some youth recognized poverty as an underlying cause of community problems or discussed structural racism. Cognitive empowerment was also illustrated when youth elaborated on specific skills, plans, or actions that could be enacted to make community change, such as specific strategies for forming or strengthening organizations. Relational empowerment characterized responses that articulated the importance of collective efforts to facilitate positive community change, such as working with peers to stop bullying.
Conclusions and Implications
Findings illustrate that urban youth experience empowerment in multiple ways, all of which lead to some degree of civic engagement. Understanding the ways in which urban youth feel empowered can inform social work practice with youth in schools, advocacy agencies, and other organizations. By understanding youth empowerment and experiences that foster it, social workers can be better equipped to provide opportunities for young people that help youth develop their personal agency and deepen involvement in solving community problems.