Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

17475 Conceptions of Leadership Among Low-Income, Urban Adolescents

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 3:30 PM
McPherson Square (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Inna Altschul, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Lacey Clark, MSW, PhD Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Kristi Roybal, MSW Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Background and Purpose: Youth leadership is associated with positive developmental outcomes among diverse populations of youths (Lewis, Sullivan & Bybee, 2006; Scales, et al., 2000). Leadership development can be especially effective during adolescence by being incorporated into youths' identity formation. Consequently, programs focused on youth leadership have emerged as promising intervention strategies for promoting positive development and preventing negative outcomes among adolescents (Holden et al., 2004). However, most conceptualizations of leadership are derived from studying adult leaders and rely heavily on concepts borrowed from business (Whitehead, 2009). The few studies that have explored conceptions of leadership from young peoples' perspectives focus on college students, arguably a select group of youths. Thus, despite the proliferation of program to promote leadership among vulnerable adolescents there is a dearth of theory to guide such programs. This study uses data from focus groups and interviews with low-income 11-18 year-old, urban youths to develop an understanding of what it means to be a leader to this group of young people.

Methods: In order to define youth leadership from the perspective of young people, focus groups and interviews were conducted with adolescents in grades 7-11 at a public secondary school (n=128), and youth participants of a neighborhood after-school program at two public housing communities (n=22). The majority of youths were Latino/a, with a smaller proportions of Black and White youths; about half of all participants were first generation immigrants. All youths resided in low-income, urban neighborhoods and attended schools with a high proportion of students eligible for free/reduced lunch. The constant comparative method of analysis was used to ground findings in the words of adolescents themselves. Coding was carried out by the three authors with regular consultations to discuss emergence of new codes and evolution of analytic categories.

Results: While youths offered a range of definitions of leadership, most definitions referenced agency and power in some form. For this group of adolescents, leadership was associated with purposive action, or agency, whether for the benefit of others (most common), for one's own benefit (least common), or choosing actions that align with institutional norms. Leadership was also associated with power relations. Although some young people described a collective form of power, most understood power as being distributive, or power over someone else. Adolescents discussed barriers to becoming leaders, both internal (“I get frustrated”) and external (“peer pressure,” “negative environment”), which highlighted the tension between being collectively oriented and needing to resist the collective to “follow a good path.” Youths also discussed the pressures of being “perfect” or “good,” which was in their minds linked with being a leader.

Implications: These findings suggest that leadership development interventions for low-income, urban adolescents should be mindful of the assumptions and definitions of leadership that youths bring with them. For the adolescents in this study, leadership was associated with a collectivist orientation, yet barriers to becoming a leader pitted young people against the collective and appeared almost insurmountable. Successful interventions should aid young people in developing more accessible pathways to leadership.

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