Abstract: Youth-Serving Organizations As Community Spaces for Youth in Urban Neighborhoods (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

655P Youth-Serving Organizations As Community Spaces for Youth in Urban Neighborhoods

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Rachel Wells, MSW, MUP, Doctoral Candidate, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA
Jason Anthony Plummer, MSW, MUP, NA, University of California, Los Angeles
Laura Wray-Lake, PhD, Associate Professor, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA
Laura Abrams, PhD, Professor, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA
Community-based Youth Organizations (CBYOs) have drawn from the logics of positive youth development, embracing the mission of preparing youth to thrive and focusing on strengths rather than emphasizing deficits. CBYOs address important institutional needs in low-income neighborhoods, such as offering structured programming, providing safe spaces particularly in contexts of community violence, and creating opportunities for youth to build meaningful relationships (Deshenes, McLaughlin, & O’Donoghue, 2006; Hirsh, 2005). Yet, the structure and design of these community spaces are often based on adults’ understandings of youth or community needs or on pressures to portray youth as ‘at-risk’ to funders (Elisaoph, 2011), leaving youth’s perspectives understudied. Youth’s perspectives on the role of CBYOs can valuably add to the knowledge base on best practices for promoting positive youth development in communities and the importance of community spaces for youth.


This study uses qualitative interview data from 74 urban adolescents residing in high-poverty areas of a Northeastern City to examine how youth describe the roles that CBYOs play in their community context. We focused on comprehensive or catch-all youth centers that offer a wide variety of structured and unstructured activities, and thus many possible roles could be identified. Interviews lasted between 35 to 60 minutes and were transcribed verbatim. In unprompted ways, youth discussed the roles of organizations when talking about community spaces, adult support, experiences in the community, and potential solutions to community problems. We conducted three rounds of inductive analysis, including focused coding and memo-writing, to identify the range of ways that youth described the role of organizations and to identify key categories.


From appreciating the welcoming environment and job opportunities to feeling bored at home, interviewees discussed the range of roles for these centers. Data analysis identified four specific roles that CBYOs played in youths'  lives: (1) providing space for unstructured time; (2) offering opportunities to build supportive relationships with adults and like-minded peers; (3) facilitating access to activities, employment, and other resources; and (4) creating climates for youth to feel heard and express their voice. A theme interwoven throughout these roles was that these centers felt like a community space. A key aspect to a community space was feeling safe, and many youth saw the rec centers as a “safe haven,” serving as a respite or safe space when youth felt their community was too dangerous. Safety was more than just the absence of violence, and the roles above contributed to creating a safe community space.


Through examining how youth describe their interactions with CBYOs, this study adds to our understanding of both the role and limitation of community-based youth organizations. Importantly, these catch-all centers served a various functions and youth valued both structured and unstructured aspects. Through youth’s discussion, we can see how the different elements combine to make a key community space. Funders should consider the importance of open, unstructured time and array of programs and resources can work to provide a space for key relationships and positive youth development.