Methods: Five organizations were sampled that served primarily 1) youth of color, 2) immigrant or refugee youth, and 3) youth with trans- or non-binary gender identities. One or two leaders from each organization was interviewed for a total of seven interviews. Fifteen youth ages 13-19 were recruited to attend five focus groups. Sixty-one percent (61%) of participants were youth of color, 38% identified as trans or a non-binary gender, and 34% were immigrants or refugees. A semi-structured interview protocol was used in all focus groups and interviews. Focus groups and interviews were recorded and transcribed and analyzed using deductive thematic content analysis.
Results: Identity development was critical for all participants, but youths' own identities had a large influence on how they define and prioritize racial, ethnic, cultural and gender identity. For racial identity, youth discussed the salience of race to inequality and how society treats them as a result. Immigrant and refugee youth discussed the importance of cultural identity, yet did not relate to racial or ethnic identity. Gender diverse youth reported that their experience of their gender identity was a choice that could change moment to moment. For all youth, the way that programs fostered their identity development was central to how they perceived programs supported their well-being. Organizational leaders largely reflected this sentiments of youth, but tended to have more nuanced understandings in their definitions of race, ethnicity and culture. Leaders discussed the strong importance they place on building relationships with youth, and creating a positive social environment that helps youth to navigate bicultural or gender diverse identities.
Conclusions: Youth perspectives are critical to develop measurement tools that are attuned to cultural differences and experiences of systemic oppression. Youth conceptualizations of social identity, in particular racial, ethnic and gender identity are especially important for evaluating culturally-responsive youth development programs. Implications for positive youth development programs and the role in reducing racial inequality are discussed.