A critical process of healthy youth development is the formation of a positive sense of identity. However, particular youth populations are identified as being socially vulnerable. The theory of social vulnerability recognizes the impact of risk factors (e.g., systemic racism, poverty, poor family management) on youth development. For many youth of color and/or from economically disadvantaged urban communities, social vulnerability highlights lived experiences of disparity. Therefore, urban youth are at-risk for the development of negative self-identities. An individual’s holistic identity is comprised of a variety of differing identities related to their social, physical, and spiritual self, and encapsulate one’s cultural norms and gender expectations. However, the mechanisms that contribute to the formation of these various identity domains are not well understood. The current study explored mechanisms, from multiple perspectives, that contribute to youth identity formation across multiple domains among urban youth.
The study took place at a sport-based positive youth development (PYD) program for “high school inner-city male athletes,” and used sport activities as a medium to facilitate conversations about faith and teach principles of healthy masculinity. In total, 14 male youth and 10 male staff members participated in the study. The age of youth participants ranged from 14-17 years old. A majority of youth self-identified as Black/African American (n=11), followed by White (n=2) and bi-racial (n=1). A majority of staff self-identified as Black/African American (n=6), with the remaining being White (n=4).
Interviews explored youth identities related to the domains of race/culture, faith, masculinity, and athletics. Youth interviews focused on their own lived experiences, while staff interviews explored their perceptions of youth. For example, youth were asked “What specific influences contribute to your masculinity?” and staff were asked “What specific influences do you believe contribute to campers’ masculinity?” As outlined by Braun and Clark (2006), two separate inductive thematic analyses were conducted, one for youth data and one for staff data.
Findings demonstrate a variety of mechanisms that enhance or conflict with youth identity formation related to the domains of race/culture, faith, masculinity, and athletics. Further, areas of (mis)alignment between youth and staff were recognized. For example, related to race/culture, youth and staff discussed the importance of popular culture and the negative influence of stereotypes. Similarly, related to the domain of faith, youth and staff explained how growing up in a religious family positively contributed to identity. However, related to masculinity, youth discussed the positive influence of male family members, while staff believed that the lack of male role models inhibited healthy masculinity.
By interviewing youth participants and adult staff, the current study explored youth identity formation from multiple perspectives; thus, providing a more holistic understanding of this critical process of youth development. Findings support the notion that sport-based PYD and other related programs can be critical spaces used to positively influence youth identity formation. Using these findings, programs can be designed and facilitated to leverage positive mechanisms while mitigating negative factors that contribute to youth identity formation, such as the influence of male role models.