Abstract: "Young Women My Age Really Need Boosts like This": A Pilot Exploring Improv As a Facilitator of Wellness Among Young Women of Color (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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397P "Young Women My Age Really Need Boosts like This": A Pilot Exploring Improv As a Facilitator of Wellness Among Young Women of Color

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Stephanie Begun, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Cam Bautista, Student, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Brigette Mayorga, BS, Student, University of Toronto, M5S1V4, ON, Canada
Krysta Cooke, MSW, Graduate Research Assistant, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Background: With roots in social work, scenic improvisation (“Improv”) is the spontaneous production of unscripted responses to a scenario-of-the-moment and involves impromptu acting, scene-development, and problem-solving. Circumventing needs for memorization, improv increases self-awareness, interpersonal attentiveness, and trust among group-members, and is unavoidably social, whereby individual vulnerability contributes to collective strength. Improv generates laughter, which reduces anxiety, stress, and loneliness, while improving energy-level, empowerment feelings, and hope. As an intervention, improv demonstrated reduced Parkinson’s disease symptoms and improvements in learning and self-esteem among people with early-stage dementia. Improv has also been recognized for effectively reducing mental health stigma and enhancing coping and help-seeking behaviours among incarcerated women. Despite positive outcomes observed, gaps exist regarding improv’s potential to nurture wellness outcomes among youth, in general, and specifically, young women of color. This group has been impacted by multiple pandemics, including disproportionate losses due to COVID-19, coupled with state-sanctioned violence waged against communities of color. Theoretically rooted in tenets of social learning, this pilot study aimed to qualitatively explore group-based improv participation experiences among young women of color.

Methods: Youth accessing virtual after-school programming were recruited through staff announcements and flyers circulated via e-mail. A pre-project structured interview guide was used to ask youth about their interests and hesitations in being involved in improv activities. Improv workshops then met weekly for two hours, via Zoom, for three sessions. Workshops were facilitated by an expert improv trainer and co-hosted by the PI. Each week, the group engaged in community-building, group norm-setting, and improv skill-development, activities from the partner organization’s improv curriculum. Each session concluded with a debriefing on how the activities were challenging, helpful, or relevant to daily life. Following the workshops, youth completed a post-project interview, which asked youth what they liked, disliked, learned, and their recommendations for future programming. Transcripts underwent qualitative template analysis by three coders, identifying data-segments that correspond to a priori areas of inquiry, recognizing emergent themes within such coding structures.

Results: The seven participants were ages 15-18; three were Asian and four were Black; all were cisgender young women. Some were initially interested because improv presented an opportunity to meet people and experience laughter, which was especially needed during COVID-19 lockdowns and online school. Several were hesitant, as improv sounded uncomfortable given their introverted natures; yet, they indicated wanting to push themselves to try new things. Following the workshops, participants shared resoundingly positive feedback, noting that improv introduced meaningful connections to other young women and adult women facilitators, also igniting self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-discovery of their important voices and creativity. Most striking was that young women who nearly did not participate due to introversion perhaps thrived most; one youth reflected on how her shy demeanor translated to excellent listening skills, a quality that made her "an improv genius.”

Conclusions and Implications: Inclusion of improv activities in intervention and prevention efforts would benefit from additional exploration as ways by which youth-serving programs and supports might be innovated and tailored to the specific wellness needs of young women of color.