Abstract: (Withdrawn) Youth Wellness Lab: Expanding Youth Voice in Research (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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(Withdrawn) Youth Wellness Lab: Expanding Youth Voice in Research

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Valley of the Sun A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Krysta Cooke, MSW, Graduate Research Assistant, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Vilmara Lucas, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Cam Bautista, Youth Outreach Coordinator, Youth Wellness Lab, University of Toronto
Travonne Edwards, MA, Research Coordinator, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Vibhuti Kacholia, BSc., Graduate Research Assistant, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Bryn King, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Stephanie Begun, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Background: Housed at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto, Youth Wellness Lab (YWL) is a research collaborative that brings together youth, academic researchers, and community-based organizations as partners in research with a shared goal of improving outcomes across multiple intersecting domains by, with, and for youth. Building upon Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) methodology, YWL aims to build meaningful partnerships with youth by bridging their lived experience with research and community-based interventions that have the power to impact policy and practice with youth voices at the centre. YWL is a response to the systemic barriers experienced disproportionately by Black and Indigenous youth, such as the gatekeeping of access to knowledge curation and dissemination.

Methods: YWL was established with youth voice at the center of its development. From the outset, community-based youth advisors were recruited to ensure youth voices would be central to the growth of the organization. Acting as a separate entity that was linked to but not governed by the YWL, the Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) was founded by five youth, each of whom are racialized, have lived experience, and are not directly affiliated with the University of Toronto but who were enrolled as students in fields related to social services and/or youth work. Over time, youth advisors indicated a desire to further engage in research and expand their roles beyond that of "advisor." As such, the Youth Researcher Program was created. Each member’s scope of practice expanded to include research engagement in projects curated to address youth-identified areas of importance.

Results: To date, 100% of founding youth members have remained with the YWL, and 80% have retained their position as youth researchers. Additionally, two more youth members have been recruited and have indicated a desire to become Youth Researchers through a process articulated by the YAC. All youth members are directly involved in YWL’s inaugural research project, The Real TO, an 8-week Instagram Live speaker series designed to explore the potential of co-created spaces for youth to host conversations important to them, including leading conversations in almost 40% of episodes, with the remaining 60% led by other community-based youth. Of particular interest is anecdotal data shared by youth researchers indicating that by establishing partnerships with academic institutions that increase access and place importance on lived experience, youth can feel empowered through collaboration with other young people of colour who are also passionate about social justice.

Conclusions and Implications: The Youth Researcher Program tests a new approach to traditional research by building capacity for youth to be meaningful partners rather than passive observers in research. This program has the capacity to create alternative pathways for youth seeking professional experience and mentorship, or for youth who want to engage in research knowledge creation but are not yet connected to post-secondary institutions through respectful and authentic mentorship, and encourages pathways otherwise not considered or deemed unattainable (e.g., graduate or doctoral programs). By expanding youth voice in research, youth can recognize the value of their voices and lived experiences.