Youth participatory action research (YPAR) centers the experiences of young people as experts in the issues impacting their lives. YPAR is a research method with transformative potential as youth are active participants in knowledge production intended to change the landscapes of their own communities (Anyon, 2018; Wagaman, 2015). The process of engaging in YPAR has potential to create positive outcomes for youth researchers, including leadership, social, and critical consciousness skills (Anyon, 2018); skills associated with empowerment (Gutierrez, 1990). As such, YPAR is a valuable method for building community power and capacity for change. Little is understood about the process by which empowerment happens through YPAR, including how youth develop a sense of themselves as changemakers and the indicators that an empowering space and process have been created. The current study sought to develop a framework for youth empowerment rooted in the experiences of young people who were involved in YPAR.
Data for this study were collected through an initiative between university researchers in social work and urban planning and three community-based organizations. The project included development of three YPAR teams with a total of 15 youth/young adult (ages 16-25) researchers who learned together about their communities, and designed and conducted research studies to answer team-specific questions. The project ran from 2020 to 2021 and included exploration of the ways that YPAR with young people enhances empowerment and capacity for change work. Data were collected through pre and post project focus groups with members of the YPAR teams as well as observation tools that were completed at each YPAR team meeting.
Using a qualitative approach, the three researchers developed a preliminary empowerment framework based on the literature and project observations, which was used to independently code each of the three post-project focus group transcripts. The researchers then adapted the framework based on the initial coding. Two research assistants used the framework to code the observation tools from all three YPAR teams, including notation of indicators of empowerment that had not yet been included. The framework was adapted again. In the third step, all data was analyzed by the full research team to identify examples of each component of empowerment. The adapted framework and examples were then shared with two of the community organization representatives for input.
The final empowerment framework includes ten components of empowerment that were demonstrated by the youth/young adults in the YPAR process. These include components such as; self-awareness and attunement, ability to critically question, belief in one’s own knowledge/power/expertise, and being perceived by one’s community as having an important contribution to make. Examples of each component provide insight into how each can be developed and ways in which they manifest through youth engagement.
Conclusions and Implications
This study’s findings have important implications for research practices that support community leadership and power building. The resulting framework offers researchers an opportunity to engage in empowerment practices through the research process. As we seek to battle inequities, YPAR as one methodological solution to consider.