Denise Jones wants to flip the script of the traditional adult-driven health prevention research paradigm and put youth perspectives at the center. Research projects typically fail to consider youth as valuable community stakeholders when addressing community challenges. As program director for Youth Enrichment Services (YES), a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit, Jones has a different vision for how to engage youth in research as study architects, data gatherers, and analysts.
YES invests its resources in empowering and enriching the lives of children and teens, giving young people from urban communities a vision of themselves as successful and confident leaders. Partnerships are etched into YES’s approach to individual and community empowerment – YES collaborates extensively with traditional institutions such as the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, local foundations, and university partners across its community-centered programming.
Under Jones’s innovative leadership, a pilot lead and tobacco prevention program used a community-based participatory research (CBPR) model to involve low-income youth from YES in all aspects of the research process. The researchers integrated peer teaching and technical skills education with youth-driven CBPR to train youth in data collection and analysis, enabling community ownership of the study data and allowing youth to interpret the data in culturally relevant and age-appropriate ways.
Traditionally, increased reliance on computerization means that communities allow technical experts to take control of pivotal phases of the research process. In this case, the research process stayed within the community, and the youth themselves became the experts. Students who entered the program with limited exposure to data systems gained proficiency in the skills needed to generate and share meaningful findings related to lead exposure and tobacco marketing in low-income communities.
Jones described the challenges and benefits of this approach, “[Youth] are never asked to think about research in this way. They have very few opportunities for autonomy and agency over their learning and experiences, but through this research process, they do. They select their own topic and construct the study in the way they deem most exciting to their inquiry process. It is truly awesome.”
This project demonstrated the tremendous potential of youth-driven research as a strategy for addressing community health. The students involved in YES’s research efforts have made a lasting impression with their knowledge, insights and skills. “They can do high-level research,” Jones said. “They are valuable stakeholders and deserve to be at the table.” By empowering youth, YES has taken a critical step forward to inspire meaningful community engagement. When future challenges facing their communities require research-based solutions, these students will be ready to lead the way.