Engaging Youth in Community Activism: A Class Project Designed to Give Students a Closer Look at Adolescence

Partnership Gives Warner Students a First-hand Look at Today’s American Adolescents
Warner faculty, students and youth

Adolescence is an interesting stage of life in and of itself—not just some phase characterized by poor judgment and crisis, which tends to be the traditional assumption, notes Nancy Ares, associate professor in teaching and curriculum at the Warner School of Education. Another common belief youth face is that they are in need of constant support and monitoring because they’re bound to wind up in dangerous situations. To broaden that notion, Ares designed a partnership between master’s and doctoral students from her Adolescent Development and Youth Culture class and the SouthWest Area Neighborhood Association, known as SWAN.
The initiative, which took place during the fall 2012 semester, gave students a closer look at the social, political and cultural context of the present-day American adolescent.
“Our society is definitely changing,” says Ares. “I’m hoping the students got a deeper insight into what youth are doing and dealing with these days, that they saw youth in a whole different way than we often think about them in youth development courses, and that they now have a view of youth as collaborators rather than charges.”
Produce in basketsThe initial idea was to help SWAN with its Grow Green Program, which gets young community members involved in urban agriculture and youth entrepreneurship. But the Warner graduate students wound up helping the entrepreneurs become even more engaged, encouraging them to propose designs for a long-vacant storefront at 166 Genesee Street. The grant-funded store—to be called The Seedfolk Store—will offer produce, bread, tea, and other mostly local, sustainably produced goods, as well as a community gathering space. It is scheduled to open by early summer.
Ares’ students drew on studies that showed multiple reasons for consulting adolescents for their opinions; among them, that each individual and society as a whole benefits from their participation, and that there’s a greater sense of pride in—and responsibility for—the space once it’s finished.
Christopher Young“The project really looked at what youth can bring to the table,” says Christopher Young, a teaching and curriculum student in the secondary social studies and inclusive education programs. “I think we’re all guilty, in terms of designing curriculum, of saying, ‘We have to get X, Y and Z done in a year,’ when we need to be constantly looking at how youth are digesting that material. It’s important for us as future teachers to be sure we try to solicit information from them to make sure we’re communicating that what they have to say is worthwhile.”
Lisa Barker, who manages the Grow Green program, believes Warner’s involvement, which empowered youth to realize their strengths and provided support to build on them, channeled enthusiasm about a neighborhood project few of the adolescents even knew existed.
“Kids always value adults who make them feel special and feel like their voices are worth listening to,” says Barker, “especially when it’s in terms of a project as unique as this one.”
Nancy AresThe partnership also brought to life the material covered in Ares’ classroom.
“When we talk about different ideas of development—psychological, maturational, social, political, and cultural—and about issues of gender, race, sexuality, social class, and youth agency,” explains Ares, “all of those things can be connected to this project. It gave students experiential grounding to the theories we’re reading about, and I hope it helped them understand more about themselves as teachers and counselors.”
Warner students first asked the adolescents, mostly ages 8 to 13, about food. What constitutes healthy food? What foods did they like to eat? What foods should be sold at the store? While the adolescents could name healthy foods—they listed their favorite fruits and vegetables—there was little access to them in their neighborhoods. Next, the young people mapped out on paper where the shelves, cash register, light fixtures, and other essentials should go, and suggested uniforms for employees. They wanted a community bulletin board, and one 9-year-old concerned about security advised installing a camera in every corner of the store. As planned, youth manager positions will be available to build entrepreneurial skills (even though, given the age and schoolwork requirements of the worker, those positions may have to be split into once-a-week shifts).
“They were excited to take ownership of this, to think about what this could be,” says Young.
Warner students then helped the adolescents develop a community survey about what types of products The Seedfolk Store should carry. After taking a prototype themselves, the group decided that detailed check-off lists would be better than fill-the-blank questions in case some residents might not be comfortable with their spelling or want to take the time to write.
Afterward, interviews with the young participants illuminated a difficult reality; those who felt unsafe in school, regardless of their excitement about becoming more involved in their community, were more vocal about moving out of the area once they had their own children.
Given that reality, Genevieve Boreanaz, a human development student with a specialization in research, appreciates that the project allowed her to practice qualitative research methods in the context of Warner’s social justice mission.
“I know a lot of schools that have a mission statement but don’t really live it,” she says. “I find that at Warner, all of my professors are definitely pushing that mission not just in theory, but in getting out into the community and applying it as well. We don’t just learn about social inequities in the urban environment, we observe them—and that leads us to the next step, which is, ‘How do we tackle these?’”
Eleanor Coleman, director of community partnerships for SWAN, praises Ares’ students for their contributions: “The way they’re handling the project with concerted research adds credibility to our program, and because we’re talking about economic development for the neighborhood, we want to do all of this as credibly as possible to establish a successful business. And it models for us how we can be interacting with the kids in a way that causes them to think for themselves and come up with their own ideas.”
Follow-up meetings and activities are planned for 2013 to build on the confidence the adolescents now have in themselves as creative, resourceful contributors. And hopefully, says Ares, networking with other community programs will continue to alter the conventional view of youth as “lacking, rather than as being resource-rich”—a particularly important distinction when it comes to those who live in the city, she adds.
“When you bring in all the stakeholders, you find how much more all-encompassing and hopefully more permanent your research will be,” says Boreanaz. “That hands-on element has been very eye-opening for me.”

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Tags: human development, inclusive education, Nancy Ares, social studies, social studies education, student, student, teacher preparation, teaching and curriculum