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Blending research with civic engagement to teach literacy

  |   Kristen B. Morales   |   Permalink   |   Outreach,   Research

Seventeen-year-old India Long is concerned about poverty and littering in her neighborhood. Her friend, Alexandria Sledge, 18, is concerned about violence—especially after a bullet killed a friend earlier this year.

But rather than sit around and stew about the situation, they and others are taking action. Through an innovative approach to building literacy skills, often called youth participatory action research, not only do these and other young adults feel empowered and connected to their neighborhood, but they also learn research tools that can benefit entire communities.

"It's culture work, it's village making, and it's literacy work," says Kevin Burke, an associate professor who has spent the past year working with Savannah's Deep Center to bring research methods into a program called Block By Block. In it, teens meet to discuss issues in their neighborhoods. Then, they go out and gather information from people on the street, taking photographs and writing down quotes and observations. Afterward, they reconvene to discuss and analyze their findings.

These kids have an understanding of their community, says Burke, and it's information worth sharing. "One of the difficulties we run into is, how do you get adults to listen to kids? We're trained to think of them as incomplete, but we're all incomplete in different ways. It's not that they know more than adults about a park, but they have been trained to do information gathering; they have produced lots of data about what they've seen and how they think and what they feel and what they believe," says Burke. "And we think that is really important."

Youth participatory action research is multi-layered. On an academic level, the teens are adding to their literacy toolbox by creating poetry, stories, and art based on the information they gather. On a personal level, they are making connections in their community that many times shatter the beliefs they once held. And on a civic level, they are gathering valuable information that can be used by city planners when new projects come up.

Burke, associate professor Ruth Harman, and other College of Education faculty are now applying youth participatory action research closer to home, where youth in an Athens public housing neighborhood are exploring emotions associated with places and spaces they see every day. The kids are given words, such as "danger," "excited," and "uncomfortable"—and are told to take photos of places that evoke those emotions. Working with Pratt Cassidy of the UGA College of Environment and Design, the students categorize their photographs and talk about how the places relate to a map, and what they might change or keep.

"It's the notion that places have stories—there are narratives that get layered in those spaces that we have to figure out," Burke adds. "We can't just say, 'The community center has to look like this' because we don't know what the citizens in that space want, need, or why it looks the way it looks right now."

The final piece in the puzzle is advocating for change. No matter how much information teens may gather through their research, it only becomes useful when they present it to adults who have the power to act on the ideas.

With roots in activist research, this is how youth participatory action research goes one step beyond traditional research. It also represents a shift in how "success" is calculated, both among the students who take part in the research and the results of the project itself.

"A project is one thing, but that's not all that's going on there," adds Burke. "There are other successes that are happening that are measured in different ways, and the methodology of youth participatory action research says these changes are valid and reliable and they matter.

"It's a shifting mindset for people and for us. We've gone from thinking this is a failure to thinking it might be a failure on one level—but on others, it is a success."

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