II. The Academic Perspective: Emily Ozer on Youth-Led Participatory Action Research (YPAR)

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Emily Ozer is an associate professor of Community Health and Health Development in the School of Public Health at University of California, Berkeley. Among many research interests and areas of expertise, Emily studies and engages in Youth Participatory Action Research. She has established a number of strong partnerships in the San Francisco Bay Area, working mainly with diverse urban youth, and has published many great journal articles in this area. [I’ve had the great opportunity to work with Emily Ozer and colleagues at UC Berkeley on a pilot project in San Francisco public schools over the past year.]

In youth-led or youth-driven participatory research programs (YPAR), young people are trained to identify major problems in their local communities, conduct research to understand the nature of these issues, and take leadership in influencing policies and decisions to improve the conditions in their lives. In addition to improving community settings and resources (e.g., schools, neighborhoods, programs), the YPAR process is intended to promote empowerment and efficacy, as well as improved skills in communication, decision-making and problem-solving.

Youth-Led PAR has some benefits and challenges that are distinctive from traditional PAR or CBPR (as discussed in the previous section). In one way, working with youth is fundamentally easier because there is often a structure (primarily school, but also after-school programs) with a built-in capacity to cultivate research and learning. On the other hand, one of the major barriers to participatory action research with youth is power. This is particularly true when you are working within a hierarchical, school setting. As Emily explained, “To do empowerment work in a setting that is characterized by low power is extremely challenging.” By the nature of the system, there are constraints on what students can study and how they can study it. And this is further complicated by trying to manage long-term projects across multiple semesters (with different cohorts of students).

Despite these challenges, YPAR can be an exciting and rewarding mode of research. It allows scholars to share scientific inquiry and research skills with youth, which they can apply to questions and problems in their everyday lives. It is possible to build on the things that they know and feel strongly about, and to connect those passions with research and action.

“It is extremely rewarding to see the shift for students and adults in the school when young people are viewed as experts who can help improve their school, as opposed to problems to be ‘fixed.’  To have research as the vehicle for this transformation gives me an even greater sense of purpose and excitement in my work as a social scientist,” Emily says. 

Reflecting on my own work with Emily, I understand how important and rewarding it can be to do participatory research with youth, however I also recognize the years of investment and trust-building that goes into building school or community partnerships. So, I asked Emily if she had any advice for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and early career professionals who are interested in getting involved in YPAR. Emily suggests starting your work within some existing partnerships at your university or institution. Think about the resources that you can tap into as an emerging scholar (when you are not responsible for carrying the full weight of the project). If you are working on multiple projects, let YPAR be one part of your portfolio.  If you come into YPAR feeling the pressure to make this kind of work the source of your publications for jobs or tenure, you may not be a good partner. In this line of work, you have to tolerate uncertainty. By definition, in partnership research, you do not have sole control over your projects. It demands humility, patience, and time. Your personal research agenda is not the priority in these settings. Rather, she describes YPAR as a “labor of love.” It is an incredible learning experience that can give you a sense of impact and connection in a real way that is sure to have a lasting effect on your career.