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What If We Made Room for Young People?

Rebuilding Community-Institution Trust Through Youth Participatory Action Research

Connected Science Learning January–February 2022 (Volume 4, Issue 1)

By Denise Jones

What If We Made Room for Young People?

Too often, communities—particularly communities of color—are epicenters for university research. While it is true that these communities have deep insights and unique lived experiences from which we should all learn, research in these spaces is often transactional and harmful. When university experts come in seeking data alone, the community often has limited agency and opportunity for equitable partnership. Historically, these practices have created mistrust between community members and institutions.

Undoing years of institutional harm and historical misgivings are priorities of local community organizations who are imagining new and different ways to honor the unique contributions of communities of color. In doing so, they are dreaming up equitable participatory practices and design approaches, anchored on trust, to center the communities’ priorities and voices. These efforts, albeit necessary, are incomplete without young people. 

Youth Working With the Community

What if we made room for young people with unique currencies and expertise and capacity to disrupt the existing transactional research frameworks and work in partnership with the community? Youth could help rebuild trust between communities and institutions with culturally affirming resources. They could collaborate with communities to generate innovative and creative ways to solve problems as they co-define participatory frameworks. They could join other young people to learn about—and truly understand—community contexts and the rich histories, stories, and experiences of community members before ever trying to change them. Their passion could empower the next generation of change agents who seek a better future for their communities writ large.

This approach of leveraging young people’s resource capacity is also known as youth-engaged participatory research (YPAR), an innovative approach rooted in social justice and community development principles (Jacquez, Vaughn, and Wagner 2013). This research apparatus positions youth as knowledge producers, decision makers, and invested stakeholders to generate social, cultural, and political transformation. YPAR is an epistemic paradigm shift that values young people’s wisdoms and knowledge and challenges power dynamics, societal conventions, and the traditional, adult-centered research regime. Through concerted and power-sharing efforts, young people, adults, and community members collaborate to conduct and lead systemic research to improve their lives, their communities, and the institutions intended to serve them. The YPAR process honors relationships and builds community trust in a just and fair way by establishing mutual reciprocity and respect between researchers and the community. This allows shared ownership and authentic and organic engagement in the research process.

yes incubator
YES incubator

Youth Enrichment Services

Youth Enrichment Services, Inc. (YES), a small non-profit organization in Pittsburgh founded and run by a Black community member, is one entity imploring young people to partner authentically with the community to be part of the change they wish to see. For over 25 years, YES has committed to providing youth with leadership, mentorship, and enrichment opportunities. In fact, YES empowers Pittsburgh’s marginalized, low-income youth of color to redefine, rewrite, and reaffirm their own livelihoods and embrace their natural role as social agents of change. YES is passionate about using peer mentorship and STEM-based opportunities as catalysts for organic and contextually relevant social growth for youth and communities. Operating from a firm belief that equitable learning and economic systems must include and prioritize youth learners of color, YES prioritizes enriched STEM learning experiences that transcend the classroom. After two decades of providing empowered learning, YES has seen youth transform, become agents of change, and fight for equity and opportunity despite present systemic barriers and inequities through STEM-based participatory research engagement.

There are many ways that youth are on the front lines of changing the narratives and landscapes of their communities. This is particularly true for one group of Black male high school students who set out to address poor air quality in Clairton, Pennsylvania (a predominantly Black neighborhood surrounding Pittsburgh) through the YES Summer Scholars Program. As local residents, students were aware of and frustrated by the longstanding air pollution issue due in part to the once-vibrant steel mill industry. Channeling their own self-empowerment, youth devised a community-led initiative alongside residents through YES to address the environmental risks and health implications caused by polluted air.

As YES participants, youth first began addressing this issue by uncovering residents’ awareness and understanding of air pollution and environmental toxins. Through survey data collection, youth found that younger residents were less knowledgeable about air pollution in their community. In response to this finding, youth developed—in concert with the health department and community members—a series of health education sessions to inform their peers and older residents about air pollution and the negative impact of exposure. They disseminated culturally affirming and relevant health information and connected residents to material and online resources to mitigate this environmental issue. Youth facilitated dialogue with residents in which they centered their voices and co-crafted solutions to air pollution in their community using human-centered design techniques. These young people then developed an academic poster and paper synthesizing their survey findings and qualitative interviews to share with community members, YES stakeholders, and health department representatives.

Their efforts culminated in several visits to the health department where representatives served as collaborative thought partners on reducing environmental harms facing Clairton residents. Not only were young people offered a seat at the table as valued stakeholders through YES programming, but they were also offered leadership positions on the county’s first youth taskforce addressing air pollution and combating environmental injustice. These youth now work in tandem with the Black Environmental Collective (BEC) and are continuing their efforts to make Clairton a safer and more productive place for their peers and others to live.

YES participatory research
YES participatory research

This is not an isolated experience. Over the last six years, YES has leveraged youths’ summer employment experiences to cultivate youth empowerment and leadership through STEM-based youth participatory action research. Through science-based argumentation and communication, youth have garnered experience creating, disseminating, and facilitating health initiatives such as lead exposure, opioid use, and teenage tobacco marketing awareness campaigns in their own communities, which have motivated community health changes and ultimately led to unique partnerships, funding capacity, and governmental support from the Allegheny County Health Department. These successes have helped YES reimagine what is possible for youth and has allowed their work to reach local, regional, national, and international audiences through conferences and academic journals (see Resources). It is important for youth development programs to empower youth stakeholders through participatory action research. It is one viable way to make room for young people, giving them both voice and agency to bring about real community change. To foster healthy community-institution partnerships and relationships, trust must be at the core and young people must be involved in supporting the community ecosystem. Visit the YES website to learn more about the youth and work at YES.

Denise Jones ( is a second-year doctoral student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan interested contextual and environmental factors that influence adolescents’ transitions into adulthood and post-secondary opportunities. She is also curious about young people’s out-of-school learning experiences and how they leverage them for the future.



Jones, D.L., P. Feigenbaum, and D.F. Jones. 2021. Motivation (constructs) made simpler: Adapting self-determination theory for community-based youth development programs. Journal of Youth Development 16 (1): 7–28.

Jones, D.L., E. Darsow, and D.F. Jones. 2020. Preliminary Testing of a Peer-Teaching Model Utilizing Geospatial Open Source Tools to Address Community Health Issues. Journal of STEM Outreach 3 (1): 1–7.

Jones, D.L., and D.F. Jones. 2020. Transcend the summer slump: How to attract and retain low-income high school students in summer learning programs. Afterschool Matters Journal (31, Spring 2020): 59–67.


Jacquez, F., L. Vaughn, and E. Wagner. 2013. Youth as partners, participants or passive recipients: A review of children and adolescents in community-based participatory research (CBPR). American Journal of Community Psychology 51: 176–189.


Citizen Science Environmental Science Equity STEM High School Informal Education

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